Nine black quarterbacks will start in Week 13, but who has the juice?
It’s not necessarily the number of quarterbacks who line up on any given week that’s a sign of progress
Raise of hands: Before Tuesday, how many of you realized Geno Smith was on the roster of the New York Giants?
Yes, Smith’s been pacing the sidelines for the disappointing Giants (2-9) this season. Now Smith, the former second-round pick who has played four games the past three seasons, gets to make NFL history. When he takes his first snap at the start of Sunday’s game at Oakland, the Giants will end their run as the only team never to start a black quarterback.
Smith will be one of nine black quarterbacks to start in Week 13. Have African-Americans finally broken through at a position they were long discouraged or blocked from playing because teams thought they lacked the smarts? Is the quarterback position in the NFL getting blacker?
Yes and no.
There have been at least 10 weeks (not counting Week 13) in which nine black quarterbacks have started for NFL teams since 2000, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That includes opening day in 2013 and as recently as Week 5 this season (Dak Prescott, Deshaun Watson, Cam Newton, EJ Manuel, Russell Wilson, Jacoby Brissett, Tyrod Taylor, Jameis Winston and DeShone Kizer).
In 2003, there were two weeks in which 10 black quarterbacks started: Jeff Blake, Michael Vick, Aaron Brooks, Kordell Stewart, Anthony Wright, Byron Leftwich, Steve McNair, Donovan McNabb, Daunte Culpepper and Quincy Carter.
Of the 10 instances of nine black starters, four were in 2000, one in 2003 (Week 12, before the number rose to 10 in Weeks 13 and 14) and four in 2013. Then there were fewer than nine black starters until Week 5 this season.
Considering there were five returning black starters heading into the 2017 NFL draft (Newton, Russell, Prescott, Winston and Taylor), the numbers appear to be trending upward.
But it’s not necessarily the number of black quarterbacks who line up on any given week that’s a sign of progress. It’s the number of players who have truly earned the right to run a team with the full trust of their organization.
“Will a team trust you enough to build around you?” is how former Pro Bowl quarterback Jeff Blake described true power at quarterback. “When Tom Brady talks, everybody listens. When Philip Rivers talks, everyone listens. The key question for a black quarterback is will you get that authority.”
That’s called having juice. Let’s take a look at the nine black quarterbacks who’ll play in Week 13, and see who has it:
100 percent pure juice
Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks
Let’s be real here: Who drafts a guy who might be 5-foot-11 with the thought he’d be a franchise quarterback? Certainly not the Seattle Seahawks, who picked up Wilson with a third-round pick with the thought that he could be the backup behind Matt Flynn, who signed a three-year deal worth $26 million just months before the draft.
But Wilson took the starting job in preseason of his rookie year and has had a stranglehold on it since. He threw for 3,118 yards and 26 touchdowns that first year, with the scoring passes tying the rookie record of Peyton Manning. His ability to extend plays gave the Seahawks a new dimension on offense, and it helped that he stepped into an offense where he could hand the ball off to Marshawn Lynch and throw to Doug Baldwin, Golden Tate and Zach Miller.
Wilson took the Seahawks to the playoffs in year one and helped the team win the Super Bowl in year two.
Let’s go through Wilson’s accomplishments:
- Super Bowl.
- Playoffs every season.
- Married Ciara.
That earns Wilson juice for life.
Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers
Unlike Wilson, Newton came to Carolina to be the top gun. You earn that level of instant respect when you’re 6-foot-5 with a strong arm and entering the league off a Heisman Trophy and national championship win.
But here’s the early-career difference between Wilson and Newton: While Wilson entered the league with a Seahawks team with a strong defense, in Newton’s first year (2011) the Panthers gave up 7.6 yards per pass attempt (worst in the league) and 6.2 yards per play (third worst).
That the Panthers improved to 6-10 (from 2-14 in 2019) had a lot to do with a versatile offense bolstered by the addition of Killer Cam. Newton threw for 4,051 yards (10th in the league) and 21 touchdowns. His favorite target was Steve Smith, who joined Newton in the Pro Bowl.
Newton was a rushing threat as well, with 706 yards. With running backs DeAngelo Williams (836) and Jonathan Stewart (761), the Panthers became the first team in NFL history to have three players run for more than 700 yards in a season.
Newton’s professional résumé is impressive: Super Bowl appearance, NFL MVP, three-time Pro Bowler. All while having a bunch of talented receivers come and go.
There’s one accomplishment that’ll get him juice for life stature: win a championship.
DAK PRESCOTT, Dallas Cowboys
The Dallas Cowboys drafted Prescott in the fourth round of 2016 intending to slowly groom him behind established starter Tony Romo. But Prescott started the regular-season opener after Romo suffered a vertebral compression fracture in the preseason, and he eventually led the Cowboys to the NFC East title with 3,667 passing yards and 29 touchdowns (23 passing and six rushing). Prescott was named the NFL’s Offensive Player of the Year and looked like the future.
It was all good just a year ago.
Last year for Prescott and the Cowboys: No Romo, no problem. This year: No Ezekiel Elliott, big problem.
As a possible Elliott suspension hung over the team like a cloud to start the season, Prescott — and the Cowboys — were sluggish during a 2-3 start. The Cowboys won three straight after the bye week and once again appeared a threat. But Elliott accepted his six-game suspension after a Nov. 5 win over the Chiefs, and the Cowboys dropped three straight before beating Washington, 38-14, on Thursday night.
Prescott’s stats in the first three games after Elliott was shut down? Five picks. Zero touchdowns.
He improved in Thursday’s win over Washington, throwing two touchdowns and no interceptions.
For Prescott’s sake, there’s a lot more to these final games than salvaging a winning season. The second-year quarterback has to prove he can thrive through adversity.
JAMEIS WINSTON, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Winston won a national championship and Heisman while at Florida State.
Three seasons in, Winston has shown signs he’s capable of being a very good quarterback. In his first year he passed for 4,042 yards, becoming the third rookie to pass for more than 4,000 yards in a season. In his second year he led the Buccaneers to their first winning record in six years (9-7) and became the first NFL quarterback to begin a career with two straight years of throwing for more than 4,000 yards.
But Winston still hasn’t reached the playoffs (Tampa Bay lost out in a tiebreaker last season). That likely won’t change this year for the Buccaneers (4-7) with Winston missing three straight games with a shoulder injury.
TYROD TAYLOR, Buffalo Bills
Tyrod Taylor signed as a free agent with Buffalo after playing behind Joe Flacco for four years in Baltimore (including the 2013 Super Bowl win over San Francisco). He signed with the Bills in 2015 and immediately won the starting role, playing well enough to earn a spot in the Pro Bowl (replacing Newton, who was playing in the Super Bowl).
But his status in Buffalo is tenuous at best. Two weeks ago the Bills lost a game to one of the hottest teams in the league, the New Orleans Saints, and afterward coach Sean McDermott benched Taylor for rookie Nathan Peterman, even though Taylor had led the Bills to a 5-2 start.
That move alone should have threatened McDermott’s job security, especially after Peterman threw five picks in the first half against the Los Angeles Chargers and was quickly yanked.
Taylor started the next week, leading the Bills to a 16-10 win at Kansas City. The Bills (6-5) still have a shot at the playoffs. But Taylor could be looking for a new home next season.
GENO SMITH, New York Giants
He’s on the roster of a dysfunctional team that gave up on the season long ago. The Giants are awful on offense, and that happens when a team loses two top receivers, Odell Beckham Jr. and Brandon Marshall, to injuries. Playing with few options at receiver and a barely-there offensive line, Eli Manning — who has started 210 straight NFL games, the second most in league history — has had his worst season since going 1-6 as a starter in his rookie season.
Enter Smith, who was a second-round pick by the Jets in 2013. He started for the Jets his first two seasons and in year two even recorded the only perfect passer rating in the NFL that season while passing for 358 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions in a win over Miami in the last game of the 2014 regular season.
The expected progress in year three never happened. Smith’s jaw was broken in a fight with teammate IK Enemkpali after a dispute over a $600 plane ticket. He’s played in four games since (one start).
The good news: These next few games can be a make-or-break stretch for Smith’s career.
The bad news: He’s playing for the Giants.
Brett Hundley, Green Bay Packers
Brett Hundley, drafted by the Packers (2015, fifth round) out of UCLA as a backup to Aaron Rodgers, was thrust into the starting lineup after the two-time NFL MVP suffered a broken right collarbone against the Minnesota Vikings on Oct. 15.
After a shaky first game (87 passing yards), Hundley appears to be getting more comfortable under center. He completed 17 of 26 passes for 245 yards and three touchdowns (with a career-best passer rating of 134.3) in Sunday’s loss on a last-second field goal at Pittsburgh.
But the Packers are 1-4 since Rodgers went down, and a lot has to do with the team’s offensive line, which has been hampered by injuries. If Hundley can play well, string together a few wins and keep the team in playoff contention until Rodgers returns (he can come back in Week 15), he might be able to earn an opportunity with another team, and away from being Rodgers’ backup for life.
JACOBY BRISSETT, INDIANAPOLIS COLTS
In January, Andrew Luck had what was described as a “simple labrum repair” by his coach, but he never quite healed. The Indianapolis Colts, desperate for a quarterback, got Jacoby Brissett from the Patriots in a trade just before the season. The thought at the time: Brissett, a third-round pick by the Patriots in 2016, would help hold the position down for a couple of weeks until Luck returned.
Luck never returned. He won’t return this year. Scott Tolzien started the season as quarterback but was replaced by Brissett in Week 2.
Brissett’s performance as a fill-in: rather average, and definitely not spectacular. He’s thrown only five interceptions this year and has more passing yards than Prescott, Marcus Mariota and Flacco.
He’s leading an offense that’s extremely average, especially in the second half of games, where the Colts rank 31st in second-half points (6.7) and last in red zone efficiency. The Colts rank 26th in the league in passing yards (2,214) and are tied for last in the league in passing touchdowns (nine) and 24th in rushing yards (1,048). Their quarterbacks have been sacked the most of any team in the league (47).
In other words, they’re playing like a team that can’t wait to get to next season.
But, like Smith in New York, Brissett is playing for a lot more in the remaining games of the regular season.
DeShone Kizer, Cleveland Browns
All Kizer had to do was beat out Brock Osweiler in the preseason to win the starting spot.
That was the easy part.
The hard part is playing for a bad team. Kizer, a second-round pick this season, started the first four games, was replaced by Kevin Hogan in game five and regained his starting position the next week.
Cleveland has remained bad through all the change. The Browns are 25th in passing yards (2,231), tied for last in touchdown passes (nine) and have thrown a league-high 20 interceptions (14 by Kizer, who is the individual leader).
And to think: The Browns could have drafted Deshaun Watson. Or signed Colin Kaepernick.
Kizer did have his best game of the season in Sunday’s loss at Cincinnati with 268 passing yards and no picks.
Should we judge Kizer’s future as a viable NFL quarterback by what’s happened to him in Cleveland this year?
We shouldn’t. But they (team owners) will.
Advice to Kizer: Ball out.