The Quarterback (R)Evolution: Part Four – McNabb and Culpepper


1999 saw quarterbacks go 1-2-3 with the top three picks. Tim Couch was out of the league in a few years and Akili Smith was a bust from the start.

Two high draft picks were used on athletic black quarterbacks as Donovan McNabb was drafted second overall (Philadelphia Eagles) while Duante Culpepper was drafted 11th overall by the Minnesota Vikings. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Randall Cunningham played almost all of his career with those particular two teams…his success was undoubtedly a factor in each franchise’s decision to use a top draft pick on a….*GASP*…black quarterback(!!)

Yes, only 13 years ago many teams were still reluctant to put a heavy investment in such a person. In fairness, part of the reason for the lack of prospects was…the lack of prospects. You just didn’t find AS MANY black QBs at top schools like you do today. As I said in a previous post in this series, winning trumps ALL ELSE in the NFL, but they just didn’t have all that many data points to point at and work with. Sure…Randall Cunningham’s career was winding down by now, but he’d had quite a successful one and Kordell Stewart’s up and down play had not proven the point on many owners and General Managers, despite Doug Williams having already won a Super Bowl with the Redskins.

1999 marks the break point in my mind between the “old thinking” and the new because of those two draft choices.

McNabb was a linebacker in quarterback’s clothing at 6’2″ 240 pounds. Culpepper was even more imposing, having tight end size at 6’4″ and 260 pounds. They could also move and their size made it difficult for defenders to bring down. These two guys were huge compared to most quarterbacks the league had seen so far.

Donovan McNabb was known for having a strong arm, some scrambling ability, and strength to take hits and evade/buy time to throw from his days at Syracuse. Culpepper was a slightly riskier choice, having attended South Florida, but the Eagles and Vikings pulled the trigger and each guy became NFL rookies with those teams after the first round of the draft.

However, the idea that a QB – ANY QB – could or should start as a rookie was still an alien one to everyone. Black, white, big school, small school, it didn’t matter. If you were a rookie QB, a head coach was NOT going to completely hand you the keys to his offense. With a few past exceptions aside, things just didn’t work like that at the time.

One of said exceptions was Peyton Manning, the overall top pick of the draft the previous year. He was a walking exception, having the “pedigree” of his father, former Saints QB Archie Manning, and Peyton had a great career at Tennessee. Even with all he had going for him, the team went 3-13 his rookie season and the Colts let him go through his growing pains on the field. While he had a very impressive 26 TD passes as a rookie, he had 28 interceptions and that’s a boatload of picks to throw. So, the bar stayed fairly low.

In 1999, Culpepper didn’t attempt a pass, but McNabb started 6 games (notice the small number of rookie starts there) and completed just 49.1% of his passes for 948 yards, 8 TDs and 7 INTs. The TD/INT ratio was decent, but his average/attempt at 4.4 was atrocious. That’s likely due to his inexperience and checking down when he may not have had to.

In 2000, both 2nd-year QBs had magnificent seasons. Donovan McNabb threw for 3,365 yards with 21 TDs to 13 INTs. Culpepper performed even better with the help of a couple of guys named Randy Moss and Cris Carter. Culpepper threw for an astonishing 3,937 yards with 33 TDs and 16 INTS – a better than 2 to 1 ratio. McNabb had a more consistent career, keeping his interception total pretty low, while Culpepper was a bit more erratic but both led winning teams that were perennial playoff contenders.

By 2011, both QBs careers were either finished or nearly so and their stats and winning ways were now historical fact, not theory.

Next…Michael Vick

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