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Young and Restless

Four young, black quarterbacks aren't waiting for success. after just two years in the NFL, they are aiming for the Super Bowl title.

By ERNEST HOOPER

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 29, 2000


photo
[Times photo: Toni L. Sandys]
Shaun King says quarterbacks aren't allowed several years to prove themselves anymore.
TAMPA -- Shaun King laughs when it is suggested he and three of his fellow Class of '99 quarterbacks are ahead of schedule.

In another era, the typical NFL quarterback may have taken four or five years to develop. But King, Philadelphia's Donovan McNabb, New Orleans' Aaron Brooks and Minnesota's Daunte Culpepper are readying for the playoffs two seasons after being drafted.

King insists the quartet's rapid progress is a necessity, not a coincidence.

"We don't have that learning curve anymore," King said. "They don't give us that much time. They'll run you out of town if it takes four years."

Instead of being run out of town, these guys are the talk of the town. The similarities among them are numerous, beginning with how each conquered naysayers.

McNabb, the No. 2 overall pick, was almost run out of town immediately. On draft day he was booed by Eagles fans, who wanted Philadelphia to take running back Ricky Williams. He has overcome that to emerge as one of the league's most valuable players.

"Everything that happened in the draft made me stronger," McNabb said. "It was definitely a motivational factor."

Chosen with the 11th pick, Culpepper spent a year on the bench in Minnesota. When coach Dennis Green shipped out veterans Randall Cunningham and Jeff George because of salary-cap considerations, Culpepper inherited the starting job and a lot of doubts because he had never started in the NFL.

After a stellar season, some are wondering if it was mistake not to start Culpepper as a rookie.

"It's just great to have the opportunity to play," Culpepper said. "And that's the thing. Opportunity."

In a situation similar to King's last season, Brooks was pressed into service this year when Jeff Blake broke his right foot in a game Nov. 19. It was a crossroads for the Saints, but Brooks, whom Green Bay drafted in the fourth round, steered them in the right direction.

"I probably never want to rate myself," Brooks said. "If anything, I'll let my actions speak for themselves. All I do know is I have some catching up to do.

"There's some work to do, but I can say this: I've paid my dues, and I'm paying them now."

photo
[Times photo: Michael Rondou]
Daunte Culpepper of the Vikings drops back to pass.
King is the savvy veteran of the group, having played in last season's NFC Championship Game. After a successful debut in '99, he has had ups and downs, but the Bucs are playing Philadelphia in a wild-card game Sunday because of King's resolve.

"I think it's good in our second year that we've shown enough ability to not only lead our teams but to get into the playoffs," King said of the quarterbacks. "It's hard, but I think we've done a good job so far."

Eagles coach Andy Reid said the current climate in the NFL has prompted the rise in the number of young quarterbacks. "I had John Madden on my radio show, and he's seen a lot of quarterbacks come and go in this league. And he was mentioning before the salary cap and free agency, you could put a quarterback on the shelf for three or four years and let him develop," Reid said. "That's not the way it is now, so you kind of put them in the Evelyn Woods course of football and try to get them ready."

The four have been helped by solid support systems: good coaches, capable teammates, and in the case of the Saints, Eagles and Bucs, respectable defenses. The common thread, however, is athleticism. Each quarterback can improvise. When a play breaks down, each can break out. Collectively, they have 5.6 yards a carry. McNabb leads the Eagles in rushing with 629 yards and is averaging 7.3 yards.

They also often scramble out of trouble to complete passes.

"It's four athletic quarterbacks that are back there really leading their offenses," said Bucs tackle George Hegamin, who played with McNabb last year. "Nowadays, you need that type of quarterback to come in and play for you. They have so much more athletic talent on defense that you can't have someone that stands back there and throws the ball all the time.

"You got to have somebody come in when the protection breaks down and make plays. Those guys have been doing it. That's why they're in the playoffs."

Sometimes the line between athletic quarterback and black quarterback gets blurred. The last vestiges of quarterback racism are being buried by this group, all of whom are black.

None wants to be tagged as a scrambler because in the minds of some, the description demeans their ability to read defenses and make accurate throws. McNabb, who played in an option offense at Syracuse, has been particularly resistant to the label of "running quarterback." King, who developed a friendship with McNabb in 1999 while training for the scouting combine with speed coach Tom Shaw, said he understands where McNabb is coming from.

"I think all Donovan is saying is, treat him just like you treat everybody else," King said. "I mean, if you look at some of the great quarterbacks over time, when they run the football, everybody says they're making plays, they're improvising, they're moving the chains. Then when Donovan does it, they say he's a running quarterback."

For King and a lot of other league observers, the race issue seems secondary to the quarterbacks' youthful successful stories. Skin color doesn't seem to matter anymore.

"Two guys were first-round picks, another guy was a second-round pick, and (Brooks) was a fourth-round pick, but they all have the ability to lead," Green said. "I think the whole idea, whether you're talking about Doug Williams, Steve McNair, Daunte Culpepper, I think (you) want the best guy to go out and do what he's always done, which is lead his team, and that has nothing to do with race."

The '99 group will continue to draw comparisons with the 1983 class, which featured quarterbacks Dan Marino, John Elway and Jim Kelly. But King said for those comparisons to stick, he and his counterparts can't be content with just getting to the playoffs.

"It'll say more if we go ahead and win it and get us some rings," King said. "It's one thing to make it, but the elite guys are guys who can carry their team through and get in the big game and win it.

"We'll see. If we stay healthy, hopefully this will become a regular thing."

-- Information from other news organizations was used in this report.

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