On Aug. 8, 1971, superstar quarterback Joe Namath threw a pass that was intercepted in a meaningless preseason game. Namath reacted by trying to tackle the opposing player. He promptly blew out his knee, and his team's season was ruined. Asked why, given the game's low stakes, he didn't simply refrain from hurling his body in front of the runaway linebacker, Namath responded: "I only know how to play football one way - at full speed."
Interestingly, Namath wasn't widely pilloried for exhibiting poor judgment; instead, he was admired for being a great competitor and leader. I thought of that anecdote all off-season, as pundit after pundit pressured Michael Vick to effectively renounce his signature style of playing at full speed by pledging that he'd no longer play such a scrambling, high-risk and high-reward game. Even the Pundit-in-Chief got in on the act when President Obama opined that Vick should safely slide when being chased by defenders, instead of diving headfirst in an effort to aggressively capture as many yards as possible.
After last week's poor showing in the Eagles' season opener, the chorus got even louder. On TV, on the Web, on radio, and, yes, in these pages, pundit after pundit trotted out the conventional wisdom: Vick needs to become a "pocket passer," and he needs to "throw the ball away" when no one is open instead of scrambling - lest he get hurt. One sportswriter wrote that Vick scrambles "without caution" and that "bravado takes over and common sense is tossed into the breeze."
We've seen this movie before, folks. Nearly a quarter of a century ago, virtually the same point of view was widely expressed about Randall Cunningham's style of play, to the point that Cunningham - feeling constrained - took to wearing a hat that read: "Let Me Be Me." Seven years ago, Donovan McNabb reacted to the same popular platitudes by actually remaking himself into a pocket passer. He even had a sociopolitical rationale for it: "Everybody expects black quarterbacks to scramble."
That's when things got even weirder. Jerry Mondesire, head of the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP, raised eyebrows when he wrote a column calling McNabb "mediocre" and accusing the quarterback of "concocted reasoning that African American quarterbacks who can scramble and who can run the ball are somehow lesser field generals . . . [which] is more insulting off the field than on."
Mondesire (whose football critique of McNabb back then looks prescient in retrospect) watched last Sunday's game and saw a quarterback who seemed tentative and rattled by the calls for him to be more careful. "I hope they let him play his game," Mondesire says. "He's a running quarterback. He should scramble when that's the best way to advance the play."
For years, football's discussion about race and the quarterbacking position has been loaded with code words. (White quarterbacks are smart or tough; blacks are natural athletes.) But what we talk about when we talk about Vick's game needs to get beyond that subtle racial lexicon. Whether the subject is Namath or Vick, we need a new way to consider what it means to be smart in sports.
"Michael Vick taking advantage of his athletic talents on the football field is the literal definition of intelligence in action," says Wharton professor Ken Shropshire, whom I called because he's both smart - a lawyer and Ivy League professor - and a former athlete, having been an offensive lineman at Stanford University. He also happens to be African American. "What would lack common sense would be Vick trying to become something he isn't. That would deny his team his unique strengths."
If you accept Shropshire's analysis, as I do, then all the punditry boils down to this specious thesis: It's dumb for Mike Vick to be a smart football player. As Shropshire points out, and as we've seen, Vick's running ability helps his team. That's why, during last Sunday's game at Cleveland, the announcer said Browns' defensive coordinator Dick Jauron was hoping Vick would try to limit himself to pocket passing. That would make him easier to contain. For the most part, Vick and the Eagles' game plan played into Jauron's hands.
I'll cop to my bias here: As a fan, I love Vick's open-field moves. They're exciting to watch and a nice, jazzlike improvisational moment in an often too highly regimented setting. But they're also successful. Throughout sports, his type of high-risk, high-reward style has long reaped results as a weapon of intimidation. In the '60s and early '70s, it was Namath's gunslinging. In the '80s, it was John McEnroe literally charging the net on every point. In the '90s, it was Rickey Henderson, driving pitchers to distraction on the base paths. And in the early 2000s, it was Allen Iverson, at all of 5-foot-11, challenging behemoths in the lane and under the boards. No one ever said any of these sui generis talents lacked common sense for playing as in-your-face as they did, and certainly no one coddled them by urging them to play with more caution in order to avoid a boo-boo.
Football is a tough game, and Vick may indeed get injured. If he does, I'd like to see him go down playing his game, which also happens to be the Eagles' best chance of winning. Here's hoping that, today, Vick literally throws caution to the wind - and runs.