At the three youth football camps Michael Vick has attended this year, he has seen hundreds of kids. Of all the young quarterbacks he has come across, maybe three were left-handed.
“It’s not the same way for everyone else,” Vick said. “If you’re not a prototypical quarterback who can do some exceptional things, and you’re left-handed, then you’re probably going to get overlooked.”
Left-handers make up roughly 12 percent of the United States population, and the NFL has had a defining lefty quarterback in each modern era. Ken Stabler, Boomer Esiason, Steve Young, Vick. Almost every year, left-handers have contributed roughly 5 to 10 percent of the league’s passing yards. Yet after Kellen Moore retired to coach for the Dallas Cowboys following the 2017 season, the percentage of left-handed quarterbacks dropped to 0. None of the roughly 90 signal callers to crack an NFL active roster last season were left-handed, and this season looks as if it’ll be the same.
“We’re an extinct species,” said Matt Leinart, a former lefty QB.
So where have all the left-handed quarterbacks gone? The most popular theory is that baseball steals away strong-armed lefties to pitch, but there are other factors at work. While handedness might not matter to the quarterbacks themselves, it does to many others. Front offices hesitate to accommodate them by changing schematics unless they’re special. Receivers must adjust, too. Youth coaches that specialize in training quarterbacks struggle to adapt.
The implicit bias against left-handers shrinks the margins, leaves no room for the average left-handed quarterback and stretches as far back as the origin of the word “left” itself: Old English’s “lyft,” meaning “weak, useless.”
In the past half-century or so, the once-pervasive left-handed stigma has largely dissipated from Western society. Five of the past eight U.S. presidents were left-handed. There are examples of elite athletes, such as tennis star Rafael Nadal and baseball hitting savant Ichiro Suzuki, who were pushed by relatives to play left-handed to gain a competitive advantage. But at the most important position in America’s favorite game, left-handers become liabilities.
The search to understand why left-handed quarterbacks have disappeared delves into the brain differences between the left and right hand, and it reveals the position on the football field at which handedness might matter most — and it’s not quarterback.
A prized asset in baseball, but a burden in football
For Leinart, football was a happy accident. Before he won the Heisman Trophy at Southern California and became a first-round draft pick of the Arizona Cardinals, he focused on baseball. The 36-year-old now maintains that he would have “100 percent” played baseball were it not for a major shoulder injury before his sophomore year of high school. It caused him too much pain to pitch, but for whatever reason, he could still throw a football.
“Weird,” Leinart says now.
Had Leinart chosen baseball over football, he would hardly have been the first hard-throwing lefty to do so. Coaches from Little League to Major League Baseball prize southpaws because an opponent’s unfamiliarity against them offers a tactical advantage. Last season, of the 795 pitchers to appear in an MLB game, 26 percent were left-handed — more than double the national population.
The left-handed advantage is a concept that traces back centuries to when the Kerr clan of Scotland supposedly taught its soldiers to swordfight left-handed, and it’s still in play today. Studies show that a lefty’s societal weakness can become a situational strength in an array of arenas, including boxing, cricket, fencing, tennis and wrestling.
Some baseball players, such as reliever Tony Sipp, focused on the sport early, understanding that a kid’s infinitesimal odds of becoming a professional athlete grew significantly if he winnowed the competition to left-handers who pitched. Sipp was never a star, but he turned a consistent ability to get left-handed hitters out into more than $20 million over a decade in the majors.
But while lefty arms are rewarded in baseball, football treats them like a burden. The tail that once gave Leinart’s fastball nasty bite made his passes more difficult to catch, because left-handed throws look and spin differently out of the hand. (Kicks, too: For years, one of football’s most well-respected tacticians, New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick, has employed a left-footed punter to trouble unfamiliar opponents.)
Brian Xanders, a senior personnel executive with the Los Angeles Rams, became a left-handed quarterback expert with the Atlanta Falcons during Vick’s tenure and later drafted southpaw Tim Tebow as the Denver Broncos’ general manager.
In both situations, Xanders understood the implications: Teams must prioritize right tackles because they, rather than the left tackle, protect a lefty’s “blind side.” Coaches must alter formations and flip plays, because lefties drop back and run play-action fakes differently.
“If [two quarterbacks] are totally equal in everything, [teams will sign] the right-hander,” Xanders said. “Everyone is more used to it.”
Leinart was deemed to be worth the extra effort. The same was true of Vick, a Heisman finalist at Virginia Tech, and Tebow, a Heisman winner at Florida. Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, considered a probable top pick in the 2020 draft, also fits the mold.
But for left-handed passers who aren’t at the top of their peer group, there remains an aversion.
“I’ll be honest: When I see a lefty [pass], it throws me for a loop,” said Paul Troth, who coaches youth quarterbacks in the Mid-Atlantic region and has seen cases in which college coaches chose not to recruit a quarterback because he was left-handed. “So much of coaching is demonstrating, so I have to flip everything in my brain. That’s probably the most …” He paused. “It’s not annoying, but it’s a hurdle you have to go over.”
Left brain vs. right brain
Stephen Christman has always been fascinated by handedness. The University of Toledo psychology professor is left-handed and experienced strains of an anti-lefty bias growing up in the 1960s, which is around the time left-handedness started becoming more culturally acceptable. His fourth-grade teacher gave him the lowest grade he ever got, a C, when he smudged his cursive. His basketball coach scoffed when his right-handed layups smacked off the backboard.
Christman wanted to understand why he was different. For centuries, experts thought left-handedness was a genetic weakness, but recent analysis of spear-wielding warriors in cave drawings and the teeth-wearing patterns in Stone Age skulls indicated that roughly 10 percent of humans have been left-handed for thousands of years. If lefties were somehow weaker, Christman thought, evolution would’ve thinned their numbers by now. If it were a strength, he’d expect the proportions to slowly increase to about 50-50.
Over time, Christman’s research led him into sports. In 2017 he and a colleague published a study examining four different types of baseball player: bats right, throws right; bats right, throws left; and so on. The pair found one group “stood out dramatically”: players who batted left-handed but threw right-handed (BLTR).
Christman analyzed infielders who fit the description. He found BLTR players had significantly higher batting averages, higher walk rates, lower strikeout rates and better fielding percentages than their counterparts. To Christman, this illustrated a larger point.
There is no difference in overall hand-eye coordination between left- and right-handers. But the left hand is controlled by the right brain, which specializes in “closed-loop” motor activities involving visual feedback, such as watching a baseball and hitting it. The right hand and left brain are specialized in “ballistic” action in which the hand acts without visual feedback, such as judging the distance and speed at which to throw a ball to hit an intended target.
“This is why most humans are better at throwing with their right hand and catching with their left,” Christman wrote in an email.
Left-handers have superior closed-loop motor abilities, which helps explain the overrepresentation of left-handers in closed-loop sports such as boxing, tennis and fencing. But lefties receive no observable advantage in ballistic sports like darts, bowling and golf. Baseball involves both actions, and Christman believes BLTR players are optimized to excel in the field and at the plate.
The more Christman thought about it, the more it made sense that left-handers weren’t overrepresented at quarterback. It’s a ballistic position. Then he thought about closed-loop positions.
“I would predict that left-handers are overrepresented among wide receivers in the NFL,” he wrote.
Anecdotally, the theory made sense. Some of the NFL’s best receivers, including Oakland’s Antonio Brown and Kansas City’s Tyreek Hill, are left-handed. But there was no data. To test Christman’s hypothesis, The Washington Post polled all 32 teams for their wide receivers’ handedness. Twenty-four teams fully or partially participated, with some of those that declined citing competitive advantage concerns.
Of 172 receivers, 9.8 percent considered themselves left-handed, slightly lower than the rest of the population. But if including receivers who responded ambidextrous, the percentage who identify as non-right-handed rises to 14.
“It doesn’t support or refute the idea,” Christman said of the results, adding later that he still believed in his theory and there was more research to be done.
The NFL’s next great lefty (with an asterisk)
The NFL’s drought of left-handed quarterbacks could end as early as next season, when Tagovailoa becomes eligible to enter the draft. It will be a moment a lifetime in the making. Galu Tagovailoa, his father, has focused on molding his son since he was born in 1998. Except, unlike the relatives of Nadal and Suzuki before him, the father wasn’t looking for a competitive advantage.
Early on, Galu realized that Tua was right-handed. Galu was left-handed and, as he told AL.com last year, tired of being a rarity in his family. He resolved to change Tua.
This story intrigued Cobie Brinkman, an Australian psychologist who has studied handedness. She always followed what came naturally, writing with her right hand and drawing with her left. The decision to change someone’s natural ability and ascend the learning curve perplexed her because “it’s unlikely that you’d ever be as good.”
Nothing deterred Galu Tagovailoa. He kept putting the ball in his son’s left hand, watching him throw again and again until he blossomed into one of the best quarterbacks in the country, winning a national championship and becoming a celebrity at Alabama. The NFL’s next great left-handed quarterback is not left-handed.
“It’d be interesting to know,” Brinkman said, “how good [Tagovailoa] would have been if he stayed right-handed.”