"We continually dropped the ball, so all you sportswriters can tell what a poor passer Doug Williams is. I saw the ball being dropped and when it's dropped, it's a chance for the racists to write a newspaper article about it. I'm getting sick and tired of it." -- John McKay, in Dallas, Sept. 21

Doug Williams' 56th pass of the day spiraled into the hands of Jimmie Giles. the big tight end made the catch and was tackled immediately by a swarm of cleveland Browns. As giles struggled to get up, the clock in Tampa Stadium ticked down, three, two, one, zero.

Final score: Cleveland 34, Tampa Bay 27. Williams, who completed 30 passes for 318 yards Sunday, stared at the spot on the cleveland 20-yard line where Giles had been tackled, then took off his helmet and hurled it to the ground in disgust.

As Williams stood, still staring at the ground, members of the Browns came over to shake his hand. They knew he had almost beaten them, even though his receivers had dropped at least 10 passes. In all, 12 Browns came over for a quick word.

All 12 were black.

"I think most of the black guys in this league would like to see me succeed," Williams said later. "i think they're glad to see me getting a chance to play. They know there have been other black quarterbacks in this league who were never given a chance to play.

"Now, I have a chance.I think they're rooting for me."

Williams does not pretend that he is just another third-year quarterback. He knows that he will always be a black quarterback. "If I play in this league for 20 years, I'm still going to be a black quarterback. I know that. Every morning when I wake up and look in the mirror, I know I'm a black quarterback.

Or, as James Harris, Williams' friend and mentor put it: "In an ideal world, Doug Williams would be judged strictly as a third-year quarterback. Unfortunately, we don't live in an ideal world. We live in a real world."

In that real world, sportswriters in tampa say they are sometimes subjected to phone calls and letters from people saying things such as, "When is McKay going to get the black guy out of there?"

In that real world, McKay exploded last season when, as he ran off the field following a loss, a fan yelled, "Take your niggers and go back to Soutner California."

In that real world a texas newspaper quoted Williams, who has a southern accent, verbatim in a story the week before the Dallas game. That story, as much as anything, caused McKay's explosion after the Buccaneers lost in Dallas.

"This wasn't an isolated incident," McKay said. "This had been building for three years. I thought this was a good time to let people know that I was tired of it. That it was time to stop making judgements on Doug off the field. That it was time to judge him strickly as a quarterback.

"If I don't think Doug has done a good job, I say so. But often he's blamed for other people's mistakes. In the Dallas game our receivers dropped a lot of balls they should have caught. The same thing happened against Cleveland.

"Doug knows that he can't stand up and defend himself because, if he does, people will be all over him. I'm the head coach. I think I have a responsibility to defend him. I know I offended a lot of people by saying what I did and I'm sorry if I did. But I thought it was time to say something."

Among the most offended were the members of the media in the Tampa Bay area, who, McKay says, have always been fair to Williams.

"John's made an issue out of a non-issue," said Hubert Mizell, sports editor of the St. Petersburg Times. "I think he's done Doug a disservice by bringing it up and calling attention to it. He says that people never refer to O.J. Simpson as a black running back or David Lewis as a black linebacker.

"Well, that's true.But black running back and linebackers aren't rare. Doug is a rarity. As long as he is, he's going to be news. That may not be fair, but it's true."

Doug Williams is 6 feet 4, 215 pounds. His arm is like a cannon. He is strong and mobile. But according to Harris, now the San Diego Charger backup quarterback, Williams' major asset is his head, not his arm or his legs.

"I told Doug before he played a game in the NFL to be prepared for the worst," said Harris. "I told him to go in there figuring he wouldn't be treated fairly, that it would be twice as tough for him as for a white quarterback.

"I knew Doug could handle it because he's a strong person mentally. He doesn't let things get to him. He just goes out and plays football and keeps working."

Williams came into the NFL in 1978. He broke every Grambling passing record, many of them held by Harris, who, with the Los Angeles Rams in the mid-70s, was the first black to be a starting quarterback for any extended period.

Williams finished fourth in the 1977 Heisman Trophy voting, the highest finish ever by a player from a predominantly black school. The Bucs made him their first draft pick, the 17th player chosen in that year's draft.

"I was surprised," Williams admitted, "that none of the first 16 teams seemed to need a quarterback. I thought with the statistics I had I might go higher."

He became the Buc starter immediately, starging 10 games as a rookie before a broken jaw ended his season. Last year, he led the Bucs to a 10-6 record and the NFC Central Division championship. Still, some said the Bucs won in spite of him, pointing out that he completed only 42 percent of his passes.

One running joke had Williams being sent to Iran, "Because he could over-throw the Ayatollah." Williams had an answer for that: "I'd never get a chance," he said. "They sent all the blacks home so I wouldn't get to stay over there long enough to overthrow him."

If the turmoil of last week bothered Williams it didn't show in his play Sunday. The Buccaneer loss had little to do with Williams. He threw the ball superbly almost the entire day. He came back from a badly twisted ankle just before the half to play the second half. He led the Bucs within 20 yards of a miracle comeback.

Yet, as has been his history, Williams ended up leaving the field with a cloud hanging over his head. Ironically, it was a completion, the last one to Giles, that raised the questions. With 12 seconds and no timeouts, Williams had thrown over the middle to a receiver who was nowhere near the end zone.

"That's why I was so upset at the end," said Williams, who rarely shows emotion on the field. "I knew I had made an error. I should have thrown outside or to the end zone. It was a bad play. But it isn't a mistake I'll make again."

It seems that every time Williams makes a mental error questions are raised about his intelligence. McKay often compares Williams' first two years in the NFL with Terry Bradsahw's first two years. "I think a lot of people think of black quarterbacks the same way they thought about Terry Bradshaw his first couple of years in the league," Williams said. "They think we're all just plain dumb."

Williams is not dumb. He says he is bored with the topic of the black quarterback in the NFL. Yet, he knows the question isn't going to disappear and he thinks he knows how to deal with it.

"If it was going to get to me, all the stuff about being a black quarterback, it would have gotten to me when I was a rookie," Williams said. "I'm in my third year now. It's all old to me.

"I think I understand what Coach McKay was trying to do. It didn't bother me. Sure, there were more interviews last week but I just looked at them as regular midweek interviews. No different. If I let things like that affect me, I wouldn't be here very long."

McKay says that Williams has handled the situation better the last three years than he has. That would seem to be true. Monday, as Williams hobbled around the Buc headquarters in pain because of swelling in his ankle, Bob Best, the club's publicity man, walked by.

Pointing to Williams' ankle, Best laughed and said, "It hurts huh? I'll bet a white guy wouldn't let a little thing like that bother him."

Williams laughed. "I always tell Bob that he's lucky because he went to the white Grambling (Notre Dame)," he said. "I think most of the people around here look at the whole question as a joke. I'm just the quarterback around here, that's all."

McKay agrees that in the Tampa area the issue is, as Mizell says, a nonissue. "It's when we go away, when we're given national exposure that the issue comes up. When we go into another town, the reporters kind of line up and say, 'Hmm, we better ask McKay about this."

It was Best who pointed out the Fort Worth story to McKay. "When Doug first came here, coming from a small school like Grambling, I have to admit I was a little bit concerned about how he would handle all the attention," Best said. "From the first day, he's been terrific. In three years we've had exactly one public relations problem with Doug."

That problem cropped up last season after the Bucs were humiliated, 42-14, by the New Orleans Saints. Williams was booed loudly leaving the field. "I was upset and then some guy asked me if I heard the boos. I was standing right there, how could I not hear them?"

Williams went on to say that he heard the boos but didn't much care what the fans thought of him because he would be heading for the bank the next day to deposit his paycheck. Later that week, he apologized.

Williams is not likely to blow his cool in the future. McKay says he is a fast learner on the field. He appears to be just as quick off it.

"Whenever this black quarterback thing comes up people try to ask me the same question in different ways to try and get me to say what they want to hear," Williams said, smiling. "But I'm a pretty good listener.

"I know there are guys out there who are going to try and make me look bad and I know they can do it if they want to. Maybe they think I'm dumb because my grammar isn't perfect. But I think I talk okay, I mean people can understand what I'm trying to say. I think the content of what I say makes sense and that's what's most important."

Williams grew up in the tiny town of Zachary, La. From there he went to Grambling, also located in a small southern town. He has an accent. He will say "aks," instead of "ask," or "I shuda threw," instead of "I should have thrown."

"He usually makes sense, though," said Mike Tierney, who covers the Bucs for the St. Petersburg Times. "I think McKay is sensitive about Doug because he almost looks on him as a son. He's one of those people who is impossible not to like, especially if you're a coach. He's got a great attitude, he works hard, he never complains. He's John's model student and he bends over backwards to protect him."

Tierney added that McKay has been particularly sensitive this season, he thinks, for two reasons: it was in Bradshaw's third year that he began to come into his own, and second, many Tampa Bay fans like backup quarterback Chuck Fusina and call for him whenever Williams fails to move the team.

"John has rabbit ears when it comes to Fusina," Tierney said.

Williams admits there are times when he looks around him and wonders if it is all worth it, if he wouldn't rather be home in Louisiana, coaching.

"I hear people say how football players have it made," he said. "Guys like me just show up on Sunday and collect all this money while they worked four years for a degree and don't make half what I make.

"Well, I worked four years for a degree, too. I work hard and I put up with a lot of pain. I'm just lucky that I have this talent and can play football."

Williams credits Harris, whom he says he has modeled his behavior after, and Grambling Coach Eddie Robinson with giving him guidance and preparing him for his current fishbowl existence.

Ironically, Williams has played two of his best games as a professional the last two weeks in losing causes. McKay said he is confident the questions about Williams' ability and intelligence will become a part of the past soon.

"There's no doubt in my mind about Doug succeeding," McKay said. "Unfortunately, he's going to carry the tag black quarterback for as long as he plays the game. But maybe, just maybe, when he succeeds, the next guy won't have to put up with it. Maybe he'll just be a quarterback."