Look around. On television. On lists of the best and highest-paid players. On the pop-up ads on your phone. No longer anomalies for their presence, Black quarterbacks are notable for their prominence.
Nearly a third of the NFL’s starting quarterbacks this opening weekend will be Black, while two first-round picks who aren’t yet starting wait for their organizations to give them a shot. This comes after a record 10 Black quarterbacks started last season under center.
“Let’s face it, the coaches today, they want to win,” said James “Shack” Harris, the first Black quarterback to open the season as a starter, in 1969, for the AFL’s Buffalo Bills. Name-checking Mahomes and Jackson, Harris added: “There is no way you can deny playing players with that kind of talent.”
The stereotypes that denied Eldridge Dickey from ever throwing a pass in the league, that pushed Warren Moon to Canada after going undrafted, no longer serve as the same barriers to entry. Enough evidence has accumulated over the past decade to prove that what was once rejected by the NFL is now desired — and, in some instances, required — for success in a pass-happy and speed-obsessed league.
Four of the five highest-paid players in the NFL, three of the past six MVPs and the past two passing yardage leaders are Black quarterbacks. Franchises are seeking more dynamos — dual-threat quarterbacks whose legs can do damage right along with a powerful throwing arm. The position is evolving and being redefined, forcing White quarterbacks to adapt to a game in which success depends on an ability to read defenses and elude them.
Former Black quarterbacks celebrate the shift, though not without skepticism. They realize changes in the game, and the amateur pipeline, have had a more profound impact than any attitude adjustments about race. The breakthrough comes not long after the NFL drove Colin Kaepernick from the league after he spoke out against police brutality and racial injustice, hinting at the limits of power a Black quarterback possesses off the field. It comes as former Black players confront the controversial practice of “race-norming,” basically baked into a landmark concussion settlement, which Black players say makes it more difficult to get payouts.
“Some of the racism has gone away. That doesn’t mean it’s gone,” said Moon, the only modern Black quarterback in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. “But they’re judging these guys fairly now, as opposed to what they used to do. They used to put you in a box.”
Code words and position changes
Moon was once annoyed by the question: When did you stop being a “Black quarterback?”
“As far as I know, when I look down at my skin, I still am a Black quarterback,” Moon said recently with a laugh.
Still, Moon got the point; his production should have superseded any qualifiers. But it never did. He remembers well all that he had to endure to reach the NFL and the slurs and death threats he encountered after he arrived.
Moon is also aware of the generations of former players who were deprived of the opportunity to play quarterback in the NFL, forced instead to switch positions. Growing up in Los Angeles in the 1970s, Moon was able to find inspiration in Harris’s success with the Rams. But a generation before, Harris had no such role models, as the league aggressively resisted allowing Black men to play the game’s most prestigious position.
Harris benefited from having what he called an “ooh wee” arm that made it hard for coaches to play him elsewhere. “An ‘ooh wee’ arm is when you throw that ball and drill it in their chest, and the crowd go, ‘Ooh wee!’ ” Harris said. “If you were a touch passer or you floated the ball or relied on anticipation and timing, you could never get a tryout. You had to have an ‘ooh wee’ arm.”
That was the start. An opportunity, which rarely came for Black quarterbacks, was also needed to see the field. It was 2017 before all 32 teams had started at least one Black quarterback. “I feel America wasn’t ready,” Harris said. “They had to be ready for Black quarterbacks.”
Over a career that has spanned six decades, agent Leigh Steinberg, who has represented Black quarterbacks from Moon to Donovan McNabb to Mahomes, has sat down with dozens of owners and executives, many of whom wouldn’t provide those opportunities.
“Some of this was just not spoken, it was felt,” Steinberg said. “It wasn’t like they were using racially charged language. It wasn’t that they said, ‘No, we don’t want a Black quarterback.’ They’d say, ‘We need someone who would be a great representative for the team.’ They’d use a lot of code words. But nobody was stupid enough to go ever say that in public. It was just an unspoken line, an unspoken racial barrier.”
The athleticism that is now coveted was once an obstacle for Black quarterbacks. Harris recalls running the 40-yard dash and recording such an impressive time that a coach advised him not to do it again. If he did, he risked being moved to a different position, as many of his peers were forced to do to remain in the league.
“I started for three teams. Made the Pro Bowl. They still was saying, ‘Could Blacks play quarterback?’ ” said Harris, a 1969 eighth-round pick from Grambling who would later become director of pro personnel for the Baltimore Ravens. “I had to customize my game, where I didn’t do any running. You didn’t try to scramble when you had to. The more athletic ability that you showed, the more they talked about you playing another position. I was just one of the few who didn’t switch. I was asked at all levels. I just refused.”
Each milestone advanced the movement. Harris’s refusal led to Moon joining the NFL in 1984 as the league’s highest-paid player, which led to Doug Williams’s Super Bowl breakthrough in 1987, which led to Michael Vick going first overall in 2001, which led to Steve McNair becoming the first Black league MVP two years later.
Draft night is the easiest way to chart the charge that led to this moment. The Oakland Raiders made Dickey the first Black quarterback to be selected in the first round of the NFL/AFL common draft in 1968, but he never took a snap. Williams went next 10 years later, but only two more Black quarterbacks, Andre Ware and McNair, were drafted in the first round over the next 17 years. Then came the historic 1999 draft class in which McNabb, Akili Smith and Daunte Culpepper all went in the top 11. Still, at the start of the millennium, the club of first-round Black quarterbacks counted just seven members.
Thirteen Black quarterbacks have gone in the first round since 2011, including three more No. 1 overall picks (Cam Newton, Jameis Winston and Kyler Murray) and three more MVPs (Newton, Mahomes and Jackson). Mahomes has also led his franchise to a Super Bowl title, joining Williams and second-round pick Russell Wilson as the only Black quarterbacks in that elite fraternity. Six of the past nine Super Bowls have featured a Black starting quarterback.
This year was the third time in the past five years that two Black quarterbacks, Trey Lance and Justin Fields, went in the first round. Acceptance at the amateur level has trickled up to the pros, where the best counter to speed and athleticism on defense is weaponizing those talents in a quarterback.
“There’s tons of young Black athletes watching the draft that say, ‘Hey, that can be me,’ ” Steinberg said. “It’s symbolic. Pro football is the most popular sport in the country. It’s also the most popular TV show. And it’s one thing to have other positions, but to have the team leader, the representative of the team, be African American is really inspirational, so it triggers new generations.”
For Moon, the 2019 season was the culmination of years of barrier-breaking work from generations of Black quarterbacks. Murray was drafted No. 1 overall, Jackson won regular season MVP and Mahomes won Super Bowl MVP.
This season, nine of the league’s 32 opening weekend starting quarterbacks will be Black. Most aren’t only the faces of their franchises, they’re being pushed as the faces of the league. Mahomes and Jackson will meet Sept. 19 in the second-ever matchup of Black QBs who are former MVPs. Mahomes will later face Dak Prescott in a matchup of the highest-paid and third-highest-paid players in NFL history.
Even with Newton losing his battle with Mac Jones in New England, and with sexual assault allegations muddling Texans star Deshaun Watson’s future, the representation is strong. After a year as an understudy, Winston replaced Drew Brees in New Orleans. Tyrod Taylor will lead the Texans until further notice. Teddy Bridgewater will become the first Black quarterback to start an opener for the Denver Broncos, the franchise with which Marlin Briscoe, in 1968, became the first Black quarterback to start a game in the modern NFL.
McNabb says he’s watching these signal callers thrive despite dealing with the same tired tropes about their acumen, accuracy and commitment. Jackson might have an MVP trophy, but before he was drafted, Bill Polian, the Hall of Fame former executive, suggested on ESPN that Jackson switch to wide receiver.
“Does he really like football? Is it his passion? Is he the first one in the building, last one to leave? Can he have the keys to the organization and be an extension of the owner and the coach? Is he a guy that can lead you to a Super Bowl?” McNabb said, rattling off the questions routinely raised about Black quarterbacks. “You always hear that, but you don’t hear that about your contemporaries. All you hear about is how smart they are, their leadership, their passion for the game. It’s funny to me.”
The flaws in that thinking have led some front offices to re-examine their evaluations, looking to avoid repeating their mistakes. The San Francisco 49ers are one year removed from a Super Bowl appearance in which they led by double digits in the fourth quarter with a popular White quarterback. Yet Coach Kyle Shanahan traded up nine spots and surrendered multiple draft assets to get Lance. The Chicago Bears — who have lived for four years with the blunder of passing on both Mahomes and Watson in favor of Mitch Trubisky — traded up nine spots for Fields.
But of the five quarterbacks taken in the first round in April, only the two Black signal-callers will open the season holding clipboards. Murray, Newton, Wilson, Robert Griffin III and Winston are the only Black quarterbacks drafted in the past 20 years who started a season opener as a rookie.
The double standard with how Black quarterbacks are welcomed into the league remains unnerving for McNabb, who went No. 2 overall but didn’t start until the 10th game of his rookie season. He was entrenched the next nine seasons, earning six Pro Bowl trips and leading the organization to five NFC championship games and a Super Bowl.
“Am I surprised? No. Does it still bother me? Yes,” he said.
“Here we are, the fact that Patrick Mahomes just lost this Super Bowl, now everybody is questioning: ‘Can he do it again? Is he good enough?’ He’s a great player. All of a sudden, we’re questioning Patrick Mahomes,” McNabb said. “And then you’ve got Russell Wilson. Talking about: ‘He hasn’t won an MVP. Can he lead them back to the Super Bowl?’ Yet we glorify Aaron Rodgers, who is 1-4 in conference championships, the same record that I had, being in five NFC championships, and we’re talking about him as if he’s competing with Tom Brady as the GOAT.”
Moon said some level of scrutiny comes with the territory for a starting quarterback in the NFL, regardless of race. But certain preconceived notions will never fully go away.
“Those things are going to continue to happen. I don’t think it’s ever going to be a perfect science for African Americans, in any form of life,” Moon said. “We’re going to always be judged differently because there is that bias and prejudice and that bigotry that’s going to always be there.”
Still, Moon held out hope that label he grew so tired of will eventually fall away.
“We’re still always referred to as Black quarterbacks,” Moon added. “One day we won’t be. And hopefully that day will come when we don’t have to bring that up all the time. We’re getting closer to that.”