Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
31 Jul 2008
by Mike Tanier
He is an athlete. A natural. A playmaker. He is a black quarterback.
Thirty years ago, he was a rarity, an oddity. Now he is commonplace, an accepted part of the football landscape. There will be as many as 20 black quarterbacks on NFL rosters in September, including six likely starters. Black quarterbacks are common in Canada, Arena Football, Division I colleges, and at lower levels of competition. Whereas each achievement by a black quarterback was a milestone just a few decades ago, the skin color of the man calling the signals is no longer noteworthy, at least to his teammates, coaches, and most fans.
Still, we have not yet achieved true color blindness in sports, let alone at the most visible on-field leadership position in the sports universe. It's still easy to find isolated examples of prejudice. Sometimes it's overt: Rush Limbaugh defining Donovan McNabb according to racial stereotypes, bleacher fans chanting "put the white guy in" the moment a black starter throws an incompletion, blogs with racial attitudes that run from immature to reprehensible. Sometimes, the bias is more subtle, like in the loaded language that sportscasters use almost subconsciously. We all recognize the words I used, ironically, as a lead. The black quarterback is an "athlete" (as opposed to a leader or a thinker). He's a "natural" (as opposed to a hard worker). In the 1970s, those perceptions were so strong that most black college quarterbacks had to change positions if they wanted to play in the NFL.
Despite the occasional talk-radio diatribe or backhanded complement, Lloyd Vance has seen admirable recent progress. "In the last 20 years, I believe that African-American quarterbacks have received the opportunity needed to succeed at all levels in football. No longer do you see the quick conversions (to other positions) that were so prevalent from the '40s to the '80s."
Vance is the editor of BQB-Site.com, a blog that chronicles the history of black quarterbacks at all levels of competition. Vance is a historian and researcher who has contributed to ESPN and NFL Films documentaries and appears on numerous radio shows across the nation, among other ventures. Vance's blog covers both history and current events. His work helps keep the memories of players like Willie Thrower (the Michigan State star who briefly quarterbacked the Bears in the 1950s) alive. He also tracks the progress of high school and college stars and reports on major issues like the Michael Vick case.
According to Vance, it's easy to see how the perceptions of coaches and scouts have changed. "Look at Warren Moon. He was a record-setting quarterback, but he wasn't even drafted at a time when the draft had 12 rounds. A few years ago, the Jaguars drafted Matt Jones, a white quarterback, and converted him to wide receiver, while all three of their quarterbacks are African-Americans."
There have even been changes in the last decade. Vance feels that the McNabb/Aaron Brooks generation of quarterbacks dealt with more stereotyping than players just entering the league. "I've talked to some young players, and they tell me, 'Hey, I am just a quarterback, I am not treated any different from anybody else.'"
NFL coaches and executives have certainly become more color-blind in recent years. At lower levels of competition, prejudices may be more ingrained. "You still do hear sporadic stories," Vance said. "Towns splitting over black-vs.-white quarterbacks, comments on the bottom of piles on the field, ugly words in the stands. I had someone tell me a story that they heard a coach tell a high school player that 'He didn't look like a quarterback to him' and the kid was moved to wide receiver."
Still, the numbers of black quarterbacks in youth and high school football are growing, and times are changing everywhere. Vance sites national prep player of the year Terrelle Pryor as an example of progress at the lower levels. He calls Pryor "VY2," the second coming of Vince Young, and notes that Pryor is as much a runner as a passer, as well as a defensive back, punter, and whatever else he puts his mind to. Pryor is the type of player who typically moved to running back or wide receiver in the past. But thanks to more modern attitudes (and the proliferation of spread-option offenses), Pryor was recruited nationally as a quarterback. He chose Ohio State, where Jim Tressel plans to groom him in the Troy Smith mold. "Here's Ohio State, known for those Craig Krenzel-type quarterbacks, all I-formations, handoffs, and play-action. Now they are recruiting guys like Pryor as quarterbacks. The number of opportunities keep growing."
Vance, along with some NFL legends, wants to help young African-American quarterbacks make the most of those opportunities. The Field Generals program was founded by Warren Moon, Doug Williams, James Harris, and Marlin Briscoe; Vance promotes their work and writes for their site. The Field Generals mission (in the words of their literature) is to "acknowledge the legendary, celebrate the current and promote future professional quarterbacks through a schedule of comprehensive leadership training, personal development and skills exhibitions." The Field Generals hold camps and workshops where young players at all levels of competition can meet greats of the past and learn more about the pioneers who helped shatter some long-held racial myths. Vance feels that it's important for young players to learn what pioneers like Williams and Briscoe faced. "It is wonderful that Chris Leak and Troy Smith can face each other for the National Championship and they are both 'quarterbacks' first, but there is a journey and a matriculation of the black quarterback that must be told. The great thing is many young black quarterbacks have taken an interest in greats like Doug Williams, but there can never be enough education."
Prejudice may be receding from the practice field, but it hasn't gone away. "There are still some fans on message boards, and media figures like Rush Limbaugh, whose bias shines through," Vance said. Their negativity ultimately has a greater effect on younger players than on the pros. "Kids have it tough because they may not understand where possible bias is coming from. A lot of times kids idealize sports and life, so it is deflating when politics come into play." Still, Vance sees media- and fan-based racial bias on the decline. "Hopefully there will be a day where a quarterback is a quarterback," Vance said.
He's an athlete. A playmaker. A natural. A leader. A professional. A field general. He's a quarterback, and his race, ultimately, is irrelevant.
Aaron starts the Pro Football Prospectus 2008 book tour next week, and I will be along for two stops. Catch me at the Barnes & Noble on the Johns Hopkins campus in Baltimore on August 5. (I can't speak for Aaron, but I will be heading to the Charles Village Bar across the street for a little postgame show.) On August 7, we'll be in the East Village of New York at Varsity Letters with a fellow named Stephan Fastis, who is apparently a better Scrabble player than Jake Plummer and a better kicker than most Scrabble champions. Some other FO folks may be there as well, and there may be some postgame activities, although I am not sure if there will be any night life in New York on a Thursday night.
I was interviewed for the September issue of GQ, which should be on newsstands in a few weeks. The topic is men's fashion, my second passion, and I spend a lot of time explaining what Italian designers have planned for next spring's line of silk suits. I think I also diagram a few screen passes.
Don't forget to watch NFL's Top 10, where you can see me in the sartorial splendor that put me on the GQ speed dial.
Special thanks to reader Dan Babbitt, who was the first of several people to point me toward the A11 offense, which has been featured on Pro Football Talk, Rivals.com, and many other sites.
You can click this link for a full breakdown of this innovative offense. Here's the short version: California prep coaches Kurt Bryan and Steve Humphries concocted a scheme in which, theoretically, any one of the 11 offensive players could be an eligible receiver. The offense lines up in an extreme spread formation with three traditional offensive linemen, two quarterbacks (you read that right) in shotgun, and six players split wide, four on the line and two off it. Once the offense sets, the five "interior linemen" (two of whom are actually split) are ineligible. That leaves six eligible receivers; because the quarterbacks are in shotgun, either could catch a pass. But until the offense sets, it is hard to tell who is a receiver and who is a blocker, and with some creative scheming, even the center could be eligible.
The pictures on the A11 site over-simplify the way the offense looks; Figure 1 shows a sample formation taken from some game film of the offense in action. To wrap your head around this offense, you must think in terms of a prep program: There are lots of 180- to 210-pound kids, the difference between a wide receiver and a guard is little more than a growth spurt, and there are no 320-pound interior linemen or untouchable millionaire quarterbacks. The A11 site specifies that everyone on the field wears an "eligible receiver" uniform number and outlines the restrictions that must be placed on shifts and presnap motion. You can picture a 16-year-old cornerback lining up against three or four split ends and racking his brain to figure out who can and cannot go out for a pass. You can also imagine all manner of jet screens from this formation, plus lots of fancy options and quarterback sweeps. If you want to make your imagination run wild, name the quarterbacks Vince Young and Tim Tebow, then start drawing plays where they pitch to each other, block for each other, or throw.
The formation shown in Figure 1 would be legal in the NCAA and the NFL. Steve Spurrier has a few trick plays built from a similar formation, and the Titans attempted one ill-fated gadget play last season from a formation that was just about as wacky. But while this is all street legal, there is zero chance that the A11 will catch on in the NFL or be more than a nutty wrinkle at the major college level.
I am often asked why the option never caught on in the NFL, or why the spread-option isn't a viable pro offense. The blanket answer is this: Any scheme that is built on the principle of leaving a defensive lineman unblocked cannot work in the NFL. In a basic option, a defensive end is unblocked, and the quarterback runs or pitches the ball based on whether or not he can elude that free defender. Spread-option plays use similar principles and have other problems. Old-fashioned, run-heavy strategies like the T-formation generally assume that defenders on the far side of a running play are out of the action: If you are running a sweep left, the defensive end and linebacker on the (offensive) right won't be fast enough to have an impact on the play.
You cannot make those assumptions in the NFL. Dwight Freeney or Jared Allen will blow up your option at the snap and kill your quarterback. Julian Peterson or DeMarcus Ware will crash into the backfield, pursue a play from the backside, and stuff your running back if they are left unblocked on a far-side sweep. The size and speed of NFL defenders essentially makes the playing field smaller, so it is much harder to use distance as a de facto blocker.
In Figure 1, I whip up a sample defense to attack the basic A11 formation. Again, this is loosely based on what I saw on film. The defense is in a 3-2-6 personnel grouping. The three deep safeties are showing Cover-3, though it wouldn't be hard to bring two of them up as man defenders. In this example, I am blitzing one linebacker and one cornerback off the edge. The "edge" here, of course, is much closer to the quarterbacks. The blitzing defenders come unblocked. I want them to contain the quarterbacks. They should take a slightly wide approach so they are in position to make a tackle on a quarterback sweep. They must be ready to put their hands up to disrupt jet screens. But really, they should be ready to make a sack. If Shawne Merriman and Antonio Cromartie are blitzing, guess what? Cromartie might beat the snap to the quarterback, for goodness sake.
One thing I noticed on the A11 highlight reels is that the competition was somewhat ready for the scheme. Piedmont High ripped off plenty of big plays (it was a highlight reel, after all) but I didn't see a lot of defenders pointing or running around in confusion presnap. After some game film sessions, opposing high school coaches adapted to the A11 and came up with some feasible counterattacks. Imagine what pro or big-time college coaches would do. The higher you climb on the competition ladder, the more the shortcomings of such a scheme outweigh the advantages.
Still, I would love to see a little bit more formation creativity in the NFL, and the A11 could work as a twice-a-month wrinkle. Figure 2 shows a little creation of my own. Let's imagine the 49ers running this play. We'll make Alex Smith and Michael Robinson the quarterbacks: Both can run and throw, and both are strong guys who can block. Put Isaac Bruce, Bryant Johnson, Arnaz Battle, and Vernon Davis in a four-man bunch formation on the right side; it doesn't matter who is who, though Davis or Battle should do the blocking. The snap goes to Smith, and Robinson steps up to block, offering some extra pass protection. Smith rolls right, and the ineligible receiver hooks to his left to provide a fifth blocker. One receiver runs a post-and-corner, one a scat route over the middle, and one a comeback along the sidelines. The progression of reads is marked on the diagram. For a play like this, there's a good chance that Smith would break containment and be able to run for 15 yards if he doesn't like what he sees downfield. This route combination is pretty standard for a rollout pass. The only unique elements here are the covered, ineligible tight end, and the second quarterback, who would just be a running back on a typical rollout (and actually is a running back in our little fantasy).
A wrinkle like the play in Figure 2 would definitely get defenders thinking. We don't see this kind of chicanery much because NFL coaches are extremely conservative. Plays like this appear once per decade, and they often fail miserably because the offense is as unprepared as the defense. If they happened once per month, if they were part of a package that gets some preseason reps, they might be as effective as the basic double-reverse or halfback pass.
So don't look for the A11 in the NFL anytime soon, but look for it at a high school near you. And if you coach Pop Warner, what are you waiting for? Start diagramming! Two starting quarterbacks equals twice the number of happy parents in your community.
While I had Lloyd Vance on the line, I decided to pick his brain a little about the Hall of Fame. Vance is a member of the Pro Football Researchers Association and has worked closely with Ray Didinger and William C. Rhoden, among others. He often blogs about historic matters on Taking it to the House and other sites. He'll be in Canton covering the induction ceremonies this year. He recently posted his top 10 centers and guards of all time, which started our little Five Questions discussion.
FO: You list longtime Vikings center Mick Tingelhoff as the fifth best center of all time. Has he been snubbed by voters?
Vance: I think he has been overlooked. Most of these older guys need some local writer to carry the flag for them. I guess that the writers from Minneapolis-St. Paul looked at his situation and decided it just wasn't going to happen. Tingelhoff was really a great player, a smart player who kept Fran Tarkenton clean. But centers just seem to have a hard time. Dwight Stephenson got in after much consideration. Of course, we don't have stats for them. And for older guys like Tingelhoff, we barely have film.
FO: Give me three should-be Hall of Famers.
Vance: Ray Guy really just defined that punter position, was by far the best of his time. Bullet Bob Hayes changed the game, he had such pure speed that defenses couldn't cover him the way they covered other receivers. Randall Cunningham, he might be a homer pick, but you look at the 30,000 yards, the MVP seasons for different franchises, and he really dominated the game for a few years.
FO: Have you even noticed that there are almost no Broncos in the Hall of Fame?
Vance: Maybe their writers don't try hard enough! Seriously, the Broncos always preached the team concept. They always had the nondescript running back, the offensive line that stressed that they were a unit, not individuals. People start to think of them that way. Randy Gradishar -- he could be in my top three, too -- was a lunchpail guy, quiet contributor, then you looked at the end of the game and he made 10 or 15 solid tackles. Steve Atwater was another guy who was great for a number of years. Gary Zimmerman just got in, and I think you'll see some more Broncos.
FO: What's the best thing about going to Canton for the induction ceremony?
Vance: Definitely the fans. They come from all over, they wear their jerseys, they just show so much respect for these older players. Also, as media, we get a private tour of the Hall of Fame. We really get to have a close look at all the artifacts. Football has about a hundred years of history, from Jim Thorpe to today's guys, and it's great to see it from beginning to end. I remember seeing Norm Van Brocklin's jersey from when he won the championship with the 1960 Eagles. I saw how heavy it was and realized, "It looks hot. He really must have been sweating." Little things like that really strike you.
FO: What's the worst thing about going to Canton for the induction ceremony?
Vance: It's always hot. They put us on a field with no shade, there's never any cloud cover, and the sun's just beating on us. Other than that, it's a great experience.
Kids these days, with their cell phones and text messengers! It seems like nobody uses old-fashioned e-mail anymore. NFL players, coaches, and agents are getting into the act. Stephen Jackson has kept in touch with Rams coaches via text messages during his holdout. Agents communicate contract offers to general managers and clients via text messages. Brett Favre ... heck, that guy doesn't even care whose phone he uses.
The idea that $50 million contracts are negotiated using the same technology that teenagers use to bully the fat kid is funny enough without all of the crazy codes and acronyms. Teenagers are masters of abbreviated, fast-type codes: CD9 means Code Nine (parents are watching), CTPH means "Can't talk, petting heavily" and so on. Football insiders have adopted and adapted these abbreviations and acronyms for their own use.
So here it is, a Walkthough exclusive: the first ever dictionary of football-related text message codes.
BFF: Brett Favre Forever!
BRB-FGB: A common text sent by Tom Brady. The first part is clearly "be right back." We are still decoding the second part.
CSCS: Child support coming soon.
CSCS-CSCS-CSCS-CSCS-CSCS-CSCS-CSCS-CSCS: Same code, Travis Henry edition.
CT-POS: Can't talk, Parcells over Shoulder.
GLUB: I am a rookie being held upside-down in the ice bath. While I respect the male-bonding and initiation rituals of camp and truly appreciate my chance to play in the NFL, I think some blood vessels in my ears just burst, and I am worried that this may have lingering health consequences.
J/K: Just kut. Please don't spend any more money, dear.
PAL-BS: Party at Leinart's. Bring stirrups.
PK143: A common sign-off on messages to Brett Favre.
PLAXICO: Injury not really serious. Just want a new contract.
N00BZ: Newbies, or rookies. Not to be confused with M00BZ, a description of Hank Fraley's chest.
ROTFCSAH: Rolling on the field getting curb-stomped by Albert Haynesworth.
TTFN: The commissioned just handed down punishment for my little peyote-stripper escapade. See everyone in four weeks, minimum.
UPTWTGUPTWTG: You play to win the game. You PLAY. To WIN. The GAME.
In two weeks: Walkthrough goes weekly and becomes a more conventional weekly preview column. Don't worry: I said "more conventional," not "conventional." Until then, come see me on the book tour!
98 comments, Last at 12 Aug 2008, 4:24pm by martial