The History Of African-American QBs In The NFL (Part Five)

By Lloyd Vance
Updated: December 20, 2007

Randall Cunningham

Randall Cunningham

PHILADELPHIA — After Doug Williams’ Super Bowl XXII victory and with the need for non-traditional quarterbacks with the ability to move away from pressure, run, and pass on the move increasing more teams and colleges in the ’90’s gave opportunities to African American Quarterbacks than ever.

Guys usually with the skill had the opportunity to play the position. Some of the successful college quarterbacks of this era included: Darian Hagan from Colorado 1988 to 1992 (Led Colorado to Co-National Championship in 1991), Shawn Jones from Georgia Tech 1989 to 1992 (Led Georgia Tech to Co-National Championship in 1991), Charlie Ward from Florida State 1991 to 1993 (Led FSU to National Championship in 1993 and 2nd African American QB to win Heisman Trophy also in 1993), Michael Bishop from Kansas State in 1997-1998 (Finished 2nd in 1998 Heisman Trophy balloting), Tommie Frazier from Nebraska 1992 – 1995 (Two time National Championship QB in 1994 & 1995), Chris McCoy from the US Naval Academy 1995 – 1997 (Top 5 All Time Rushing QB), Kordell Stewart from Colorado 1992-1994 (Record Setting Passer in Big 8), James Brown from Texas (Led his team to the Big 12 Title) and many others.

In the NFL, the first two legitimate Pro Bowl African American Quarterbacks/Stars were taking flight in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. The first was the previously discussed Warren Moon of the Houston Oilers and the second was Randall Cunningham of the Philadelphia Eagles and later the Minnesota Vikings, Dallas Cowboys, and Baltimore Ravens.

Cunningham like Moon was also a Southern California native growing up in Santa Barbara. He learned the game from his brother Sam “Bam” Cunningham, who was a star player for USC and later the New England Patriots. Cunningham had to battle through the loss of his father at an early age and sports were his outlet. He excelled at track (high jump) and football, where he was all state as a punter and quarterback. When it came time for Cunningham to select a school to play for many of the larger schools including USC, wanted him at other positions.

Cunningham accepted a scholarship to UNLV, which promised to give him the opportunity to play quarterback. Battling through the loss of his mother during college, Cunningham excelled at a college off of the national radar leading his conference in total yards and in punting average. In his senior season in 1984, Cunningham led UNLV to the California Bowl beating Toledo 30-13. That year he also threw for 2,628 yards with 24 touchdowns and had an amazing average of 47.5 yards per punt.

His career numbers at UNLV were 57.9 Completion Percentage, 8290 Yards Passing with 60 TD’s and a Punting Average of 45.2 yards. Cunningham had his coming out party at the East – West Shrine game after the season. He threw a touchdown, caught a touchdown on a fake play and was named the game’s MVP.

Even with his performance and amazing college stats, potential questions were still raised by NFL personnel men. Cunningham was labeled a good fit for the CFL and compared to Reggie Collier and Walter Lewis, two past African American Quarterbacks that were known more for their athleticism and ended up playing in the USFL.

The Philadelphia Eagles however were in a rebuilding mode after Dick Vermeil retired. Head Marion Campbell didn’t listen to the critics and picked Cunningham in the 2nd Round of the 1995 Draft. When he was drafted the fans and media focused more on the selection of disappointing offensive lineman Kevin Allen with their 1st Round pick.

Cunningham in the preseason of 1985 showed his escapability and flare for making plays out of nothing. He soon was playing at the end of the Eagles first game in a 21-0 loss to the New York Giants. Campbell scrambling to help a sputtering offense named Randall the starter in the 2nd week in a 17-6 loss to the Los Angeles Rams. He threw for 211 yards and ran for 90 yards, but threw 4 interceptions. He however was regulated to the bench in favor of Ron Jaworski and the Eagles finished with a record of 7 – 9, with Cunningham finishing with 534 Yards Passing, 1 Touchdown, and 205 Yards Rushing.

Campbell was fired after the 1985-1986 and the Eagles hired Buddy Ryan. Ryan named Jaworski the starter, but came up with a plan to use Cunningham, who was 3rd string at the time on 3rd downs. He eventually was part of a revolving door rotation with Matt Cavanaugh and Ron Jaworski finishing with 5 starts, 1,391 Yards Passing with 8 TD’s, and a 2nd on the team 540 yards rushing. In 1987 Cunningham was finally installed as the full time starter, but the 1987 Strike limited the opportunities for the Eagles, who didn’t field a quality “Strike Team” and had 3 losses finishing with a record of 7-9.

Cunningham however flourished under the coaching of friend and mentor Quarterbacks Coach Doug Scovil. Cunningham finished with 2,786 Yards Passing with 23 Touchdowns and 505 Yards rushing with 3 TD’s. Cunningham was named to his first Pro Bowl joining James Harris and Warren Moon as the only African American Quarterbacks to receive the honor. In the 1988-1989 Cunningham was a one-man gang on offense leading the team in rushing (624 Yards) and passing (3,808 Yards with 24 TD’s).

He and a stifling defense led by Reggie White led the team to a 10-6 record and won the NFC East division for the first time since Dick Vermeil left. Their season however ended in the playoffs against the Chicago Bears in the “Fog Bowl”. Cunningham however was recognized being named to his 2nd Pro Bowl and finished 2nd to Boomer Esiason in AP MVP Voting. At the start of the 1989-1990 season Cunningham and the Eagles renegotiated Cunningham’s contract making him one of the highest paid players in the NFL (3 Year, 4 Million Dollar Contract). He was anointed the “NFL’s Ultimate Weapon” by Sports Illustrated and led the Eagles back to the playoffs again.

In the playoffs the Eagles lost to the Rams 21-7 and he shouldered most of the blame. Cunningham finished with 3,400 Yards Passing with 21 TD’s and 621 Yards Rushing and led his team in rushing for the 3rd straight year. He was named an alternate to the Pro Bowl. In 1990 the Eagles knew that they had to save the position of Head Coach Buddy Ryan and Cunningham responded with an MVP season rushing for 942 Yards with 5 TD’s and 3,466 Yards Passing with 30 TD’s. He was named to his 3rd straight Pro Bowl.

He however had to fight for his starting position with Jim McMahon in the shadows. In the playoff loss to the Redskins, Cunningham was replaced for a series by McMahon and was not happy with the organization. Ryan was shortly fired and Cunningham was said to be part of the movement to have him removed. Cunningham was poised for another big year in 1991, but was hurt in the first game of the season when Bryce Paup tackled him tearing his ACL and ending his season.

The ironic part of the injury was Cunningham was in the pocket and not running around when he got hurt. Cunningham returned in 1992 throwing for 2775 yards with 19 TD’s and running for 549 Yards and 5 TD’s, but never seemed his self in Richie Kotite’s offense and was very erratic as the Eagles finally win a playoff game against the New Orleans Saints 36-20, but lose in the Divisional Round to the Dallas Cowboys 34-10. In 1993 the injury bug (Broken Leg) ended Cunningham’s season in the 4th game.

This marked the end basically of his Eagles career as he struggled in 1994 in a part time role and losing his starting job to Rodney Peete in 1995. He finished his Eagle career in a playoff game losing to Dallas when he had to enter the game for an injured Peete, but struggled due to him leaving the team to tend to his pregnant wife during the preparation for the game.

Cunningham had a brief “retirement” in 1996, but returned in 1997 with the Minnesota Vikings. Cunningham immediately returned to his old form forming a deadly combination with Cris Carter and led the Vikings to the divisional playoffs in 1997. In 1998, rookie Randy Moss joined Cunningham and the Vikings were unstoppable going 15-1 and setting an NFL record of 556 points scored. Cunningham finished with 3704 yards passing and 34 TD’s, plus 127 yards rushing and was named the MVP for the third time by several media outlets.

The Vikings stormed into the playoffs and missed the Super Bowl by the slightest of margins losing to the Atlanta Falcons 30-27. In 1999 Cunningham struggled and was benched again and moved into the backup role that he ended his career doing finishing with the Dallas Cowboys in 2000 and Baltimore Ravens in 2001. Cunningham finished his career with 29,979 yards passing with 207 yards and 4928 yards rushing with 35 TD’s; his rushing total is a NFL Record for quarterbacks.

Cunningham was known for his spectacular play on the field, but was unable to get to the big game like Williams and injuries precluded him during some of his best chances. Cunningham was known as a spectacular player, but football is a team game and he was said to have an aloofness that rubbed fans and some teammates the wrong way. He was the first run/pass threat African American to make it in the NFL. He had a long and distinguished 16-year career that in my opinion should end at the Hall of Fame.

Another African American Quarterback that established himself as premier starter at this time was Steve McNair of the Tennessee Titans. McNair began his rise to the top at Alcorn State a Historically Black College in Mississippi. At Alcorn State he followed in his brother Fred’s footsteps by also attaining the nickname “Air” McNair for his passing exploits. He became a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate even though he was playing at a Division I-AA school.

His incredible college numbers include the only player in NCAA history to gain over 16,000 yards (16,823) in total offense during his college career. He set collegiate record by averaging 400.55 yards in total offense per game and became only the third player in Division I-AA to throw for 100 TD’s in a career (119). He finished with 928 completions in 1,673 attempts (55.5%) for 14,496 yards passing with 119 TD’s and added 2,327 yards and 33 TD’s. He was the 2nd African American Quarterback drafted in the 1st Round, third overall player (Highest at the time) selected in 1995 NFL draft.

After being drafted McNair had to prove that he was capable of performing on the larger stage coming from a small school. He led the Titans from being a displaced franchise (Houston Oilers) to a perennial AFC Title contender. McNair is a double threat, can give opposing defenses headaches with strong arm in air or explosive running ability on ground, excellent pocket passer. He led all quarterbacks in rushing yards with 674 in 1997 and 559 in 1998). His 1997 total was the third-highest rushing total by a quarterback in NFL history at the time behind Randall Cunningham (942 yards in 1990) and Bobby Douglas (968 yards in 1972).

McNair proved that he was up to the task of leading the Titans to Super Bowl XXXIV in 1999 and became the second African American Quarterback to start the game. In the game the Titans lost to the St. Louis Rams by a score of 23-16 and came up a yard short of tying the game in the final moments, but McNair proved that he was a winner.

McNair continues to play in the NFL currently for the Baltimore Ravens and he is still chasing his elusive Super Bowl Victory. He is known for playing through injuries and his toughness and leadership should get him strong consideration for the Hall of Fame when he is through playing. He also has the numbers and winning percentage to back him up his intangibles.

During this time another notable African American Quarterback was Kordell Stewart of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Stewart came to the Steelers as a 2nd Draft pick in 1994 out of Colorado. Stewart left Colorado with almost every passing record, but he could not lead the Buffs to National Championship contention.

College highlights included: Holding school all-time records with 456 completions on 785 passes with 7,770 yards in total offense. Also holds school’s all-time records for average yards per completion (13.8), yards in total offense per game (235.5) and yards per offensive play (6.36). He threw for 300 yards 6 times and had only 2.4% of his passes intercepted.

As a senior, Stewart was named to the All-American 2nd team selection by AP and made the play of the year with a “Hail Mary” to beat Michigan on national TV. Scouts when evaluating Stewart were intrigued by his raw passing skills and speed. During his rookie year, Stewart was nicknamed “Slash” by head coach Bill Cowher, because he played qb, wr, and rb. Stewart took this role, because Neil O’Donnell was entrenched as the starter.

Stewart played 30 snaps at quarterback including the postseason and in Super Bowl XXII against the Dallas Cowboys. The “Slash” role was a blessing and a curse for Stewart, it showed he was a “Team Player” willing to help out on the field, but he probably digressed as a pure quarterback by switching between positions. The “Slash” transition experiment appeared to be an early success for Stewart, when was selected to the Pro Bowl in 1997. That season Stewart showed he could play the quarterback position. Stewart started in all 16 regular-season and both postseason contests.

Stewart had an outstanding first season as a QB, becoming only the fourth player in Steelers history to surpass 3,000 passing yards. He was selected as an alternate to the Pro Bowl and finished the season with 3,020 passing yards, completed 236 of 440 pass attempts, 21 touchdowns and 17 interceptions for a 75.2 pass rating. He also was the team’s second-leading rusher, gaining 476 yards on 88 carries. He also had a long run of 74 yards versus Baltimore (10/5), which is the third-longest TD run by a quarterback in NFL history. He also became the first quarterback in the NFL to throw 20 or more TD passes and rush for 10 or more TD’s.

He set an NFL mark as the only player to have two games with at least two rushing TD’s and three passing TD’s in a game. However his development with the Steelers was also stunted by having different coordinators (Gailey, Lewis, Gilbride, and Mularkey) every season and the Steelers losing in the AFC Championship Game at home twice under him. Stewart retired in 2005 as a “journeyman” backup with the Baltimore Ravens, but he will always be “Slash” to the public.

Stewart was a vanguard in that he had many assets to help his team win. The “Slash” role definitely confused defenses and made offensive coordinators want to have their own “Slash”. In the future teams used other Quarterbacks in this role trying to imitate Stewart including Antwaan Randle El, Troy Woodbury, Ronald Curry, Hines Ward and others.

During this timeframe a study made by Doug Williams in his book Quarterblack: Shattering the NFL Myth, was changing. In the book he theorized, “NFL Personnel Managers would only accept Starting Black Quarterbacks and not backup/developmental type Black Quarterbacks. No Blacks carrying clipboards”. African American Quarterbacks were now allowed to flourish as 1st String to 4th String Developmental Types on team’s Practice Squads and in NFL Europe.

The idea that a young African American Quarterback could learn a system and flourish within a team was enhanced by Steve McNair and veterans like Rodney Peete showed that African American Quarterbacks could also be valuable backups coming off the bench and leading their teams. Some of the backup or developmental quarterbacks that played during this time were Dameyune Craig (Auburn) for the Carolina Panthers, Tony Banks (Michigan State) for St. Louis Rams, Wally Richardson (Penn State) for Baltimore Ravens, Ted White (Howard) for Kansas City, Michael Bishop (Kansas State) for New England Patriots, Jay Walker (Howard) for Minnesota Vikings, and many others.

Craig, in a NFL Europe game in 1999 playing for the Scottish Claymores passed for a record 611 yards and five touchdowns on only 27 pass completions in a 42-35 victory over the Frankfurt Galaxy. His uniform from that game now resides in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

In 1997 there were six starting quarterbacks for NFL teams, more than at any time. Starters included Randall Cunningham for Minnesota Vikings, Warren Moon for the Seattle Seahawks, Kordell Stewart for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Jeff Blake for the Cincinnati Bengals, Steve McNair for the Tennessee Titans, and Tony Banks for the St. Louis Rams.

NEXT: Explosion Years (1999 to the Present).