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“I gotta let these guys know I’m a quarterback,” Lamar Jackson, 2018 NFL Draft

Lamar Jackson was a Heisman-winning quarterback at the University of Louisville. In his three years playing for the Cardinals, Jackson racked up the accolades; including the Maxwell Award, the Walter Camp Award, AP Player of the Year, and Sporting News Player of the Year. In addition to those honors, he was a unanimous All-American selection, two-time ACC Player of the Year, two-time ACC Offensive Player of the Year, and the 2018 ACC Athlete of the Year. Jackson put together quite the resume while playing quarterback, so why was he asked to consider switching positions in the NFL?

We all know the answer. It’s the same reason Cam Newton was slammed by draft analysts before the Carolina Panthers selected him with the first overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft. Newton, like Jackson, was a Heisman trophy winner. It’s the same reason that Mitchell Trubisky was taken ahead of Deshaun Watson despite the fact that Watson had led the Clemson Tigers to back-to-back national championship appearances; winning one. Trubisky only had one season as the starter for the North Carolina Tar Heels. The Black NFL quarterback is the only professional athlete whose athleticism is frowned upon and regarded as a weakness or as a mask for inefficiency. So, much so that Jackson actually skipped the 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine. He later admitted, at the draft, that the suggestions of a position switch guided his decision. Imagine having to mask your abilities during a process in which you are being evaluated to take your career to the next level. The issue is systemic and is not outright verbalized, but the truth is there for anyone willing to open their eyes to it. Although slowly becoming more progressive, the NFL is used to its starting quarterbacks looking a certain way. Woven into that outdated perspective is the perception that the quarterback position includes a level of intellect that cannot coexist with too much athleticism.

Take Mel Kiper, Jr.’s evaluation of Josh Allen vs Jackson for example. Jackson threw for 9,043 passing yards; 4,132 rushing yards; 119 total touchdowns (69 passing, 50 rushing), and 27 interceptions during his three years at Louisville. He finished his college career with a completion percentage of 57. On a conference call leading up to the draft, Kiper stated, “It’s the accuracy throwing the football. Finished career around 57 percent” as the reason Jackson would fall out of the first round. However, Allen entered the draft with a lower completion percentage, 56.2; which Kiper disregarded by saying, “Stats are for losers in my opinion. The guy won.”

Kiper was specifically asked how he could use a statistic to criticize one player and omit the same statistic when analyzing another player – especially at the same position. After rambling about Jackson’s size, him being “all over the place” at the Scouting Combine, and referencing a previous player who had switched positions, the question went unanswered.

Jackson was part of arguably the deepest quarterback class in NFL history which saw five quarterbacks taken in the first round. He and his mother, Felicia Jones, who famously served as his manager during the draft process, hovered in the green room as the hours ticked away on opening night of the NFL Draft. Four quarterbacks were taken before the Ravens selected Jackson as the 32nd and last pick of the first round. Two years into his professional career, Jackson has made most, not all, of his critics eat their words. Most specifically, Hall of Fame general manager Bill Polian, who was advocating a position change, was forced to change his tune midway through Jackson’s MVP season.

“I was wrong because I used the old, traditional quarterback standard with him, which is clearly why John Harbaugh and Ozzie Newsome were more prescient than I was,” said Polian in a USA Today interview. “And Greg (Roman) found a way in how he’s developed a system to use those dynamic skills,” Polian added. “Bottom line, I was wrong.” He went on to say that the definition of “quarterback” has changed. He stops short of addressing the real elephant in the room – and that is the long-held notion that black football players simply lack the decision-making skills necessary to play the quarterback position.

“When you need precision decision-making, you can’t count on a Black quarterback.”

Yep, that’s a real quote – from 2019. Those words were written by Lynn Redden, the superintendent of the Onalaska school district north of Houston in a Facebook post that went public. Redden’s remarks followed a Houston Texans loss in which Deshaun Watson made a poor decision late in the game. Watson wasn’t the first, and he won’t be the last player to make a mistake during a game. However, as a Black quarterback, the leash is much shorter. One of the reasons for the small margin of error afforded to Black quarterbacks is the lack of diversity in the coaching ranks. Interestingly enough, Watson happens to possess one of the most hyperintelligent football minds in the NFL and has since gained wide acclaim for putting his split-second analytical skills on display. It’s that exceptional skill, coupled with an arsenal of physical gifts, that moved the Texans to agree to a four-year $160 million contract extension.

Quincy Avery, who privately coaches quarterbacks, began a conference discussing the plight of young African-American quarterbacks following Redden’s remarks. Avery, who has worked with Watson for a number of years, said that strides have been made, but implores everyone not to be satisfied with surface level improvement. Avery feels that issues faced by Black quarterbacks in previous generations have simply changed form over the years.

“Previously, Black quarterbacks had to face overt prejudice,” Avery told The Undefeated. “They didn’t think they were smart enough; they looked at athleticism as a negative. Black quarterbacks didn’t get the same opportunities.

“Today, it’s systemic: They are afforded opportunities, but they aren’t allowed to be average because they don’t have enough decision-makers who look like them.”

There are layers to systemic racism and the NFL is no exception. Most recently, the road to head coaching jobs in the NFL goes through offensive coordination experience; an area where minorities are severely underrepresented. As of publication, Byron Leftwich and Eric Bienemy are the only African-American offensive coordinators in the NFL. Going into the 2020 season, there are only three Black head coaches in a league that is 70% Black.

But, it’s the Year of the Black Quarterback… kinda

There is no doubt that the 2019 season saw Black quarterbacks show up and show out. For the first time in league history, the Rookie of the Year, MVP, and Super Bowl MVP were all Black quarterbacks. Kyler Murray took home top rookie honors while Jackson was a lock for MVP as he smashed records in his sophomore campaign. Patrick Mahomes continued his stellar career, turning in an MVP performance as he became only the third Black quarterback to win the Super Bowl – after Doug Williams in 1988 and Russell Wilson in 2014. While more organizations are learning to adapt to the strengths of their quarterbacks – referred to by Avery as giving the players “the chance to play like themselves” – there are still detractors during the scouting process. The verbiage used to describe Black quarterbacks as “dual threats” while white quarterbacks are referred to as “pro style” is racially charged.

Black quarterbacks labeled as “dual-threat” are frowned upon and perceived as lacking in arm strength, accuracy, and durability. Standing 6’5 and weighing a solid 245 pounds, Newton is quite the opposing figure, especially when he’s running at you full speed. This size, strength, and speed allowed him to break several NFL records, including most rushing touchdowns by a quarterback. However, he also got it done through the air. Newton was the first rookie to throw for at least 4,000 yards. His critics argued that the quarterback put himself at risk by running so much and consequently turned the other way as the signal caller took dirty hits with no flag on the play. In the 2016 season opener alone, Newton took three helmet to helmet hits. Asked repeatedly by the media how he felt about the lack of calls and refusal of NFL refs to protect him as a quarterback, Newton always took the high road. It could be argued that this failure to provide even a semblance of the protection the likes of Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady receive has contributed to Newton’s recent rash of injuries.

His response, or lack there of, was interesting considering Newton caught a lot of flack in the media who often mislabeled the Atlanta native as spoiled, self-absorbed, and egotistical. It comes as no surprise that there has been a particular silence from those same outlets with regards to his philanthropic efforts. In addition to operating a competitive 7v7 league in Atlanta that has produced NFL talent and is completely free for participants, Newton put hundreds of thousands of dollars back into the Charlotte community. There was a ton of criticism over Newton’s “dabbing” after touchdowns and not enough acknowledgement of the fact that he almost immediately would hand the touchdown ball off to a starry-eyed kid in the stands. Arrogant and egotistical versus passionate and competitive is yet another double standard in the plight of the Black quarterback. These unfair, and inaccurate, perspectives are partially due to Newton’s confidence and partially due to his penchant for being unapologetically himself. Growing his hair out and wearing whatever he wants seems to offend many. As Shannon Sharpe stated on “Undisputed,” “When they say you need to act like a quarterback — the quarterback position in the NFL for the longest time was held by white men. So, you need to act like that. How you talk, what you say, when you say it, how you conduct yourself.”

“Show me the Money”

Mahomes signed a historic deal with the Kansas City Chiefs and Russell Wilson signed a large extension with the Seattle Seahawks, but those instances still do not outweigh the pay disparity amongst quarterbacks of color and their white counterparts. There have long been wage disparities when it comes to minorities in the United States and the NFL is no exception. To refer to the new contracts of Newton and Jameis Winston as paltry would be a severe understatement. Both men are starting out with new teams for the first time in their careers on one-year “prove it” deals. Newton signed a contract with the Patriots for a base of $1.05 million – the minimum for a player with nine seasons of experience in the league. Of that; only $550,000 is guaranteed. When the details of his deal emerged, 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman called the low ball contract “ridiculous and disgusting.”

Winston also took a large pay cut also when he signed a one-year $1.1 million deal with the Saints. That’s nearly $19 million less than he was making with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Asking Newton and Winston to prove themselves in new markets isn’t what’s wrong. The problem lies in the fact that Chase Daniel and Jeff Driskell both will make more guaranteed money than Newton and Winston combined.

I know, you have no clue who either of these guys are. Daniel has played for six different teams since 2019 and has only thrown 7 touchdowns, while also throwing 5 interceptions. Driskell has thrown for 10 touchdowns and 6 interceptions going into his third season. Where Winston and Newton go from here is partially up to them and partially up to a league that still has a ways to go to completely eliminate systemic racism — particularly in the quarterback room.

As we, hopefully, gear for the 2020 season, one thing is for certain: The Black quarterback is here to stay. But, will the league catch up?