In the months leading up to the annual selection of the fresh crop of athletes to be welcomed into the NFL, there is much hype and prediction made about the athlete that is expected to hear his name said first. This is a player that will wear hopes and expectations as a weight lodged on the back plate of his shoulder pads. The culmination of a team’s previous year’s misfortune are all laid to bare on this one player, who hopefully is able to make the transition from college to the pros, eventually becoming the salvation for an entire fan base. The NFL Draft has another person whose selection is awaited, albeit in a more tongue-in-cheek fashion: Mr. Irrelevant.
Mr. Irrelevant is the last selection of the draft, the antithesis of his bookend. Outside of this label, no one will hold any expectations of this player. Fans aren’t lined up waiting to order this player’s jersey to adorn at preseason games. He’s ceremonial, ultimately there because someone has to be the selection.
There have been five black quarterbacks selected first overall. Yet, all five have come in the last 20 years starting with the Atlanta Falcons’ selection of Michael Vick in 2001. Three years removed from the centennial of the first black quarterback, history would be made as five black starting quarterbacks were represented in the 2019-20 playoffs. For as much as this is a celebratory accomplishment, Colin Kaepernick’s alleged blackballing since his 2015 protest of social injustice and comments from a Houston area superintendent in 2018 about DeShaun Watson’s acumen reveal the true status of the black signal caller: Mr. Irrelevant.
It took until 2017 for all 32 teams to have started a black quarterback at least once in the existence of their franchise. Three of the last four teams to accomplish the feat—the Packers, Patriots and Giants—predate the Super Bowl era. Even more incredible is what circumstances needed to happen before these pioneers would get their first—and for many their only—start. The first black QB of the Super Bowl era on the list, Marlin Briscoe of the Denver Broncos, was converted to a quarterback during the season and started five games. He still has the franchise’s rookie touchdown record with 14. He would go on to spend his remaining time in the league as a wide receiver. Six quarterbacks made history for multiple teams: James Harris (Bills, Rams and Chargers), Vince Evans (Bears and Raiders), Rodney Peete (Lions and Panthers), Jeff Blake (Bengals and Saints), Tony Banks (Ravens and Texans) and incredibly Warren Moon (Oilers/Titans, Vikings, Seahawks and Chiefs).
These quarterbacks have paved the way for the quarterbacks of today; whether being forced to change positions or needing to prove themselves in the USFL or CFL before being granted an opportunity in the NFL. The connector across eras for black quarterbacks continues to be the social and cultural stigma around the position. Whether it’s questioning a black player’s intellect to “handle the position” or the inconsistencies in the “leash length” as compared to their white counterparts, accolades don’t seem to earn much favor. The first pick of the 2011 NFL draft, Cam Newton, won an MVP award—the first black QB to win the award outright—and led the Carolina Panthers to their second Super Bowl appearance in franchise history. Newton right now is on the outside looking in to the 2020 NFL QB party, after being released by the Panthers and watching fellow free agents Jameis Winston and Andy Dalton sign with teams ahead of him. Besides the unrealistic expectations levied for his on-field performance, former owner Jerry Richardson ‘advised’ the 2010 Heisman Trophy winner not to adorn himself with any tattoos or piercings, meanwhile that wasn’t the same standard applied to new Patriots kicker Justin Rohrwasser.
The purpose of this column is to track the black QBs and the various changes that have occurred over time. Over the course of the last decade, there’s been 25 quarterbacks that have started at least half the season in a given year. Of that group, only seven project to be a starter in the upcoming NFL season. The idea here is to be a museum of sorts for black QBs. The starting list, backup list and any form of analyst or specific focus on a particular quarterback stems from here. In order to best celebrate the present and future, the past must be acknowledged particularly in understanding the groundwork and foundation laid for today’s Black QBs.
- The second Black QB to start in an NFL game. The first Black QB to start and win a playoff game. Unlike predecessor Marlin Briscoe, Harris was a true quarterback never having played another position in the league.
- The only Black quarterback currently enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Nine-time NFL Pro Bowler, is also a member of the CFL’s Hall of Fame having won five Grey Cup trophies and the Schenley Award for Most Outstanding Player in 1983.
- The 17th overall selection of the 1978 NFL Draft, Williams would become the first Black QB to win a Super Bowl and be named Super Bowl MVP (XXII) after a stint in the USFL following his tenure as a Buccaneer.
- The father of the dual threat, Cunningham lead the Philadelphia Eagles to a record of 63-43-1, with a 150: 105 TD:INT ratio along with 4,000 yards rushing and 32 TDs on the ground. After retiring in 1996, he returned as a member of the Minnesota Vikings where he lead the team to a NFC Conference Championship appearance posting a 13-1 record as a starter in the 1998 regular season.
- The second Black quarterback to appear in a Super Bowl (XXXIV), “Air” McNair was also the first Black QB to win an MVP award splitting the honor in 2003 with former Indianapolis Colts QB Peyton Manning.
- The first Black QB to be selected with the number one overall pick in an NFL draft, the 2001 draftee was the definition of electric serving as a cheat code in the popular Madden 2004 video game franchise due to his strong arm and scrambling abilities. The Virginia Tech product previously held the rushing yard record for a QB in a season of 1,039—since broken by Lamar Jackson’s 1209 in 2019.
- Arguably the greatest quarterback in the history of the Philadelphia Eagles franchise, McNabb posted a 92-49-1 record in his 11 seasons as well as leading the team to four consecutive NFC Championship appearances—five overall—from 2001-2004.
One of the five black QBs taken first overall, Winston has been relegated to filling Teddy Bridgewater’s old role as a student in the Drew Brees/Sean Payton school of quarterbacking in New Orleans. The former Heisman Trophy winner and BCS National Champion made history forming the 30-30 club as the only quarterback to throw for 30 touchdowns and 30 interceptions. At the end of his rookie deal, the Buccaneers opted to take their chances in free agency having a team finish third in points for and total yards yet dead last in turnovers. Having just turned 26 in January, Winston seems poised to be in line for the next starting job that opens up for the 2021-22 season.
After spending a year as QB3 in New England, Brissett was traded to the Indianapolis Colts to backup then-starter Andrew Luck. Then the see-saw began. Luck would miss all of 2017 thrusting Brissett into action, with the former NC State signal-caller going 4-11 in 15 games. Luck would return to lead the Colts to the playoffs in 2018 and in shocking fashion retire at the eve of the start of the 2019 season. Brissett would lead the Colts to a 7-8 record in his second slate of 15 games, getting the blame for the team sputtering as the playoff picture began to crystallize. Brissett seems poised to return to the bench this upcoming season as the team signed former Charger Philip Rivers in the offseason and added University of Washington quarterback Jacob Eason in the fourth round of last month’s NFL draft.
Cam Newton is a placeholder here at the moment as there are reports emerging that the former MVP would rather sit out a year than roam the sidelines holding a clipboard. Besides last season, which was shortened by a foot injury, Newton has started in at least 14 games for the entirety of his career in the NFL. A 2017 finding from ESPN Stats & Info found that Newton had been hit or sacked a whopping 922 times. The second place quarterback on that list, Russell Wilson, had over 300 fewer sacks and hits in that span. While yearly examples exist of the Panthers not doing enough to build around Newton, this 2015 season bears repeating: 35 passing touchdowns to only 10 interceptions with a record of 15-1 in the regular season. Over 600 yards rushing and 10 rushing touchdowns, leading the team in rushing TDs for the third consecutive season. And the issue is losing in the Super Bowl to an all-time talented defense. Sigh! I’d sit out too Cam.
The man affectionately known as “Teddy Two Gloves,” spent the past two seasons rehabilitating his reputation as a quarterback in New Orleans before earning his second chance as a starter in Carolina. A draft pick by the Minnesota Vikings coming out of the University of Louisville, Bridgewater showed progression in his sophomore campaign before a freak non-contact knee injury would sideline the QB for a little under two seasons. After spending the 2018 season as an understudy with the Saints, Bridgewater declined an offer to start in his hometown of Miami to return to the Bayou in 2019. Upon going undefeated in place of an injured Drew Brees, Bridgewater appeared destined to remain a starter in New Orleans if Brees retired or have his pick of destinations as a free agent. In Carolina, Bridgewater stays in the NFC South division and is reunited with hot-shot LSU passing game coordinator Joe Brady.
The reigning MVP has revolutionized the position after having early success despite belief he would not be able to transition to the NFL game. The last oeuvre of legendary general manager Ozzie Newsome was trading back into the first round of the 2018 NFL draft to select the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner, leaving the Ravens set up for the future with a franchise quarterback pending the awaited departure of Super Bowl XLVII MVP Joe Flacco. A major obstacle to many black quarterbacks both past and present is the hard-headedness of NFL franchises to play to the strengths of their quarterbacks compared to the tried-and-true ‘fitting a square peg in a round hole’ method. Surprisingly enough, the Ravens went with the former and have enjoyed a 19-3 record in Jackson’s tenure as QB1 in Baltimore—the team was 4-5 in 2018 before Lamar took over as starter.
The latest of the number one overall picks and the 2019 Offensive Rookie of the Year, the diminutive quarterback looks to be in ready for season 2 after the Cardinals’ acquisition of All-Pro WR DeAndre Hopkins. The Cardinals selection of Murray was controversial given the team had traded up a year ago to draft former UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen with the 10th overall pick. Murray would go on to make the decision seem clairvoyant as the Sooner QB—another Heisman Trophy winner—would set Cardinals rookie QB records in touchdowns, passing yards and wins.
Dabo Swinney attempted to prevent teams in the 2017 NFL draft from making a mistake by proclaiming passing up on Watson would be like “passing up on Michael Jordan”. Cleveland did indeed pass on Watson and ended up with the first overall pick the following year. The Bears would also shock the world by selecting UNC quarterback Mitchell Trubisky—who appears slated to lose his job after the team traded for Nick Foles this offseason. Going to Houston with the 12th selection, DeShaun enjoyed a trail-blazing start to his career throwing 19 touchdowns in six games before an injury would end his rookie season. Since then Watson has gone on to lead the Texans to a 21-10 record as a starter, winning his first playoff game this past post-season. However, dark times may be looming in Houston after losing the aforementioned Hopkins to Arizona and at the whim of the controversial decisions made by head coach and GM Bill O’Brien.
Selected two picks before DeShaun Watson, Patrick Mahomes has had a storybook start to his NFL career. Considered to be a project with high upside coming out of Texas Tech, the Kansas City Chiefs planned to have Mahomes sit and learn in his rookie year behind seasoned QB and former first overall pick Alex Smith. What would transpire since has been historic: Mahomes was the third Black QB to win an MVP—Steve McNair in 2003, Newton in 2015, Lamar Jackson would be number four in 2019—and the third to win a Super Bowl—Doug Williams in Super Bowl XXII and Russell Wilson in Super Bowl XLVIII.
The advent of the rookie wage scale has created a strategy for teams that happen to strike gold in the draft: set up your team—and hopefully win a championship—before the quarterback reaches their second contract. As the eighth quarterback selected in the 2016 NFL Draft, the time has come for Dak to hit pay dirt after amassing 40 wins in 64 games and the fifth-best touchdown-to-interception ratio among active quarterbacks.
Another draft steal, the Seattle Seahawks selected Russell Wilson in the third round of the 2012 NFL Draft mere months after signing former Packer Matt Flynn to a three-year $19 million contract. Wilson would end up beating the 2008 BCS National Champion out of the starting job en route to becoming the best quarterback in franchise history. Wilson became the second black QB to win a Super Bowl, leading the Seahawks to their first title in 2014 against Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos. In addition to Wilson’s two Super Bowl appearances, Russell holds the second best touchdown-to-interception ratio of active quarterbacks and has logged a playoff win in every season except one—2018.
The only Black quarterback to be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame is Warren Moon. Fritz Pollard is also a Hall of Famer but listed as a halfback/quarterback. Yet there is reason to be cautiously optimistic that this will change. From 2010-2018, one of the two starting QBs in the BCS/College Football Playoff National Championship was black—in 2014 and 2017 both participants were black QBs. The 2020 and 2021 college football recruiting classes features a black QB among the top prospects in Alabama’s Bryce Young and projected Oklahoma Sooner Caleb Williams. The future appears bright and Passing the Baton will be here to document the historical feats being made.
Thumbnail Photo Credit: Carolina Panthers Twitter