Tuesday, September 9

Black QBs and the NFL: An Assessment

In 2001, the Christian Science Monitor bravely declared, “Football’s Last Race Barrier Crumbles.” In that article, Charles Ross, a history professor from the University of Mississippi concluded, "It's only a matter of time before you see more and more African- Americans at quarterback. The competitive nature of the game will make it a non-issue within the next 10 years." These declarations were made when players such as Donovan McNabb, Daunte Culpepper, and Michael Vick were redefining the quarterback position. It has been almost eight years since those statements, and Daunte Culpepper has declared early retirement. Just four years ago, Culpepper had one of the greatest seasons ever recorded by a quarterback, and heading into this year, only two teams even bothered to work him out. The current landscape of the NFL suggests the bumper crop of Black quarterbacks at the start of the decade was a fad and not a change in the mindset of personnel departments.

A primary cause of the current lack of Black quarterbacks in the NFL remains rooted in the lower levels of football. In high school, a coach wants his most talented players on the field. For most freshmen, this rules out playing quarterback. These young men, being team players and eager for to get on the field, often play other positions. As a result, they do not practice at quarterback, and even though many may eventually play quarterback at the high school level, scouts often have them rated higher at these other positions. A perfect example is Rueben Randle, considered to be one of the top wide receiver recruits in the nation this year. He came to high school as a quarterback, but with his 4.4 speed, was moved to wide receiver. This year Randle will be playing quarterback for his team, but top colleges are recruiting him to catch, not throw. Randle could get a scholarship to play quarterback, but it would be at a smaller school, and he would probably have to wait for playing time. As a wide receiver, he gets to pick which BCS school he wants to attend and will play sooner. Randle’s story is a common one in high school football; a young man too talented to keep off the field, and therefore does not spend adequate time practicing the quarterback position. Rueben’s preference remains wide receiver, but his choice as well as countless other recruits contributes to unintentional discrimination. In the NFL, the quarterback, by average, is the highest paid position. With so many young Black men playing other positions, they self-eliminate from this highest of pay brackets.

At the pro level, there remain disconcerting trends. There are only two Black offensive coordinators and three Black quarterback coaches. Of all coaching positions, these numbers are by far the lowest, including head coaches. The NFL has done well by minority coaches with the Rooney Rule, but these two positions continue to lag behind. Of these five coaches, only Sherman Smith played in the NFL, and he played running back. This is not an indictment of their ability, but several NFL quarterbacks have transitioned into these positions, and yet no Blacks quarterbacks have. Often these quarterbacks that make the transition are career backups, but that is where the next disturbing trend lies.

There are currently fifteen Black quarterbacks on active rosters, injured reserve, or practice squads. This constitutes 14.5% of the total number of quarterbacks in the league. Six Black quarterbacks started for the team at the beginning of this season (18.5%), and all of them were drafted in the first or second round, with the exception of David Garrard, who was a fourth round pick. Consider that ten of the current starting QBs were selected after the fourth round, or were not drafted at all. Black QBs active in the league account for only one more than starters drafted after the fourth round. The only two Black quarterbacks drafted after the fourth round to have careers in the NFL in the last twenty years were both sixth round picks, in 1989, Rodney Peete and in 1992, Jeff Blake. Of the eleven Black quarterbacks on active rosters, only two are backups with more than two years of experience, Byron Leftwich and Cleo Lemon. Two others are on injured reserve this season, Anthony Wright and Charlie Batch, but Leftwich was only signed when Batch was injured. Currently, there are twenty-nine other backups with more than two years of experience, meaning Black backups (with more than two years experience) are only 6.5% of the backup talent pool. Fourteen undrafted quarterbacks made rosters this season; five starting for their team, but Cleo Lemon is the only active undrafted black QB in the league. In the last twenty years, only two undrafted Black quarterbacks, Warren Moon and Anthony Wright have started a playoff game, but between the 1998 and 2001 seasons, six undrafted quarterbacks started in the playoffs. While the supremely talented Black QBs are given an opportunity, Black “project” QBs or backups are almost non-existent. It’s hard to argue with Donovan McNabb when he stated in a 2007 interview with HBO, "Let me start by saying I love those guys (Carson Palmer and Peyton Manning), but they don't get criticized as much as we do. They don't." When black quarterbacks know they are only one new draft pick or one bad training camp away from the end of their career, it’s not hard to imagine the pressure they must feel. Quarterbacks fail at the start of their career. It’s a rule seldom broken, but when Black quarterbacks suffer from “growing pains,” they are often faced with serious choices: find work in a new league, knowing they will likely never return, change position, or abandon their playing careers. In a league known for second chances, the offer does not extend to Black signal callers.

The void of Black backups does not gain credibility when comparing the NFL with other football leagues. Black quarterbacks are having continued success in other leagues, but even when they do, they rarely get a shot with NFL clubs. In 2004, former Patriot draft pick Rohan Davey was the Player of the Year in NFL Europe and led his team to the title. He struggled when he returned to training camp with the Patriots, and was cut before the season started. The second best quarterback in NFL Europe that season, 49er starter, J.T. O’Sullivan. Annually, at least fifty percent of the top quarterbacks in the Canadian Football League are Black, many who never played a down of NFL football, at least not at quarterback. Before shunning both of these leagues remember that quarterbacks such as Warren Moon, Doug Flutie, Kurt Warner, Brad Johnson, and Jay Fiedler have all spent time in either league. With the dearth of quality quarterbacks, it appears at least negligent that personnel departments aren’t considering some of these options. One of the primary complaints against unemployed Black quarterbacks has been a lack of leadership. Kerry Joseph, one of the many Black QBs in the CFL, was the CFL 2007 Most Outstanding Player and won an award for exceptional motivational and leadership skills. When he played with the Seahawks, he was a safety.

Some people have been quick to criticize Daunte Culpepper for not taking the offers of the Packers and the Steelers. Culpepper contended the offers were non-negotiable and below market value. He’s right. Culpepper was offered $1 million by the Packers and the veteran minimum from the Steelers. Black quarterbacks being underpaid is not new, and this was another case of teams attempting to underpay. Excluding the ridiculous rookie contracts, Culpepper would’ve stood to make less than a third of what Rex Grossman, Brad Johnson, Damon Huard, Josh McCown, Patrick Ramsey, and Billy Volek all are being paid. He’d make less than half what Gus Frerotte, Trent Green, and Chris Redman will this season. Culpepper was one of the best young quarterbacks in league, who pushed himself to come back from injury, and landed himself in two bad situations at Miami and Oakland. While these offers seem fair, they both fall well short of market value. In an interview that appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, NFL scout and FOX analyst Chris Landry offered this assessment, “[T]eams right now, because of (Culpepper's and Leftwich's) injury history, or lack of production recently due to the injury, are not willing to give starter money. They are interested in maybe giving them an incentive-laden deal, where if you come in and win the job, then you've got starter money.” Aaron Brooks does not quite measure up to the other two, but according to Landry, “[i]n the right spot, as a backup, heck, he's a guy that's started enough in this league — I think he can be a solid No. 2.” While Leftwich accepted the veteran minimum with the Steelers, Brooks’s phone stays silent, and Culpepper’s patience has worn out.

Seven years after this controversy “died,” it’s one again alive and well. When playoff-caliber quarterbacks such as Daunte Culpepper, Aaron Brooks, and Byron Leftwich sit for months unemployed while other aging quarterbacks continue to find work, something is amiss. The switching of positions at the prep level may be largely unavoidable, and because it grants scholarship opportunities for more young men, it could be argued it should not be avoided. The situation in the NFL, however, needs to be remedied. Personnel departments may not consciously engage in racism, but by choosing to neglect Black quarterbacks, particularly backups, they rob their teams of the best chance to win and perpetuate one of sports most damning stereotypes.

EDIT: I have been informed that referring to Culpepper, Leftwich, and Brooks as playoff-caliber may be excessive. In hindsight, I have to agree, but all three did lead their teams to the playoffs, and that was the genesis of the description.

The Black Quarterback Site
Atlanta Journal-Constitution
New York Times
Canadian Football League

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