Thursday, December 14, 2000
Updated: September 13, 6:12 PM ET
In today's NFL, QBs
must run for their lives
By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist
Let's not make a big production out of this, but it's time to climb out of the muck of the past, out of history being the nightmare from which we are trying to awake. Let us recognize without fear or favor how pro football and the position of quarterback have evolved -- and how they haven't.
Once we've done this, then you, dear Scanner, can participate in the ESPN.com Page 2 Quarterback Rating Poll. You will be rewarded. How, we don't know. The next time something good happens to you, think of us
The poll is simplicity itself. You get to pick the most "Unlimited" quarterback in the NFL today. (I get to rate them all -- see the adjoining box -- because of my superior wisdom, but don't let that influence you.) Unlimited means a QB can take his team to a Super Bowl and once there, help it win. Limited means, simply, he can't.
First, some background:
Once, in the thrilling days of yesteryear, in the '80s, before he flirted so gregariously and profitably with Teri Hatcher in TV ads for Radio Shack, Howie Long was an All-Pro defensive tackle with the Raiders. One day, before practice, Howie was talking to me about QBs. First, Howie talked about Warren Moon, who was then with the Houston Oilers. Howie grunted admiringly at the way Warren hung in there and took some ungodly poundings, then stoically lined up in an unprotected Run & Shoot spread formation and took some more, and then took even more after his defensive teammates -- encouraged by coach Jerry Glanville -- named the Houston Astrodome "The House of Pain," causing visitors like Howie to take umbrage and then to take that umbrage out on Moon.
Then, Howie brought up John Elway. Now, I watched Elway play from the time he was an 18-year-old at Stanford until his final two Super Bowls 20-odd years later in Denver. I knew early on what he could do, which was plenty. Howie raved on about how Elway would be in his clutches one minute and then gone the next, reverse pivoting, spinning away, ripping free of big men who had themselves been "ripped from stone" (as Howie believed himself to be), eluding hot pursuit, then looking up and, on the run, firing a 60-yard bullet off his front foot, all arm, downfield to a distant receiver. Mostly, Howie raved over what a physical specimen John was.
"Ralph," Howie finally said, ironically (as he saw it) mimicking the rationalizations of black defensive teammates who could not stop Elway, "he's like a brother!"
I half-lifted my eyebrows, and said nothing.
Howie curled a lip, then said in his normal voice, "Here comes that brother (crap)."
Don't blame Howie. He was victimized, as we all were, by a similar soft sell from the olden days -- the position of quarterback is a stand-still position. It never was for yer black-tahpe ath-a-lete; they would run off at the slightest provocation, crack under pressure, not run the game from the pocket in the classic dropback style that elevates the position from the mundane. Hogwash.
Thus was the position of professional QB held in abeyance from black hands for years. Salary negotiations were affected, for no matter how well a player might do at another position, the GMs would say, "Yes, but he's not a quarterback." So for many years, it was two birds with one stone.
No one ever stopped to think that it was absurd on its face to say that a football player, any football player, at any position, might find being able to run a disadvantage. Just about all the greatest QBs in history were fine runners -- if your protection broke down and your receivers were covered, on bootlegs and throwback passes to themselves, in the open field itself. Elway, it goes without saying. Joe Montana could run; Steve Young could run. Staubach was not called "Roger the Dodger" just because it rhymed. Fran Tarkenton ran like a chicken with his head cut off. He'd scramble past the same defensive lineman three times on a single play. Even the real clod-hoppers like Johnny Unitas in his high tops could be seen in meaningless Pro Bowls, 30 yards downfield, throwing cross-body blocks in front of Galloping Gale Sayers.
The so-called "prototype pocket passer" -- a bigger crock of stats I never heard.
In today's NFL game, "prototype pocket passer" goes by other names: Sitting Duck. Dead Meat.
The game has changed from the days of Roger and Fran, even from the days of Super Joe. With 300-pound d-lineman running 4.5 40s and creative zone blitzing bringing swift malevolent pursuit from every angle, an immobile pocket passer is nothing but limited. He'll never make it. Can't win with him anymore. You need a QB who can break containment, outrun pursuit, get two or three first downs with his legs every game and deliver a low, hot, impeccable strike 50 yards downfield or within inches of the sideline.
That's our definition of unlimited.
The play most pivotal in today's game is the 10-yard, north-south burst by a QB on third-and-9 when all wides are covered up and the rush is coming hard. Who can make that play? That's who will win.
Take Donovan McNabb, quarterback of the Philadelphia Eagles. Despite a stellar collegiate career, Eagles fans present at draft day booed when the Eagles selected McNabb in 1999. Was Thorpe on the board behind him? No. McNabb has no wide receivers to speak of in Philly; his one running back, Duce Staley, was injured, out for the season by the second game, replaced by an actor named Autry.
McNabb somehow nursed the Eagles into the playoffs. And in order to do it, he had to run. He ran for 125 yards against the Redskins, ran like a back, upfield, cutback, causing some to label him a running quarterback. Well, of course he's a running quarterback. They're all running quarterbacks -- if they want to live.
The next week the Eagles lost to the Tennessee Titans at home. In leading and trying to run clock, Andy Reid called for an unexpected pass which didn't work. Somebody said something to McNabb about this later, if it would've been better if he ran, or some such, seeing as how he was a runner. He bristled.
I don't know Donovan McNabb, but he seems like a reasonable fellow. I know how people can say little things to get under your skin when you're a minority doing something perceived as unfitting. I don't know the exact words said to McNabb, but I know the tune. McNabb said there was nothing he couldn't do relevant to the position. After watching his game, I sort of believe him. At the same time, my friend and human resources expert Miyoshi tells me that some black fans are saying, now that the brothers are in there at QB, they have to do all this double duty, all this work load! Now the position changes all of a sudden!
I laugh, a little uncomfortably, then go back to believing what I can see. I especially believe this McNabb might have a future after he went 23-for-36 for 390 yards and four TDs and no picks the next week. Now you, dear Scanner, might be like Road Dog and say, "Yeah, R-Dub, but that was against Cleveland!"
Keep making excuses against the McNabbs. See where it gets you. They are not just the future. They are the now. They take the pounding when it inevitably comes, they run for crucial first downs with the game on the line, they make the hot reads, they stand tall in the pocket (if it doesn't collapse), they make all the throws. They are the Unlimiteds. If your team has one, it can survive and win a Super Bowl. If not ... if you want to say they "play black," that's up to you. They play fearless, they have the skills now mandatory to survive and prosper as an NFL quarterback.
Former Heisman winner Charlie Ward didn't opt for the NBA because he disliked football, but because he saw what could happen to any NFL quarterback, Sitting Ducks or Running Dogs. Dead Meat. Doesn't matter what color. White meat, or dark. Defenses like all parts of the chicken.
Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."
|Donovan McNabb and the Eagles have yet to clear their biggest hurdle, the Giants.|