The Integration of the Black QB

By Mike Florio
Updated: July 8, 2009

Marlon Briscoe

Marlon Briscoe

NEW YORK — My son was born a year after quarterback Steve McNair entered the NFL.

And so he didn’t know much about McNair’s background, or the circumstances that resulted in his name being the third called on that draft day in 1995.

After explaining that, yes, there once was a team named the Houston Oilers, and that the franchise moved to Tennessee and was still known as the Oilers for a couple of years before changing its name to the “Titans,” I told the soon-to-be-13-year-old that McNair’s draft status had added significance.

“In 1995,” I said, “it was a pretty big deal for a black quarterback to be drafted that high.” His response summed up the progress that has since been made.

“In 1995?”

So let’s take a closer look at an issue that has become, in many respects, a non-issue for the modern NFL. And let’s do so by examining the top 10 moments in the integration of the most important position in the NFL.

1. Marlin Briscoe breaks the ice

As a rookie with the Denver Broncos in 1968, Briscoe scaled the depth chart (due in large part to injury) and became by October the first African-American starting quarterback in modern league history.

A sub-42 percent completion percentage helped make the Briscoe experiment a one-season affair, and Briscoe didn’t help himself when he balked at being excluded from offseason quarterbacks meetings.

After a rookie year that resulted in a franchise-record 14 touchdown passes (a mark that neither John Elway nor Jay Cutler broke), the Broncos cut him.

In 1969, the Buffalo Bills gave Briscoe a home. But they already had Jack Kemp as their starting quarterback, so Briscoe was moved to receiver.

Still, Briscoe’s limited work at quarterback broke the ice for those who would follow at the position.

2. James Harris starts NFC title game

In the same season that the Bills plucked Briscoe from the bargain bin, Buffalo’s pro football team drafted James Harris.

In 1972, Harris joined the Los Angeles Rams. Two years later, Harris became the first black quarterback to start a conference title game, taking the Rams to the freeze-dried tundra of the old Metropolitan Stadium in Minnesota.

Within two years, however, Harris landed on the bench. In the offseason, the Rams shipped him down the road to San Diego.

Still, more than a decade after Briscoe had broken the color barrier at quarterback, Harris was the only African-American to achieve any real success at the position.

3. Randall Cunningham takes the league by storm

Though Doug Williams (see below) ultimately got his fingerprints on the Lombardi Trophy, Randall Cunningham became one of the most exciting players in the league during the latter half of the 1980s.

Eventually supplanting Ron Jaworski in Philadelphia, Cunningham’s blend of running and passing broke the pocket-passer mold, making him one of the NFL’s most popular players.

Still, Cunningham never completely fulfilled his potential. Due to injuries and ineffectiveness, he called it quits in Philadelphia. He then returned to the field after a year off to become a backup in Minnesota. After Brad Johnson broke his leg in Week 2, Cunningham experienced a career rebirth as part of a 1998 season that nearly took him to the Super Bowl.

4. Doug Williams wins the Super Bowl

Williams arguably deserves two spots on this list — one for becoming an early-career phenomenon in Tampa Bay, and one for taking the Redskins to a Super Bowl win after defecting to the USFL.

But the Super Bowl 22 victory remains Williams’ crowning achievement, and he remains the only black quarterback to win a league title, and to be named the championship game’s MVP.

Still, it’s somewhat amazing that, in 21 years since Williams won a Super Bowl, no other African-American quarterback has matched that feat.

5. Warren Moon throws for a million yards

Well, it wasn’t quite a million. But it sure seemed like it.

After going undrafted by the NFL in 1978, Warren Moon headed to Canada. And after he won five CFL championships in five seasons, the NFL got interested.

And then Moon became a star in the league that previously had overlooked him.

Along the way, Moon became a pass-first, run-rarely star, authoring a Hall of Fame career (he was the first African-American QB to be enshrined in Canton). Though Moon never made it to a Super Bowl (due in large part to the inability of the run-and-shoot offense to hold a lead), he arguably was the best pure passing machine in pro football history, regardless of color.

6. Steve McNair becomes a franchise quarterback

The decision of the Houston Oilers to make Steve McNair the third overall selection in the draft despite the fact he played at tiny Alcorn State represented a true watershed moment in the blurring of the lines between white and black quarterbacks.

McNair’s talent and potential made the Oilers overlook both his skin and an NCAA career that easily could have been dismissed as a product of inferior competition.

Indeed, teams inclined not to make an African-American quarterback the centerpiece of a franchise easily could have focused on the uncertainty regarding whether McNair’s ability would translate to the NFL.

But the Oilers already had proven via their embrace of Warren Moon that they care only about putting the best possible players on the field. So they pounced on McNair, and even though his quest for a Super Bowl came up a yard short, owner Bud Adams surely has zero regrets.

7. Donovan McNabb becomes one of the faces of the NFL

Though McNair was the first black quarterback picked in the top five of the draft, Donovan McNabb became, as of 1999, the first to go in the top two.

And unlike so many of the other first-round quarterbacks from the much-hyped class of 1999 who turned out to be busts (Tim Couch and Akili Smith), McNabb has delivered.

Despite falling short of a Super Bowl win and without a league MVP trophy on his mantle, McNabb has become — and has remained — one of the short-list faces of the league.

With an Eagles team that is suddenly loaded at receiver, this could be McNabb’s year both to win a title, and be named the most valuable player in the sport.

8. Mike Vick is the first overall pick

Earlier this decade, there was an even bigger star than McNabb. Though Mike Vick will forever be viewed differently after pleading guilty to felony charges relating to interstate gambling and dogfighting, there can be no dispute as to his ability, or his stardom.

Though McNabb has been a face of the league for several years; for one or two seasons, Vick was the face of the league.

Before that, Vick became the first black quarterback to be picked first in the draft, selected by Atlanta in 2001.

And his NFL book remains incomplete. Once he gets back into the league, a focused and motivated Vick possibly could soar to even greater heights than he did from 2001 through 2006.

9. Daunte Culpepper has one of the best seasons ever

In 2004, Colts quarterback Peyton Manning easily won the league MVP award, via 4,557 yards passing, a then-record 49 touchdowns, and a passer rating of 121.1.

But in the same season, Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper threw for 4,717 yards, with 39 touchdown passes and a passer rating of 110.9.

Many assume Culpepper’s numbers were fueled by the presence of Randy Moss (as if Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne didn’t help Manning), but Moss missed several games with a bad hamstring. In his absence, Culpepper didn’t miss a beat.

Though Culpepper’s shining moment won’t be remembered as one of the key moments to help make the NFL color blind when it comes to the quarterback position, it should be.

Because in that season Culpepper played as well as any quarterback not named Peyton Manning (or Tom Brady) ever has.

10. JaMarcus Russell chosen first for his arm, not his legs

Two years ago, the Raiders made JaMarcus Russell the second black quarterback to be selected with the first overall pick in the draft.

This time around, however, Russell didn’t get the nod in whole or in part due to how he runs with the ball, but primarily because of how he throws the thing.

And that’s arguably the clearest proof yet that a quarterback is a quarterback, regardless of any superficial factor unrelated to his ability to play the position.

Sure, Russell could end up being benched this year for Jeff Garcia, and he could end up being a full-blown draft bust.

But that doesn’t mean the progress has been wasted; after all, plenty of white quarterbacks taken at the top of the draft have ended up being subpar pro performers, too.