Welcome to the Year of the Black Quarterback
This is week zero of a new NFL. The reigning MVP is a black quarterback, the highest-paid player in league history is a black QB, the No. 1 overall draft pick is a black signal-caller, multiple franchises have black men as their face who are also in line for new deals in excess of $100 million. After decades of being blocked, black folk have changed the NFL under center, and the league will never be the same.
Quarterback was once the one roster spot off-limits to black players. For most of the league’s history, the language wasn’t even coded: Black people weren’t smart enough or tough enough or courageous enough to lead. But that narrative didn’t fit the facts. As the NFL grew from zero percent black at its genesis to nearly 70% 100 years later, generations of now hidden black men couldn’t let that stand. Never forget: Breaking down barriers is what we do. We didn’t ask for this path but we don’t shirk in the face of it either.
Even so, don’t get it twisted. The ascent of the black quarterback doesn’t signal that the NFL is now a colorblind utopia. The next owner who provides a full-throated endorsement of any player, let alone a starting quarterback, who protests against police brutality and systemic oppression before games will be the first. Colin Kaepernick should have an opportunity to show where he belongs within this quorum. The most famous black quarterback in the world hasn’t played in nearly three years. Kap serves as a reminder that The Year of the Black Quarterback isn’t simply a matter of talent and determination, winning and losing, dollars and sense. It is still a struggle to be black and stay under center — a fight that can be lost simply because the playing ground still isn’t equal.
Still, there’s much to commentate. In interviews with The Undefeated, more than 20 current and former NFL executives, coaches, players and scholars said that black quarterbacks will never again be marginalized as they were for most of the NFL’s history.
A franchise quarterback is the face of his team. Unitas. Namath. Bradshaw. Staubach. Montana. Marino. Elway. Aikman. Manning. Rodgers. Brady. The LeBrons of the NFL. All, at one time or another, the leading icons of the nation’s most popular sport. And all white men. Now, add these young brothers to the list: Wilson, Mahomes, Jackson, Prescott, Watson.
It’s all about Williams and the Benjamins
Of course, this generation of black passers isn’t the first to have shined.
Warren Moon is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Randall Cunningham, because of his exceptional achievements both passing and running, was dubbed “The Ultimate Weapon.” Long before Russell Wilson topped the salary chart, Michael Vick once held the mark for guaranteed money. It’s just that never before have so many black men at the position been at the top rung of the league — or rising — at the same time.
Hue Jackson, a former NFL head coach, offensive coordinator and quarterback coach, said it was bound to happen, that today’s franchise black quarterbacks have completed the work begun by their predecessors. And, he added, that’s exactly the way it should work.
“These young guys have looked to the guys who came before them,” Jackson said. “They saw what they went through and still succeeded, and they said to themselves, ‘We want to take advantage of every opportunity we have.’ ”
“Count on it,” Wilson said. Seattle’s veteran superstar has benefited so much from the hard work of others to even consider slowing down.
“It’s amazing what the quarterbacks before me did to help give me an opportunity,” Wilson said. “Doug Williams, being the first to win a Super Bowl. Michael Vick, the first [to be drafted No. 1 overall]. Randall Cunningham. Donovan McNabb. There are so many who helped open doors for me and other guys in the game today. [Now], it’s really about how we play. It’s really about how we lead. It’s really about that [performance]. It’s about the business. So the question today really is: Can we help run the business? And the answer is that we’ve been able to show we can.
“And we do it very successfully.”
This generation of black play-callers has more in common than accolades, melanin and role models. Each player has taken full advantage of two cataclysmic changes in the NFL.
The first and ultimately the one largely responsible for such significant change in the NFL is what spurs movement in most situations: money.
Even after professional football’s unofficial ban on black players was lifted in 1946, teams still blocked African Americans from playing quarterback. The wrongheaded thinking of the white men who controlled the league went like this: Black men lacked the intelligence, leadership skills and toughness for the job. Credit Doug Williams, the onetime star passer at historically black powerhouse Grambling State, for changing much of the thinking, albeit slowly, about whether black men could win from the pocket in the NFL. The first black quarterback selected in the first round of the NFL draft back in 1978, Williams also was the first to guide a team to a Super Bowl victory and win the game’s MVP award.
But despite Williams’ transcendent performance, which for many African Americans ranks just below Jackie Robinson breaking Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1947, he remained the only black quarterback picked in the first round of the NFL draft for a span of 12 years. Kyler Murray, the Heisman Trophy winner out of Oklahoma on whom the Arizona Cardinals are relying to revive their franchise, learned about the difficult history of black quarterbacks from his father, Kevin, who was a star at the position at Texas A&M in the mid-1980s.
“My dad dealt with that. Guys from his [generation], and definitely before, yeah, they knew they had to deal with that. We’ve talked about it,” said Murray, the first player to ever be selected in the first round of both the NFL and MLB drafts. “There just weren’t a lot of black quarterbacks back then.
“Obviously, there were a lot of guys capable of playing quarterback, guys like my dad, but there weren’t a lot in the NFL. That’s just the way it was. It was just the level of, I don’t want to say scrutiny, there are definitely other words, because it was more than that. But for black quarterbacks, it was definitely tougher in the past.”
But as millions became billions of dollars in annual revenue generated from the league’s contracts with its broadcast partners and corporate sponsors, the NFL became a league where coaches, and in some cases general managers, too, have deals that pay out many millions annually in salary, bonuses and perks. For that type of investment in their football people, owners expect big results. Quickly. Green has, generally, begun to trump black.
“With the money involved now, if you’re a coach or a GM, you’ve got about three years to win. You have to get as many players who can help you win as quickly as possible,” said James “Shack” Harris, the former NFL quarterback and pro personnel director who helped build the Baltimore Ravens’ 2001 Super Bowl championship team. He witnessed the change firsthand.
“If there’s a black player out there who’s a great quarterback, [the NFL] won’t pass on him. It’s not like before. In the past, you’d hear, ‘Well, what other position can we put him at?’ ” Harris, who’s also among Grambling State’s football legends, continued. “But everyone wants that player as a quarterback now. Everyone will try to get that player because everyone is trying to win. You have to win to keep your job. It’s as simple as that.”
Revenge of the defense
Except. This is football. And reality is, there are more black faces at quarterback because the ones on defense keep getting bigger, stronger and faster. Oh, so much faster. Dominance is begetting dominance.
In the 1980s and ’90s, the performance of Hall of Fame edge-rushers turned up the heat to white hot. Increasingly, coaches had to become willing to think outside the box and place more importance on quarterback mobility if they wanted to move the ball.
Harry Edwards, the legendary sports activist and professor emeritus of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, closely observed the evolutionary process and said teams had to address the problems caused by brilliant defense.
“I’ve been around the NFL for 33 years now,” said Edwards, also a longtime San Francisco 49ers adviser. “And when you’ve suddenly got the Lawrence Taylors and the Charles Haleys and guys like that coming at the quarterback, it’s not enough to just have a pocket presence and be able to step up in the pocket. You’ve got to have escapability. Those guys gave us the black quarterback in the NFL just as surely as the lion gave the antelope his speed.”
The overall landscape prompted coaches to build better mousetraps, opening more opportunities for passers who don’t possess the prototypical measurements for the position. Take Murray, for instance.
Twenty years ago, a quarterback whose height was measured at slightly above 5 feet, 10 inches during the NFL scouting combine would not have been the No. 1 overall pick. In unison, the league’s talent evaluators would have said, “He’s too short.” But you know who’s only about an inch taller than Murray? Wilson. Nowadays, it’s all about a quarterback’s overall skill set.
“It’s not what you look like, or really about just one type of quarterback anymore. It’s about how you play and if you can help a team win. Period,” Murray said. “The league is more open to guys who maybe don’t have the [prototypical] size, or what everyone used to think an NFL quarterback should look like, and understanding that there are different ways to win.”
Several defensive players interviewed by The Undefeated said they could envision a time in the future when quarterbacks who are more proficient at running than passing are the norm in the NFL. They argue that New England’s Tom Brady, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees and Green Bay Packers signal-caller Aaron Rodgers are the last of a breed, and that the classic pocket passers behind them won’t be as successful.
Washington’s Williams, however, said not so fast.
“Let me tell you something: In this league, you’ll always – and I mean always – have to drop back, be able to understand what you’re seeing and throw the football,” he said. “That’s never going to change.”
That established, in today’s NFL, any offensive-minded coach worth his salt would revel in working with a signal-caller who has top-notch skills as both a passer and a runner. Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay gets pumped just thinking about it.
“One of the things that we always try to do, and I know that’s definitely a trend in the NFL, is that everybody is striving to create their edge and to adapt and to evolve. You can never get complacent,” said McVay, the 2017 AP NFL Coach of the Year. “You never lose the foundational things or the fundamentals that help you win games. But from a schematic standpoint … you can certainly get creative using guys as run threats.
“If a quarterback has the ability to extend plays off schedule, so now the time that you have to cover [receivers] compared to when guys are kind of static, dropback quarterbacks sitting in that one spot, well, then you’ve got a lot more multiplicity and variety to put pressure on a defense. Is he gonna run it? Is he gonna throw it? Those are plays that enable you to let some longer-developing routes occur. There are just so many more ways that mobile quarterbacks can stretch a defense and help you win games. That’s what we’re all in the business of doing. And there’s one guy who really influenced the thinking on this.”
Then came Vick
If Williams proved that black quarterbacks could succeed at a championship level, Vick inspired the league to reimagine what was possible from the position.
The Virginia Tech star left-hander was a top prospect entering the 2001 NFL draft. No black quarterback had ever been chosen with the No. 1 overall pick until the Atlanta Falcons traded with the then-San Diego Chargers to move up and select him first overall, marking a milestone for black passers.
Jason Campbell, a first-round draft pick in 2005 after quarterbacking Auburn to a perfect 13-0 record as a senior, believes he and others later benefited from the barrier Vick toppled that day.
“You’ve got to understand that, at that time, Mike Vick was the man,” said Campbell, who went on to have a nine-year career with five NFL teams. “We [younger black quarterbacks] used to watch him play and be like, ‘Man. Look at his game.’ Just the way he played.”
On the field, Vick dazzled while often improvising, playing, many black NFL observers have said, unapologetically black. Style, flamboyance, swagger – pick a word. Vick oozed them all.
“I was just playing the way I played,” Vick said. “But I knew it was different.”
Vick’s story in Atlanta closed with his stunning fall from grace: He served 18 months in a federal prison for his role in a dogfighting operation.
A vocal animal rights advocate, Vick speaks often with children and teenagers, trying to help them stay on the right path. In 2010, he won the Associated Press NFL Comeback Player of the Year Award as a member of the Philadelphia Eagles, which also gave him a lucrative contract extension. It’s true that Vick never became an elite pocket passer. For black quarterbacks, however, the importance of his legacy is undeniable.
Before Vick, the term “dual-threat quarterback” was often used with derision in the NFL. As the Rams’ McVay previously explained, that’s no longer the case.
In the 83-year history of the NFL draft, only 22 black signal-callers have been chosen in the first round. But since Vick was picked first, 15 more have been selected, including four more at No. 1 overall. Murray thanks Vick for kicking the door wide open.
“What teams saw watching him is that there are guys who can help them win in different ways. It just doesn’t all have to be one way,” the Arizona rookie said. “And then they started looking for all kinds of” quarterbacks.
Entertainment mogul Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter was repeatedly asked that at a news conference to announce his company’s controversial deal with the NFL to lead its endeavors in music and entertainment, including producing the Super Bowl halftime show. Previously an outspoken ally of Kaepernick, who has became a polarizing figure after protesting police brutality and systemic oppression before games during the 2016 season, Carter was roundly criticized on social media as being disloyal for partnering with the league while the onetime Super Bowl starter still remains unsigned.
Despite the obvious strides made by black quarterbacks, how should that progress be measured while also weighing the fact that a talented African American passer has been shut out of the game – going on three seasons now – for, apparently, all the wrong reasons? On many levels, “Where’s Kap?” is a question that must also be concurrently explored, University of Southern California professor Todd Boyd said.
“What has been happening with black quarterbacks in the NFL has been building for a while. When they made Vick the first overall pick, it really signaled a shift, and this is great to see,” said Boyd, who focuses in race in popular culture.
“What distinguishes sports from other walks of life is that it’s, generally, about merit, competition and excelling on the field on play. When you get into these other areas of society, it’s more abstract,” Boyd said. “You go and play football and you’re successful, somebody is going to give you a shot because it could potentially benefit them. And if you reach a point where this stigma around black quarterbacks is gone, then you’re going to see a proliferation of black quarterbacks.
“Now, if you’re talking about, say, journalism or finance or academia or other aspects of society, it’s not as easy to define success. If it were as easy to demonstrate as a journalist that you were Patrick Mahomes, or Russell Wilson or Dak Prescott, there would be a lot more black journalists. If it were easy to demonstrate as a professor that you were the Cam Newton of professors in a clear-cut way, the same way we determine MVPs and Super Bowl winners, there would be a lot more black professors. But that’s not how it works in these other areas. In sports, it’s about what did you accomplish in a way that’s easier to define than in other areas.”
Progress often occurs slowly. That was the story of black NFL quarterbacks. But the combination of both ever increasing speed on defense and palpable pressure on coaches to win brings the bigger picture in focus: The opening for black passers was born out of alarming necessity. It’s fair to ask whether it would have occurred if not for the seismic changes that took place on defense and in the game’s financial fortunes.
All kinds of quarterbacks
With so many black superstar quarterbacks currently in highly visible leadership positions, there’s definitely a larger discussion to be had about larger cultural effects, Princeton University professor Eddie Glaude Jr. believes. Can black quarterbacks of any number tell us anything about race in America? Glaude, who teaches religion and African American studies, said the rise of the black quarterback in the NFL is analogous to the potential of a nation that embraces the talents of all of its inhabitants. “The basic point to be made is that the country has never, in interesting sorts of ways, reached its fullest potential because it has never allowed all of its talent on the field,” he said. “When who’s on the field is determined by talent and ability, we rise to the occasion. And the nation wins.”
USC’s Boyd agrees. Of course, there are challenges to replicating the rise of the black quarterback in the NFL in society at large. “If we lived in a truly just society, Colin Kaepernick would be on somebody’s team. We’re talking about a guy who took a No. 1 overall pick’s spot when he [beat out] Alex Smith in San Francisco.”
But for the men who cleared the path, no matter the hurdles remaining, this moment in the NFL is still sweet. And for Moon, the black quarterback with a bust in Canton, Ohio, it’s not about “Why now?” but “What next?”
Williams showed the world exactly how high a smart, tough and brave black man standing in pocket could bring a entire franchise. Thirty-one years after, the note that Wilson is the game’s top earner and a Super Bowl winner isn’t even what’s most interesting about him. Dude is married to Ciara. For a good stretch now, Dak Prescott has been balling out while leading “America’s Team.” You know what you could call him? The New Captain America.
If not for Patrick Mahomes, MVP, everyone would be saying that Deshaun Watson would be the next to carry the banner. Lamar Jackson took a former Super Bowl MVP’s job. Then, Jackson proved he deserved it. That earthquake the Indianapolis Colts recently received? Franchise says it has no fear because Jacoby Brissett is there. Murray has the look of a potential franchise savior. Makes sense that he was the No. 1 overall pick.
When Moon crosses paths with old friends Williams and Harris, the first African American signal-caller to start a season opener and start and win an NFL playoff game, their conversations quickly turn to the stellar play of Mahomes, Wilson and the rest of the current exemplary group.
“To me, my greatest accomplishment was putting myself in a position where I can help other young athletes, other young African American quarterbacks, get opportunities. That has happened,” Moon said. “And we’re really seeing the fruits of that right now. We’ve seen a lot of other spurts of it along the way but, going into this season, we’ve never seen all these different levels in different categories of black quarterbacks excelling. Whether it’s salary, whether it’s MVP awards, whether it’s just the numbers of top players at the position … we’ve never seen this before.
“It’s not a secret why we’re seeing this now: It’s all about opportunity. The more opportunity you give to people, anybody, no matter the race, at some point, people are going to start to flourish. That’s what’s happening right now with African-American quarterbacks. We’re just getting so many more opportunities to play the position, starting at a very young level, and then, unlike in the past, more opportunities in the NFL. It puts a big smile on my face when I can look at a Cam go to the Super Bowl, and see him winning an MVP. Russell the same way. All of the guys. It gives me a great sense of satisfaction that everything that I went through, and the same thing with Doug and Shack, it meant something. To see these young guys flourish now, it made the journey, the struggle, worth it.”