The Soles of Black Folk

The Soles of Black Folk

The Soles of Black Folk

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The stadium scene.
April 27 2001 3:00 AM

The Soles of Black Folk

In the NFL, black quarterbacks start in Philadelphia (Donovan McNabb), Tennessee (Steve McNair), Minnesota (Daunte Culpepper), Detroit (Charlie Batch), New Orleans (Jeff Blake or Aaron Brooks), Cincinnati (Akili Smith), and Tampa Bay (Shaun King). Sooner or later, you'll be able to add Atlanta (No. 1 overall draft pick Michael Vick) to that list. The exponential rise in the number of black signal-callers is encouraging, but it's also led commentators and sportswriters into a tempting trap: Because there are so many African-American quarterbacks in the NFL these days, they must represent a revolution in the quarterbacking position. This is simply not the case.

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NFL commentators speak incessantly of a New Breed of quarterback. The New Breed is agile, swift, and black. The Old Breed is stationary, strong-armed, and white. This categorization, however, is deeply flawed. There is nothing novel about the so-called New Breed. By lumping these players together, the sporting world ignores the lesson of Doug Williams and Warren Moon: A quarterback's race need not dictate his style of play.

Put simply, some members of the New Breed are old school. Just as white QBs have been rushing threats, blacks are sometimes pocket passers. Chicago's white QB Cade McNown ran for considerably more yardage and had a higher average per carry last season than Jeff Blake or Charlie Batch, despite the fact that McNown started two fewer games than Blake and seven fewer than Batch. Miami's Jay Fiedler, moreover, rushed for just one yard less per game than Akili Smith—18 to 19.

And while it's true that Donovan McNabb led all quarterbacks in rushing last year with 629 yards, the second leading rusher among QBs was Oakland's Rich Gannon (529). A white 13-year veteran rushed for more yards than all but one member of the vaunted New Breed.

Gannon's success is not as exceptional as you might think. But just as black quarterbacks struggle to shake the runner label even when it doesn't fit, white quarterbacks have a difficult time getting it applied to them even when it's apt. Jeff Garcia (414) ranked fifth among rushing QBs—just behind Kordell Stewart (436) and just ahead of Steve McNair (404). But because Garcia is a fair-skinned Latino who played for a time in Canada, commentators are unsure which breed they should designate him as. A recent Orlando Sentinel article claimed that Garcia is "much more mobile than you'd think." More mobile than who would think?

Few QBs embody the New Breed's supposed attributes more than the recently retired Steve Young. The former San Francisco 49er leads all NFL quarterbacks in rushing touchdowns and ranks second behind Randall Cunningham in career rushing yards. But one can go back further than Steve Young's career to find old, white examples of the New Breed. The four best rushing games by a quarterback all occurred between 1951 and 1972. An elusive, agile QB by the name of Fran Tarkenton ranks third on the all-time list of running passers. While those aren't quite leather helmet days, it's a far cry from the modern NFL, to say nothing of the New Breed.

Granted, the members of the New Breed are, on balance, more willing and more able to pull down the ball and run for yardage than their quarterbacking forebears. There is, however, one important factor that unites the New Breed, other than race: They're all young. Young quarterbacks with fresh legs are more likely to come down with a case of happy feet in the pocket and are therefore more likely to accumulate yardage through rushing. Randall Cunningham gained the overwhelming majority of his rushing yardage during his first eight seasons. As a rookie, even quintessential drop-back passer Troy Aikman was a threat to run the ball, averaging 7.9 yards a carry and gaining more than 300 yards. After the members of the New Breed adjust to the NFL's complexity, read defenses more quickly, and have taken more punishing hits from linebackers, they will settle down and be evaluated on the same criterion as all quarterbacks: their ability to throw the ball.  

Justin Driver is assistant literary editor at the New Republic.