The NFL’s Shameful Impatience with Black Quarterbacks

We are just a month removed from the NFL Network airing a special on the history of players and the importance of Historically Black Colleges & Universities. Even here I wrote an epilogue on the enshrinement of Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson’s into the Black College Hall of Fame last month. Outside of these circles you’ll hear comments as though every racial barrier has been eradicated and they haven’t. You have NFL experts pitching the notion Heisman Trophy winning QB Lamar Jackson should switch to WR at the NFL Combine last weekend.

Are you serious?? Why is that even being asked?? Why isn’t this being asked of Baker Mayfield, Josh Rosen, or Sam Darnold?? To many black former players and to this historian, it reeks of those in NFL circles who wish to keep the quarterback position white and that is a problem. It unveils what many of us have talked about in private circles for years and we’re talking about this today.

Now Colin Kaepernick situation withstanding, someone undoubtedly will mention “Julian Edelman was a qb in college and he switched.”  Yet he was a marginal talent at Kent St in the Mid America Conference where he threw for 1,820 yds 13 TDs and 11 interceptions as a senior. Hardly NFL material. He was not an electrifying talent that ran for 1,571 yards 21 TDs before tossing 30 more scores with just 9 ints and another 3,543 yards in a Heisman winning year. So lets kill that noise right off the top.

Its the audacity of having it come up in the first place when the young man has earned the right to be drafted as a quarterback. It pulls back the veil of the long ago thought that blacks weren’t to play the thinking positions and were asked to switch positions going into the pros.

Quick question: Who holds the Denver Bronco record for touchdown passes as a rookie?? *jeopardy music* The answer is Marlon Briscoe with 14 in 1968. Yes he has held the record for 49 years… not John Elway…not Tim Tebow…not Jay Cutler. In fact if you add Elway and Tebow’s rookie TDs together you would still only have 12. Briscoe’s reward?? He never quarterbacked in the AFL or NFL again and was switched to receiver. He won Super Bowl VII and VIII in Miami but the point we don’t know is what could he have developed into??

One aspect that rears it’s head are coaches and general managers impatience with wanting to get black QBs on the field. Why is it you rarely see black QBs groomed to be placed out there once they’re developed and ready??

What happens is the black quarterback is inserted for an element of excitement. Fans get behind the team. The team’s coaches don’t further develop the game of the quarterback and lock into the same plays. Opposing defense catches on to the quarterbacks tendencies within 2 years and the fans turn on the quarterback when he isn’t effective. Then hit Twitter, social media and the blogosphere about how they need to draft the next best thing. Sound familiar??

Its the same reason you didn’t see the Kordell Stewarts & Duante Culpeppers have long careers as backups once they weren’t starters. However a Ryan Fitzpatrick (7 teams looking for his 8th) and Josh McCown (8 teams) have been terrible yet hold clip boards and play without distinction for 28 years and not a playoff appearance between them.

If Duante Culpepper went from throwing for 4717 yards and 39 TDs to out of the league in 6 years, how did Fitz and McCown stay so long?? He couldn’t help develop a young QB as a gray beard George Blanda-type?

Even Doug Williams who won Super Bowl XXII with the most electrifying game in history was cut by the Redskins 1 year and 1 day later. In NFL Films Black Star Rising in 1995, Viking DE Jim Marshall expressed how “black players weren’t allowed to be 2nd tier players and had to perform just to be on a team.” That it was different for their white counterparts in the 1960’s. This still seems to hold true with the quarterback position.

This is where and how many of these black quarterbacks are thrown in before they’re ready. “If the play isn’t there take off and run the football” and not develop the QB fully before defenses catch up to them. This is what happened to RGIII, Kaepernick and would have happened to Russell Wilson had he not had such a great defense and running game. Its on the offensive coaches to gradually mature these scramblers into pocket quarterbacks. Landry did it with Roger Staubach and Bill Walsh and Mike Holmgren did this with Steve Young. It takes years… it takes commitment.

Aside from Warren Moon down in Houston the one time I saw an organization really develop and commit to black quarterbacks has been the Philadelphia Eagles. Not only did Andy Reid help develop Donovan McNabb to a QB who led his team to 4 straight NFC Championship Games and a Super Bowl appearance… it goes further back than that.

Go back to the late Buddy Ryan and Randall Cunningham. Keep in mind Cunningham was drafted the year before Ryan got there. Buddy was hired in 1986 and worked to get the most out of the players on the roster. First he would deploy Cunningham as a wildcard, only on 3rd down packages and by 1987 had him on the field once he developed to the point he could play every down. He hired Doug Scovil to be his QB coach. It was Scovil who tutored BYU QBs as their coach in the early 80’s with Jim McMahon and Gifford Nielsen. So he had developed pro quarterbacks and bonded while working with Cunningham.

Ryan and Scovil helped develop Cunningham into the NFL’s ultimate weapon. He led the Eagles to the playoffs over the next 3 years in ’88, ’89, & ’90. Tragically late in the 1989 season Scovil died of a heart attack at Veteran’s Stadium and it derailed an Eagle team with a chance at the Super Bowl. Without his coaching confidante, Cunningham fell prey to the LA Rams and Fritz Shurmur‘s confusing “Eagle Defense” with 2 linemen and 5 linebackers on the field. They lost an NFC wildcard playoff 21-7 at home in a drizzly rain and couldn’t make offensive adjustments.

Yet they never would have made it that far had Cunningham been thrown to the wolves without proper coaching and just “go make a few plays with your legs.” He would have been replaced by 1989 instead of 3 straight trips to the Pro Bowl and coming in 2nd in the NFL MVP voting in 1990. It was this fundamental structure being coached fully “how to play qb” is what allowed an older Cunningham to be 1998’s NFL Comeback Player of the Year. In that season Minnesota went 15-1 with the highest scoring offense in NFL history with 556 points. He did it from the pocket and framework of the offense.

Keep in mind Ryan and Scovil didn’t draft Cunningham yet polished a raw talent into something special. What Lamar Jackson brings to the table rivals what Michael Vick did as a quarterback a generation before. Yes he can get by on his legs when he doesn’t get through his reads. However I hope the staff that takes him has the patience and vision to start him when he is ready and further develop him to perform within the framework of the offense.

So the issue before us has several facets to it. One is the lack of commitment to fully developing black qbs to be more than an offensive anomaly for a few years. Another is the stereotypes and prejudices we see surrounding that position from the executive level. When Bill Polian suggested he switch to WR it made my blood boil and I have written about him here on his brilliance as a general manager.

While I know Polian doesn’t harbor those prejudices, after all he hired Tony Dungy to be the Colts coach, it raises an eyebrow because of the sensitive past it invokes. His voice carries weight in other NFL boardrooms and he could have damaged Jackson’s draft status. While I don’t agree with Polian’s assessment I do disagree with Jackson having his mother as his agent. He needs an agent who knows in NFL circles what to look for in a team. The scouting process to make sure the right organization will put the plan and succession in place for Jackson to be the most successful.  The Chancellor of Football can get you in touch with Adrian Ross or Leigh Steinberg…its not too late.

Dedicated to the memories of Buddy Ryan and Doug Scovil

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