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The Saints' quarterback, trying to elude the Dolphins' pass-rush, retreated, farther and farther from the line of scrimmage. He tripped, fell and landed on the turf a full 10 yards from where he had begun. Two plays later, he dropped back into the end zone and was sacked -- for a safety. In the upper reaches of the stadium, a saucy middle-aged woman with a bob haircut and pink acrylic nails got loudly incredulous. The woman leaned forward, cupped her hands over her mouth and screamed down at Aaron Brooks. "Is it your goal to see how far back you can go?!"
During the Hall of Fame festivities last week, Warren Moon went back to his original goal. He reiterated, a few times, his personal objective for his 22-year career. "I always wanted to be seen just as a quarterback," Moon said. "Not a black quarterback."
But there was a time when Moon, or any other black man, couldn't rise to the top of any station requiring cerebral aptitude and be "just like everyone else." He had to be better than everyone else. Thank God those days are over! To gain entrance to the Hall of Fame as a black quarterback, Moon not only had to throw for 70,000 yards but had to pay his dues in another country. For the first six years of his professional life, he toiled in the northernmost part of North America for a team called the Eskimos. Then, in 1983, he had to wait for the NFL's most hallowed draft class to be assembled. Only after John Elway, Dan Marino and Jim Kelly were hailed as would-be kings was Moon allowed access to the league of choice. And now, after playing a little longer, waiting a little longer and, in the case of Jim Kelly, being a whole lot better, he finally is breathing the same rarefied air they are.
But Moon's impact is even greater than he imagined. He's one of those rare pioneers who gets to witness the fruits of his labor. Last Sunday, right there on that Ohio field where the Raiders and Eagles were preparing to play, Moon's legacy walked around on two very long legs. Right there on that field was proof that the black quarterback need not be the absolute best. He could indeed be just another quarterback.
Last Wednesday, at the Raiders' morning practice, Brooks retreated into the pocket and threw downfield. It was a game simulation with the clock running, so he had to hurry. The tight end, Courtney Anderson, slithered up the seam, and Brooks, with the long, languid motion of a farmhand tossing a lariat, gently placed a perfectly arced ball past the safety and into Anderson's hands.
In terms of decision making, accuracy and aesthetics, it was a tremendous throw. For the first six years of his professional career, Brooks has demonstrated a penchant for the tremendous. But during that same span, he also has been equally capable of the horrendous. You might recall a game against Cleveland when he was with the Saints, when, under duress, he lateraled to no one in particular. In his seventh year, with his second team, Brooks is just an above-average quarterback with solid skills. Yeah, he has thrown more touchdowns (120) than interceptions (84) and won more games than he has lost, but he's not especially distinctive in any particular way. He doesn't have Daunte Culpepper's imposing strength or Byron Leftwich's natural leadership or Donovan McNabb's command of an intricate offense or Michael Vick's explosive first step and second step.
Brooks isn't like the other black quarterbacks. In fact, he reminds me of one of the white guys -- Jake Plummer. Both have a wealth of athletic ability and the spirit of an unbroken colt. I've said, on more than one occasion, that the Snake is one of my favorite players. His knack for turning the routine into the exciting has always been fun to watch. But that was in his youth, when being a precocious decision maker was cute. Plummer's inconsistent, freewheeling ways retarded the growth of the Arizona Cardinals franchise, so the team let him go. But the Snake is getting a chance to mature under the tutelage of a coaching staff more suited to his talent in Denver. Same with Brooks. This is the same Aaron Brooks who led New Orleans to its one playoff victory in team history. And for all those keeping score, that leaves Brooks exactly two playoff victories behind Peyton Manning -- the best in the business, black or white.
For the time being, let's not put Aaron Brooks alongside Warren Moon or James Harris, or even Doug Williams. The young man has taken steps back, and stumbled, and fallen. And yet he's still here, still a starting quarterback in the National Football League. So, for the time being, let's place Aaron Brooks alongside Trent Green, Kelly Holcomb, Jon Kitna, David Carr, Ken Dorsey, Marc Bulger, et al. Just a bunch of quarterbacks without the gargantuan expectations of redefining the position, righting societal wrongs or carrying the weight of an assumed obligation to open doors for those who come after them. Just quarterbacks. Nothing more.
Progress works in mysterious ways.
Alan Grant is a regular contributor to ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He is a former NFL defensive back who played college football at Stanford.