This is about more than a head count.
History has been made this season. Or, at the very least, we’ve got one helluva factoid. There are nine black starting quarterbacks in the NFL this season, more than ever before. It’s the sort of moment that makes observers stop and think about how far we’ve come.
It shouldn’t, of course. That’s an increase from before, but it’s still just over a quarter of the starters in a league that’s majority black. Perhaps it’s a step toward desegregation, but it’s not a time for pats on backs. Instead, it’s time to see what happens.
It’s not like this is the first of these sorts of milestones we’ve seen. The 1999 NFL Draft saw three black quarterbacks go in the first round, two of whom -- Donovan McNabb and Daunte Culpepper -- were elite at their peaks. But from 2001-2009, just six black quarterbacks were taken in the first round (out of 25) . These things ebb and flow. And seeing how all of the current black starters got their jobs since 2009, six have been tagged with the backhanded label “running quarterback,” and no less than six owe their jobs to a very recent expansion of the quarterbacking paradigm, it’s worth considering the current state of affairs before declaring this as anything more an interesting moment in league history.
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Sure, we’re past the point where black quarterbacks, assuming they’re athletic enough, are automatically converted to different positions. But we’re still at a point where black quarterbacks struggle to get jobs if they can’t run -- only one of Rivals’ top 30 “pro-style” quarterbacks, Manny Wilkins, appears to be black -- and might be assumed to be fast because, yanno, they’re black. Hell, even EA Sports is marginalizing two of the most effective quarterbacks in the league as “running quarterbacks,” even though one of them, Russell Wilson, ran for more yards his rookie season than he did in any of his four years as a college starter. Running isn’t Wilson’s thing.
We just endured a season where pundits consistently gave Andrew Luck bonus points for “being asked to do more” because he threw more passes, as if logging 120-plus carries -- a total in line with a backup running back’s workload -- like Robert Griffin III and Cam Newton did last season isn’t a helluva lot to ask a player to do. Or, as if how the job gets done is more important than completion of the job itself.
We’re just two years removed from the media’s assault on Newton in advance of the 2011 NFL Draft, and less than a year removed from the gleeful piling on after he had two bad games in the first half of 2012. All this while being asked to carry a team that, for his first 30 career games, could only win if he didn’t make a single big mistake. Meanwhile Matthew Stafford -- who was drafted two years earlier, received $42 million guaranteed before playing a down, hasn’t won a playoff game, has demonstrated shaky mechanics and clearly regressed last season -- just got a raise! And few asked these sorts of questions before, or after, the deal was done.
We’re just five months removed from Pro Football Weekly’s Nolan Nawrocki’s tragically familiar takedown of Geno Smith, which used unnamed sources to question his work ethic, leadership and intelligence, was quickly refuted by those in the know, but dogged him all the way through his embarrassing stay in the green room and beyond.
We still see major publications twist the words of others to give the impression that Kaepernick, the most impressive performer in Week 1, isn’t smart enough to run his offense ...even though delay of game penalties were a problem for the 49ers under Alex Smith, whose intelligence has been praised since he earned an economics degree from Utah in three years. And this was just two days after NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” broadcast praised the Cowboys for simplifying their calls and adjustments in the name of efficiency.
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We didn’t see the ridiculously talented Jake Locker, an underachiever since his sophomore year of college, roundly dismissed as “an athlete playing quarterback.” And you don’t hear it much now, though he’s a textbook case of that pejorative label.
So, sure, note that there are more black starting quarterbacks, than ever. But stopping to celebrate the fact ignores how much work is left. We’re still in a world where all black quarterbacks are compared to each other, where the transgressions of one dog all the rest who come behind. The disproportionate amount of black quarterbacks who possess uncommon athleticism indicates that, still, black quarterbacks can’t just be better, but must be able to do things decision-makers think a white person simply can’t do.
Their evaluations are loaded with code, and their margin for error is obviously more narrow than their peers. So long as that’s the case, today’s nine starters could be down to five before you know it.
It’s not enough that those gentlemen are starting quarterbacks. Now, we must treat them as such. Not like they’re black, but like they’re quarterbacks. That, not a simple head count, would be progress worth celebrating.