NFC North: McNair story

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

Hopefully some of you caught Cris Carter's appearance during ESPN's weekend coverage of Steve McNair's death. Carter made a nuanced point about McNair's role in the progress of black quarterbacks, one I think bears repeating in this forum.

 
  Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images
  The Houston Oilers selected Steve McNair No. 3 overall in 1995.

Certainly, the NFL had witnessed successful black quarterbacks long before Houston drafted McNair in 1995. Hall of Famer Warren Moon, for one, left the Canadian Football League in 1984 and actually preceded McNair in Houston. Randall Cunningham spent parts of 10 seasons as Philadelphia's quarterback, and there are a number of other examples. (Tampa Bay drafted Doug Williams No. 17 overall in 1978, but the Buccaneers' refusal to pay him a competitive salary eventually prompted him to leave for the USFL.)

But, Carter said, McNair was the best early example of a black quarterback whose small(er)-college passing success was accepted at face value by an NFL team. Although McNair was also a productive scrambler at Division I-AA Alcorn State, the then-Oilers believed he could develop into an NFL-caliber passer and staked the No. 3 overall pick in the draft on it. (Remember, he was known as "Air McNair" in college.)

McNair played on some run-oriented teams in Houston, Tennessee and Baltimore and thus never threw for more than 3,387 yards in a season. But despite his mobility, McNair was always known as a passing quarterback who could run. And when his failing body began limiting his mobility after the age of 30, McNair extended his career by developing into one of the league's best clutch passers.

McNair's success paved the way for players like Daunte Culpepper, who put up stellar passing numbers at then-I-AA Central Florida in the late 1990s. Like McNair, Culpepper was a big and physical specimen who nonetheless was a passer before anything else. (Culpepper, in fact, set a single-season NCAA record by completing 73.6 percent of his passes in 1998.)

Despite Central Florida's second-tier status at the time, Minnesota jumped on Culpepper with the No. 11 overall pick of the 1999 draft. There was a time, Carter said, when NFL teams were hesitant to invest a high draft pick in a player of Culpepper's background. McNair made that hesitation a non-issue. Viewed through the eyes of Carter, McNair peeled away another layer of quarterback bias: That a black quarterback's college passing success was the result of skill that translated to the NFL rather than simple athleticism.

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