Up Next

Locker Room Talk

Hall of Famer Warren Moon says the future is Patrick Mahomes

Black quarterback pioneer Marlin Briscoe and Kansas City head coach Andy Reid see it too

On Sunday, Patrick Mahomes became the last of five African-American quarterbacks to be eliminated from this season’s NFL playoffs.

Mahomes, 23, and the Kansas City Chiefs fell to Tom Brady, 41, and the New England Patriots, 37-31, inside a sold-out Arrowhead Stadium. Brady and Jared Goff, the Los Angeles Rams’ young quarterback, will face off Feb. 3 in Super Bowl LIII.

We call the NFL a copycat league. In some minds, the presence of two traditional, dropback white quarterbacks will validate the efficacy of tradition over the run-pass-option style that has accented the skills of black quarterbacks. In reality, the exit of Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson, Dak Prescott and Russell Wilson merely puts off the inevitable.

In the next five to 10 years, it’s likely that at least half of the starting quarterbacks in the NFL will be African-American or quarterbacks of color. They will play a wide-open style, combining pocket passing with exhilarating creativity on the run.

“I think it could, because the game is changing,” said Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon. “This RPO-type quarterback is really what’s taking over in the NFL right now, and it fits right into what our skill set is because we have the ability to run and pass.”

Moon, who played in Canada from 1978 to 1984 and in the NFL from 1984 to 2000, has seen the evolution in the NFL. He was part of it.

“It used to be pass, pass, pass, and if you had the ability to run, you ran,” he said.

In today’s NFL game, quarterbacks are being integrated into the running attack with designed runs for quarterbacks, black and white.

“But the African-American is still going to be able to do it better,” Moon said. “I just think in time you’re going to see closer to half the starters in the league will be black.”

If you think that’s a wild prediction, there was a time when critics said blacks could not play “thinking” positions such as free safety, middle linebacker, center, guard and left tackle. As winning and profits from winning trumped racism, opportunities expanded. The same will happen at quarterback.

Moon was passed over in the draft because scouts believed his style of play was too athletic. “In some ways, the athleticism can penalize you, and it did. For many, many years, African-American quarterbacks, if they were too good of an athlete, they were either put in another position, like Marlin Briscoe, or because you’re an athlete, they don’t think you can be a patient pocket passer, that you’re going to be too impatient and make things happen with your legs. So you’re considered a scrambler.”

Moon added: “Now with defenses as athletic as they are and defensive ends at 260 and 250 [pounds] who can run like deer, you’ve got to be able to avoid people. That’s where we’re going to be much more valuable because of our athleticism. But we still have to be able to throw the football from the pocket, and we’re getting better at that too.”

Moon pointed to Wilson, Prescott and Cam Newton, Deshaun Watson and, of course, Mahomes also exemplify the ability to do both.

Andy Reid and the evolution AT QB

Earlier this week, I asked Kansas City head coach Andy Reid whether he thought the success of Mahomes signaled a permanent dawn of a new era, despite the presence of Brady and Goff in next week’s Super Bowl. To put the question in context, I related a recent conversation with Baltimore Ravens rookie Jackson, who described how a member of the Los Angeles Chargers coaching staff asked whether he would consider changing positions.

“I’ve never looked at it that way. I never plan on looking at it that way,” Reid said, referring to stereotyping of black quarterbacks with talent. Since I was asking a coded question, Reid gave a coded answer, but we both knew what the other meant.

“I don’t see that kind of thing. We’re all the same in my eyes. We’re a team,” Reid said. “I was a big fan of Warren Moon, Shack [Harris] before that, all these guys who have come up and played. I know times may have been a little bit different then, but I’ve never heard that — you see it, so now I don’t think it’s even a question. And that’s a beautiful thing.”

Reid’s answer was the response of a soon-to-be-61-year-old NFL lifer who has not only seen the evolution at football’s most glamorous position but has also been an intricate part of a fair-minded process that helped it along.

Reid’s personal timeline mirrors the arc of progress in the NFL. He was born in Los Angeles and was 10 years old in September 1968 when Briscoe became the first black quarterback to start an American Football League game. Reid was a junior at L.A.’s John Marshall High in 1974 when James “Shack” Harris led the Rams to a playoff victory over Washington. Harris became the first African-American to start a playoff game.

He was the offensive line coach at UTEP in 1988 when Doug Williams became the first African-American quarterback to win the Super Bowl. Reid was the head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles in 2006 when Moon became the first black quarterback to be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. A year earlier, Donovan McNabb, an African-American quarterback, took Reid’s Eagles to the Super Bowl.

In 2009, Reid was part of the decision to bring Michael Vick to the Eagles after Vick served prison time for dogfighting. At the time, the Eagles had two black quarterbacks. Now Reid has young Mahomes, who is likely to be named league MVP next week.

Change is inevitable.

“I think because the colleges are throwing the ball so much, all the spread options throwing the football, you’re seeing guys out there slinging it,” Reid said. “And it doesn’t matter if you’re running the read-option or not, you know the kids can throw the ball and you can evaluate them as throwers. That’s the most important change that’s taken place in the NFL in my eyes, as opposed to any color barrier. There are more opportunities to sling the ball, and that’s always been a part of the NFL game in recent years.”

Marlin Briscoe forced to play wide receiver

Briscoe watched Mahomes go toe-to-toe with Brady on Sunday.

“I was pulling for him to pull it out,” Briscoe said from his home in Long Beach, California.

Briscoe was a year younger than Mahomes is now when he was asked to step in at quarterback in September 1968 and rescue the Denver Broncos’ season after the starter got hurt and the backup proved ineffective. Like Mahomes, Briscoe wore No. 15. As the star quarterback at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, Briscoe was called “Marlin the Magician.” No-look passes, left-hand passes, passes on the run, running for first downs — all were part of his repertoire.

Briscoe was taken in the 14th round of the 1968 draft and immediately switched to defensive back. He was a starting cornerback until he was injured. While he was on the mend, Denver began having quarterback problems. On Sept. 29, 1968, Briscoe went in as a substitute. He got his first start on Oct. 6, 1968.

Briscoe never got to play quarterback in a playoff game, although the reality was that every game he started with Denver in 1968 was like a playoff game. He was fighting for his career every time out. He won four of the first five games but lost five of the last six while setting a rookie record for the Broncos with 14 touchdowns. Today, he would receive a second chance to play quarterback.

After the season, the Broncos brought in a quarterback from Canada, making it clear they had no intention of allowing Briscoe to compete for a quarterback spot. Briscoe asked for his release, got it and eventually landed with Buffalo. But the Bills needed Briscoe as a wide receiver because they had quarterbacks, including a rookie from Grambling: Harris.

Briscoe, who is in the College Football Hall of Fame, had a tremendous career as a receiver, winning two Super Bowl rings with the Miami Dolphins and leading the undefeated 1972 Dolphins team in touchdown receptions. He still wonders “what if.” What if quarterbacks like himself, Joe Gilliam and Eldridge Dickey had been given a fair opportunity — or, better yet, had come along today?

Like Reid, Moon, Harris and others, Briscoe is gratified to see that, by and large, anyone who can play quarterback will at least be given the opportunity.

Mahomes, Jackson, Wilson, Prescott and Watson were disconsolate after their playoff losses, but they know they will not be benched, traded, cut or switched to another position. They know they can look forward to being the faces of their respective franchises.

Mahomes may soon be the face of the league.

“Mahomes is going to be, possibly, the heir apparent to Brady at some point down the road,” Briscoe said.

The difference between Brady and Mahomes? “Systems,” Briscoe said. “They’re both cerebral in their approach to the game.

“As far as talent goes, Mahomes is such a gifted athlete. Brady is the grand master. Brady is confident and cocky. He’s a great player who plays in a great system.”

Like Briscoe with his undefeated Dolphins team, Brady is also buoyed by a history of success.

“When we took the field, we knew that we were going to win,” Briscoe said. “Brady has that experience and he has history, and that’s the difference between him and Mahomes.”

Mahomes and the other African-American quarterbacks have history too. It tells them that Moon’s prediction of 16 starting African-American starters in the next decade will unfold.

This contemporary class of black quarterbacks can draw inspiration from predecessors who tried to play the position, who played the position and who are transforming the position.

This is not change. It’s evolution.

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of “Forty Million Dollar Slaves,” is a writer-at-large for The Undefeated. Contact him at william.rhoden@espn.com.