Outmanned, But Never Outgunned (Part 3)

By Michael-Louis Ingram
Updated: January 6, 2008

Shaun King

Shaun King

PHILADELPHIA — If there was any indication the pigskin ceiling for Black quarterbacks was primed for cracking, it was in the 1999 NFL Draft.

The hyperbole was flying as fast as an unabated blitz to the pocket. The crop of talent touted for success would elevate the League into the new century as the glamor position was given the maximum star treatment.

Of the first dozen selections, five were quarterbacks, and three of them were Black.

I was at that draft when Syracuse’s Donovan McNabb was picked by the Philadelphia Eagles with the second selection; and the cascade of boos was unbelievable from the Iggles’ contingent.

My colleague, Takashi ‘Tak’ Makita, Japan’s foremost NFL expert and award-winning photographer, looked at me and burst out laughing at all the booing, shouting over the din, “I don’t think they’re pleased.”

The fact the Cincinnati Bengals had followed with taking Oregon’s Akili Smith had almost slipped by the crowd because the catcalls had been so deafening.

With the 11th pick, Minnesota grabbed Daunte Culpepper, a strapping 6-foot-5, 265-pound brother from little-known Central Florida. Culpepper had basically put the school on the map with his arm and legs, and was getting buzz at the right time during his senior season.

These early moves were significant because McNabb, Smith and Culpepper were “no-excuse” picks. All three had the desired height (McNabb being the “runt” of the litter at 6-foot-2), were solid in mobility, arm strength and physique; there was little talk of being able to handle the pressure of the “next level” because they (save Culpepper), had come from prime-time programs.

After Chicago’s selection of UCLA’s Cade McNown and the leadoff pick of Kentucky’s Tim Couch by the Cleveland Browns, the draft gods proclaimed these young men the foundation of the NFL as the 20th century prepared to turn the corner.

But a funny thing happened on the way to immortality, as Couch and McNown would fold like Federal Reserve notes. Ironically, the selection that caught the most hell would be the flag-bearer for the 1999 Draft as McNabb would play his way to multiple All-Pro selections and a Super Bowl appearance.

Culpepper would prove his worth as well, having stellar seasons and All-Pro status of his own to speak of. Culpepper would also own one of the most dynamically understated statistical seasons ever in football: 39 touchdown passes to only 11 picks and 4,717 yards in the air in 2004.

Had Indy’s Peyton Manning not been playing pinball with the stats that year, the media would’ve been hard pressed to deny Daunte his due.

Chocolate Cream Rises to the Top

But the ’99 Draft should also be remembered for another subtlety; a class that would produce multiple long-term Black starters.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers would pick Shaun King out of Tulane in the second round.

Aaron Brooks, out of the University of Virignia and cousin of another budding star in Michael Vick, was selected by Green Bay in the fourth round, while Michael Bishop, out of Kansas State, went to New England in the seventh round at number 227.

King, a clever pivot who led his college team to an undefeated 12-0 season in his senior year, would put his new team in position to gain the Super Bowl in his rookie season.

After an injury to starter Trent Dilfer, King took over in mid-season, and his poise was crucial in keeping the Bucs on point toward the playoffs.

On the Black Hand Side

King was also involved in one of the most egregious calls ever in the history of professional sports. In a playoff game against the high powered St. Louis Rams, the speedy Buccaneer defense had slowed down the “Greatest Show on Turf” to a crawl as they ran step-for-step with the Ram receivers and knocked them out of sync.

With two minutes remaining and St. Louis hanging on to an 11-6 lead, King and Tampa drove deep into Ram territory. A pass to receiver Bert Emanuel was ruled a catch on the field, but was ordered reviewed by the cuckoo in the crow’s nest of review.

In spite of several angles on the Jumbotron and the review on television showing that Emanuel had possession of the ball, the pass was ruled incomplete.

As if Nero himself had ordained it to be so, the thumbs-down was given and Tampa was denied the upset. Heavily favored St. Louis would go on to win Super Bowl XXXIV.

King would go on to get his ring in SB XXXVII, but as a third-stringer. His first coach, Tony Dungy would leave for Indianapolis, and new head coach Jon Gruden would opt for other players, bringing in Brad Johnson from NFL Europe to do his bidding.

That King went from a full-time starter who took his team to the playoffs in his first two seasons to a third-stringer may have more to do with the post-Dungy politics in Tampa Bay rather than who earned the spot on the field.

For Brooks, his big break came after a move to New Orleans, where he replaced an injured Jeff Blake in the 2000 season. Brooks also got the Saints into the playoffs, where they knocked off the defending champ Rams, but lost to Minnesota in the following round.

Brooks’ downfall began when he came to the Oakland Raiders in 2006. Attempting to once again utilize their vertical attack, the Raider linemen could not block well enough to sustain the five and seven step drops needed for Brooks to get the ball downfield. As a result, Brooks was pounded into submission by mid-season and benched soon after.

Though still football-sound after healing, Brooks has not caught on with another team as of this writing.

Meanwhile, north of the border…

Akili Smith, after three unproductive years in Cincy, bounced around NFL Europe and tried to catch on in Green Bay, backing up Brett Favre to no avail.

In 2007, Smith did win a job in the Canadian Football League, backing up Henry Burris as a Calgary Stampeder. He managed to hang on until the last weeks of the regular season before being released by the club.

As for Michael Bishop, he lasted two years in the NFL as a third stringer with the Patriots, and played in NFL Europe for the Frankfurt Galaxy.

In spite of his great production while in Europe, he was released in 2001 and made the move to Canada in 2002.

Between stints in Canada and the Arena Football League, Bishop treaded water until 2006, where he broke through, relieving Damon Allen in the CFL playoffs for the Toronto Argonauts, playing well under pressure.

Bishop did quarterback the Argos to the 2007 Eastern Conference final after an early season injury to Allen. His on-field performance indicates the pivot is no problem in Toronto should Allen choose to retire in 2008.

Whatever the average career span is for a starting quarterback, knowing that for at least six years, one draft produced five serviceable (at the low end) and productive (high end) field generals who, when given the opportunity, won and lost their share of games.

When you consider McNabb, Culpepper and Bishop are still playing a decade later, it gives credence to the argument that if the best man plays, more often than not, the best man stays.

The vaunted “Class of 1983″ has ten SB appearances on their record (through Dan Marino, Jim Kelly, John Elway and Tony Eason), while the Class of 1999 has two. Hey, it’s a start.

And as further attempts to whiten the quarterback position continue, we may look back on this “Class of ’99″ and see how their ability to persevere scared enough NFL front offices to make sure that possibility didn’t happen in the not-too-distant future.

Next Time: Why Doug Williams and Washington won “The Arms Race.”