When the late Steve McNair came into the NFL, he carried the nickname of “Air McNair.” The moniker was well-earned. His college career at Alcorn State saw him set the FCS division record with nearly 14,500 passing yards.
The Houston Oilers saw McNair’s ability to put the ball in the air as well as push the ball downfield with his legs. Houston drafted him with the third overall pick in 1995.
As the 20th century came to a close, National Football League offenses still preferred pocket passers over those throwing while in motion or running with the ball. Randall Cunningham was a successful exception.
McNair can rightfully be credited with helping define the 21st century quarterback. By 1999 the Titans had a potent offense despite McNair throwing only 12 touchdowns all year.
That same year, he ran for 337 yards and eight touchdowns as his team, known by then as the Tennessee Titans, advanced to their first Super Bowl. Tennessee fell one yard short of getting the tying score against the St. Louis Rams on the last play of the game.
Within five years, Donovan McNabb used his similar skills to lead the Philadelphia Eagles to the Super Bowl. More recently, Russell Wilson was turned loose to join with Marshawn Lynch to give the Seattle Seahawks an effective rushing and passing game.
Wilson became only the second black quarterback to hoist the Lombardi Trophy after helping Seattle win Super Bowl 48. He would have had another last year had he been told to hand the ball to Lynch at the goal line in the closing seconds. New England’s opportunistic Malcolm Butler picked off Wilson’s ill-advised slant pass to steal the victory.
Until Wilson, former Buccaneers’ quarterback Doug Williams was the only black quarterback to win a Super Bowl. Playing as a traditional pocket passer, Williams threw for 340 yards and four touchdowns to lead Washington to a 42-10 romp over Denver in Super Bowl XXII
Which brings us to Carolina’s Cam Newton. If McNair, McNabb and Wilson helped redefine 21st century NFL offenses, Newton is setting the gold standard.
Newton is big, strong and agile while also possessing a strong football IQ. Despite losing receiver Kelvin Benjamin to a preseason knee injury, Newton piled up 35 touchdown passes and ran for 10 more.
Newton also likes to enjoy himself on the field. Some of his celebrations or responses to success are not sitting well with some. He thinks race may be behind some of the criticism.
It may be, but that is their problem. Panthers’ opponents, and their fans, have much bigger problems with which to deal.
“I’m an African-American quarterback that may scare a lot of people because they haven’t seen nothing they can compare me to,” said Newton.
It is a 100 percent certainty that opposing defensive coordinators agree that there is nothing to which they can compare the package possessed by Newton. The other stuff is immaterial.
The NFL has tried to legislate against spontaneous displays of celebration on the field. Some describe the NFL as the No Fun League. They have a point.
Newton has improved upon the successful model of the NFL quarterback. Head coaches and defensive coordinators are now tasked with innovating new defenses to stop him. That’s the best way to stop the celebrating.
It’s your turn, Denver.