A record number of African-American quarterbacks started for their teams last season. And it all happened with little fanfare, which begs the question: Is race still a factor in the evaluation of NFL quarterbacks?
Doug Williams thinks back to that ground-breaking moment and smiles. No, it’s not the one in Super Bowl XXII more than three decades ago, when Williams threw his way into both the record books and history books by becoming the first African American quarterback to start in football’s most celebrated game, leading Washington to an unprecedented 35 second-quarter points in a dominating 42-10 win over Denver.
No, this moment came nearly nine years earlier, in Week 5 of the 1979 season, when, as quarterback of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he faced off against the Chicago Bears and quarterback Vince Evans. The game was not particularly noteworthy from a football standpoint — the Bucs were 4-0, the Bears 2-2 — but it was ground-breaking in the sense that it marked the first time an NFL game featured starting quarterbacks who both happened to be Black.
For a man who grew up in the segregated South and attended Grambling State University, one of 107 historically Black colleges and universities in the country, Williams found great significance in this game. You can hear it in his voice as he reflects on it, some 42 years later. His words are coated in reverence, his memory as crisp as that sunny afternoon at Soldier Field.
Such a meeting was unthinkable to him growing up in Zachary, Louisiana, in part because only 11 Black quarterbacks had ever attempted an NFL pass to that point. It was rare enough to see one quarterback of color in a game, let alone two.
“I thought it was a miracle,” said Williams, the 17th overall pick in the 1978 NFL Draft, the highest a Black quarterback had ever been taken at the time. “Vince and I, we didn’t really talk about it with each other at the time because it was something where you don’t have to talk about it. There was just this feeling between us. It was more or less that admiration after the game when you meet up and shake hands and hug each other, knowing the significance of what had just transpired in the National Football League.”
Memories of that historic moment crept into Williams’ mind during Week 2 of last season. He was studying the schedule for that weekend when he noticed four of the games featured head-to-head matchups of quarterbacks who happened to be Black. While noteworthy, the real significance to him was the accompanying silence. There were no headlines or hot takes. The racial component was neither top-of-mind nor an afterthought.
But it did beg a question: Does race still remain a factor in the evaluation of quarterbacks?
The question might sound ridiculous on the surface when considering three of the last six league MVPs were Black quarterbacks, including Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson in back-to-back seasons; when the passing yards leader in each of the last two seasons was Black; when five of the last 13 quarterbacks drafted No. 1 overall were persons of color; and when any top-five list of individuals currently playing the position undoubtedly includes multiple Black people, often with Mahomes at the top of it.
But it was only three years ago that Bill Polian, a respected personnel executive and member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, publicly suggested that Jackson switch positions coming out of college, a practice teams commonly used over the decades. Sport being a microcosm of society, discrimination was as real in football as it was in everyday life. Many decision-makers believed Blacks lacked the intelligence and leadership skills to run an offense, and in some cases owners simply did not want someone of color as the face of their franchise. The league even had an informal ban of Black players from 1934 to 1946, and it wasn’t until 2001 that an African American was drafted No. 1 overall at quarterback, with Michael Vick going to the Atlanta Falcons.
That history makes the conversation more complicated when you peel back the layers. There is no denying progress has been made, and the numbers bear that out:
- In the 10 drafts from 2001 to 2010, six of the 27 quarterbacks selected in the first round (22.2 percent) were Black.
- Over the last 10 drafts, 11 of the 32 quarterbacks taken in the first round were Black (34.4 percent).
But there are mixed opinions about whether race is still a part of the equation.
“I do think we have reached that point,” said Tony Dungy, a football analyst for NBC and retired coach who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2016. “As I’m sitting there broadcasting and we’re talking about Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson and Lamar Jackson, it’s not even, ‘Oh, my God. Look at what these guys are doing.’ It’s, ‘This is the new quarterback position.’ So I think we have gotten beyond that.”
Dungy admits he wasn’t always sure the league would reach this point. In 1976, he was the starting quarterback when the University of Minnesota traveled to Seattle to face a Washington team quarterbacked by Warren Moon. The game matched signal-callers who were both Black and both leading their respective conferences in passing. It was a monumental game in many ways, with the Huskies prevailing, 38-7.
From the opposite sideline, Dungy marveled at the poise, arm strength and leadership of Moon. This guy is great, he thought to himself. He would follow Moon from afar over the rest of the season and even the following season, as Moon led Washington, a two-touchdown underdog, past Michigan to earn Player of the Game honors in the Rose Bowl. There was no doubt in his mind Moon would be drafted that year, but it didn’t happen, just as Dungy went undrafted the year before.
“When he didn’t get drafted, that shook me,” Dungy says. “You could see how good he was. That put some doubt in my mind (about whether things would ever change). They tell me with my skillset I need to be a defensive back, and Warren — your skillset is maybe going to be better in Canada. That doesn’t happen now. We have made significant progress there.”
Moon, who wound up playing in Canada before joining the NFL and becoming the first Black quarterback of the modern era to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, agrees that the road is clearer. But barriers remain.
“We’ve reached a point with the masses where race isn’t as big an issue, but there are people who are very uncomfortable with the fact that their quarterback is African-American and making all this money and being endorsed the way they’re being endorsed,” he said. “There’s always going to be that certain percentage of our population that feels that way because there’s a large percentage of our population that’s racist and they don’t want to see African Americans in that position anyway. But for the most part people have accepted it. It’s not something that’s talked about as much in the media anymore. It’s not talked about within teams anymore, I think, among general managers, coaches and owners. When you start the season off with 10 African Americans starting at quarterback on the first day of the season, and probably five of those 10 are the top quarterbacks in the league right now, that shows that we’ve made a ton of progress at that position.”
Some of that progress can be heard in how the game used to be broadcast. In 1974, James Harris earned a trip to the Pro Bowl with the Rams, then returned the following season and guided Los Angeles to a 12-2 mark that tied Pittsburgh and Minnesota for best in the league. Still, you’d have thought his accomplishments were a fluke, based on an NFL Films highlight clip that included the following narration:
James Harris, No. 12, can do most of the things a quarterback is supposed to do. And he’s done them well enough for the Los Angeles Rams to grab a spot in the playoffs. However, with the Rams’ wealth of individual talent, and given their easy schedule, George Plimpton could have just as easily quarterbacked them to the division title. Harris is an accurate, long-distance thrower, but his play-calling is very predictable. Fortunately, the Rams have so many elusive receivers that Harris could announce his plays on the public-address system and they would still work.
The commentary was meant to be clever, if not cute, but ultimately, it was disrespectful, because it minimized Harris’ mental acuity and physical ability. Today, it’s unlikely such a script would be written, let alone approved, which could be construed as progress. Still, Harris is not prepared to say race has been completely erased from the process, because qualifiers continue to be used, as in “Black” quarterback instead of just quarterback.
“We’ve gotten to a place on the field where it’s not a factor, but I don’t know if we’ve gotten to a place off the field, because we’re still talking about it in that way,” said Harris, who, as a rookie in 1969 with Buffalo, became the first Black player to start at quarterback in a season opener. “The talent on the field is outstanding. The players we have playing quarterback today, they’re field generals. Although they’re advertised as mobile quarterbacks, they understand the game. They have great character and leadership, and there are more players like that who are on the way. When we start to see them as just quarterbacks, we’ll know we’re getting there.”
To some, the road to change began with the 1999 NFL Draft, in which three of the first four quarterbacks selected were Black. In the 20 years that spanned the time between Williams’ selection and that draft, only two of the 33 quarterbacks taken in the first round were African American (Andre Ware in 1990 and Steve McNair in 1995). But the 1999 draft was ground-breaking for the NFL — Donovan McNabb went second to the Eagles, Akili Smith third to the Bengals and Daunte Culpepper 11th to the Vikings — and many hoped it was a sign that things were changing. But it would be 18 years before another draft included multiple Black players drafted in the first round at the quarterback position. In fact, from 2000 to 2016, just 11 of the 45 quarterbacks picked in the opening round — less than a quarter of all those taken — were Black.
Then, in 2017, two of the three quarterbacks selected in the first round were Black. But despite being regarded as two of the best in the game today, both Mahomes (10th overall) and Deshaun Watson (12th) were taken after the underwhelming Mitchell Trubisky (second).
There are sure to be observers paying close attention to the draft this April, with two of the top consensus quarterbacks — Ohio State’s Justin Fields and North Dakota State’s Trey Lance — being African American. Already, there is some thought that Fields — who, in a lopsided Ohio State victory last month, soundly outplayed Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, the presumptive No. 1 overall pick in the upcoming draft — could take a similar fall like Watson did four years ago.
Bucky Brooks, a former NFL player and scout who is currently a draft analyst for NFL Network, believes Fields and Lance have already been damaged by what’s been said and written about them over the last six months.
“If you listen to the critiques of Black quarterbacks vs. white quarterbacks, there’s a different standard applied to Blacks,” said Brooks, one of the few analysts to rank Fields among his top two signal-callers in this draft. “Justin Fields and Trey Lance (both underclassmen) have been advised by draft experts to go back to school to gain more experience, yet we never hear those suggestions lobbed at their white counterparts. That observation is important because media narratives also shape how scouts and evaluators perceive prospects.”
Perhaps these are reasons why men like Jimmy Raye are not so quick to draw conclusions.
A native of Fayetteville, North Carolina, Raye left the Jim Crow South in the mid-1960s to play quarterback at Michigan State. He moved into the starting lineup as a junior, in 1966, and led the Spartans to Big Ten and national titles, throwing for 1,110 yards and 10 touchdowns with a 140.0 passer rating that broke the school record and still ranks 10th on the program’s single-season list. He also led all Big Ten quarterbacks with 436 yards on 122 carries, all while being shadowed by issues of race.
“I was aware of it because it was brought up to my attention every day,” he told the school’s website in 2018. “When I played quarterback at Michigan State, I was the only starting Black quarterback in the Division I schools in the United States, and I had been told constantly that I would never play quarterback because that was a position that was considered off basis for a Black athlete.”
He found a less-welcoming reception in the NFL, where the Rams drafted him in the 16th round, with pick No. 431 overall. Like many other African Americans who played quarterback in college, he was moved to another position as a pro and was quickly traded to the Eagles. His career ended after just one season. That led to a nearly four-decade career in coaching, where he never got a chance to be a head coach despite an accomplished resume that included stints as both a position coach and coordinator.
Raye, a consultant to NFL Vice President Troy Vincent, doesn’t believe the league has moved beyond race being a factor in the evaluation of quarterbacks. At least not totally.
“I will say that there’s a lot more acceptance in that area,” he said, “but it’s like what Bill Polian said when Lamar Jackson came out. … It is lurking in the subconscious mind, and I think in a lot of cases that’s a hard call for some teams and organizations to make.”
Byron Leftwich, offensive coordinator of the Super Bowl-winning Bucs, also has a unique perspective. An African American who grew up in Washington, D.C., he played quarterback at Marshall before being drafted seventh overall by Jacksonville in 2003. He started 50 games over a nine-year career and knows the position from both a player and coach perspective.
“Movement and progress are two different things, and sometimes we kind of combine those two together,” Leftwich said. “The NFL is not going to be no different than the rest of the world, so I still think it’s involved. The fact that we’re still saying ‘African American quarterback’ and we have to have that conversation, it kind of answers that question for us, right? I hear people say, ‘Well, Mike Tomlin is one of the best Black coaches,’ but the fact that we’re saying that — just think of that. The fact that we’re having that conversation and saying it in that way …”
Last November, Tomlin won his 140th game as coach of the Steelers, moving him into 22nd place on the league’s all-time list. But many of the headlines focused on the fact that he had passed Tony Dungy for most wins by an African American coach.
“I think Mike Tomlin is one of the best coaches in this league, regardless of what color he is,” Leftwich continued after pausing. “If we’re still talking like that, then it’s in the back of people’s minds for us to be having this conversation.”
Race may still be in the back of some people’s minds when it comes to evaluating the quarterback position, but necessity is one of the reasons Blacks are getting more opportunities to play the position at the NFL level. Colleges — which serve as the league’s feeder system — aren’t producing as many traditional drop-back passers, as the game is now populated with programs using run-pass option systems that require greater athleticism at quarterback. Consequently, we’ve seen that trickle up to the NFL game.
Then again, none of that would matter if these dual-threat quarterbacks — Black and non-Black — didn’t produce. And what we’ve seen over the last decade is Russell Wilson win a championship and go to two Super Bowls with Seattle, Cam Newton take Carolina to a Super Bowl, Jackson help the Ravens to 35 wins and three playoff appearances over the last three seasons, Deshaun Watson and Dak Prescott establish themselves as two of the game’s best, Josh Allen turn Buffalo into a contender, Baker Mayfield help make Cleveland respectable again, Ryan Tannehill turn Tennessee into a threat, and Justin Herbert win Offensive Rookie of the Year this year.
“Rather than say, ‘Tony Dungy, your skillset doesn’t fit us,’ or, ‘Warren Moon, your skillset doesn’t fit us,’ it is, ‘No, I’m going to change my offense to fit Kyler Murray,’ ” Dungy said. “Or, ‘I’m going to take Russell Wilson and adjust my offense around him.’ That’s good coaching, and that’s what we’re doing now.”
It represents a significant departure from what was taking place in the late 1970s. Back then, Randall Cunningham was a standout prep quarterback in Santa Barbara, California. Early in high school, there was talk of him earning a scholarship, and in his mind, he was going to continue playing the position he had come to love. Then, as a 16-year-old, he spent time coaching a few kids who lived up the street. One of the kids asked him if he was going to get a scholarship.
“I’m probably gonna go to USC,” Cunningham said.
“My mom and dad said you’re not gonna get to go to USC because you’re a black quarterback,” the kid responded.
“They said, ‘Black quarterback,’ and I said, ‘Wow,’ ” Cunningham recalled. “It was like, that was the horror on the outside, that we would not be accepted. … Do I think we’re past racism? No. History repeats itself. There’s nothing new under the sun. I think that there’s always gonna be someone in the cut that just is not happy or has roots of hatred or something like that. But I think for the most part, yeah, we’re in a new era. And I think that people want to see good things, and I think we’re at the point now where the fans don’t care who’s on the field, they just want their teams to win. And when people win, everybody’s happy.”
No one is happier than Williams to see the progress that’s been made. He can still remember the hullabaloo in the week he appeared in the Super Bowl, when reporters would form tight circles around him, seemingly constricting and expanding with each breath he took. They were there to document history as much as the game itself. After all, if sport is a microcosm of society, then might the tearing down of a significant racial barrier within football portend a larger change within the country?
Williams thinks about that moment and what it meant, then he is asked if what’s taking place today means we have pushed across the finish line and reached definable progress as it relates to race and the most important position on the field.
“It’s still an issue,” he said without hesitation. “Not as big of an issue as it used to be, but the issue is still there.”
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