For Black quarterbacks in the NFL, things have never been better.
There are more superstar African American passers than at any time previously in league history, and club owners are eager to build around these franchise QBs. Five Black signal-callers currently rank among the top 10 highest-paid players in NFL history, and Deshaun Watson of the Cleveland Browns and Kyler Murray of the Arizona Cardinals are first and second, respectively, with contracts that include the most guaranteed money ever.
Once the most marginalized group in professional sports’ most successful and powerful league, Black passers have risen to a once-unfathomable position of influence. In fact, we’re now in the era of the Black quarterback.
Progress, however, doesn’t mean the playing field is now level, or as level as it can be, for Black men at the most important position in sports. For Black quarterbacks, the events of the opening week of training camp reinforced that sobering reality.
As work resumed on the field, Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs and Lamar Jackson of the Baltimore Ravens — two of the NFL’s most decorated players regardless of race — faced criticism about their performance from, supposedly, defensive coordinators who were too cowardly to put their names behind their words. And Murray addressed concerns about his work ethic stirred by the actions of the franchise that recently rewarded him with a massive contract extension.
It all added up to Black quarterbacks being under the spotlight again for all the wrong reasons, bringing to mind most of NFL history, when these sorts of slights were as commonplace as they are offensive.
Let’s start with the ludicrous assessment of Mahomes’ play.
In The Athletic’s annual survey ranking NFL quarterbacks published July 25, Mahomes finished second overall in the aggregate survey to Green Bay Packers signal-caller Aaron Rodgers. But Mahomes and Rodgers would have shared the top spot, The Athletic wrote, if not for one “contrarian voter” who labeled Mahomes a Tier 2 passer.
A “veteran defensive playcaller,” whom The Athletic did not identify, said that he loves “Mahomes because of his unorthodox throws, not because of his natural pocket presence. And when that disappears, that is when they lose games. I don’t think that is a [Tier] 1 [QB]. I think that is a [Tier] 2 [QB]. Nothing against the guy. I love the kid. But take his first read away and what does he do? He runs, he scrambles and he plays streetball.”
So much of that quote is nonsensical that unpacking it all would be laborious. But it needs to done.
Here’s a little secret: Every defense aspires to eliminate an opposing quarterback’s first read. It’s a fundamental practice.
Often, against a top-notch defense, all of a quarterback’s reads on a play may be covered well. That’s when great quarterbacks still succeed by thriving off-schedule. And since Mahomes’ groundbreaking first season as a starter, after which he won the Associated Press NFL MVP award, no quarterback has been better at making off-schedule magic.
The other nonsensical part of the quote is that the Chiefs are losing games because of Mahomes’ supposed deficiencies as a quarterback — in the veteran defensive playcaller’s assessment, anyway. What?
In the Super Bowl era, Hall of Famer Ken Stabler has the best record for a quarterback through 50 career starts with a mark of 40-9-1. Guess who’s second? In his first 50 starts, Mahomes is 40-10.
With Mahomes behind center, the Chiefs became the first franchise in NFL history to host four straight conference championship games. When he was only 24, Mahomes became the the youngest player to have a Super Bowl title, a Super Bowl MVP award and a league MVP award. The point is, since Mahomes became their QB1, the Chiefs haven’t lost often.
Lastly, there’s the “streetball” thing. Considering the systemic racism Black quarterbacks have faced historically at all levels of the game, that sure comes off as coded language meant to disparage Mahomes’ ability to read the entire field, which brings to mind racist, outdated views about the intelligence of Black quarterbacks in general.
Chiefs head coach Andy Reid quickly shut down that nonsense.
“A lot of coaches have to teach guys how to roll out and call plays and he just does it — no, he’s tremendous, he’s tremendous,” Reid told reporters. “You guys [sportswriters] look at … all [of] those things [analytical sites], so just take a peek at that and see how many times he hits the second receiver.”
Responding to the anonymous criticism, Mahomes spoke on behalf of all Black quarterbacks — past, present and future.
“I mean, obviously the Black quarterback has had [to] battle to be in this position to have this many guys in the league playing, and every day we’re proving that we should have been playing the whole time,” he said. “We got guys that think just as well as they use their athleticism.
“So it always is weird when you see guys like me, Lamar, Kyler kind of get that [narrative] on them and other guys don’t. But at the same time, we’re going to go out there every day and show that we can be some of the best quarterbacks in the league.”
Even before Jackson entered the league, he was told he shouldn’t even attempt to play the position. Remember: Accomplished player-personnel men said that Jackson, in the NFL, was best suited to play wide receiver or running back.
Then the Baltimore Ravens dismantled their offense, rebuilt it to fit Jackson’s skill set and were rewarded spectacularly. Jackson finished his breakthrough sophomore season with a haul of major hardware, winning both the AP and Pro Bowl MVP awards.
Jackson and New England Patriots passer Tom Brady, widely considered the greatest quarterback in the game’s history, are the only unanimous winners of the AP MVP award. Not bad for someone who — based on outdated, wrongheaded thinking — should have never taken a snap from center in the NFL.
Although those observations about Jackson needing to change positions haven’t aged well, Jackson has remained under attack. The anonymous rip job in The Athletic is the latest example of what he continues to face.
“If he has to pass to win the game, they ain’t winning the game,” another anonymous defensive coordinator said. “He’s so unique as an athlete and he’s a really good football player, but I don’t give a s— if he wins the league MVP 12 times, I don’t think he’ll ever be one as a quarterback. He’ll be one as a football player, but not as a quarterback.”
No one could credibly argue that Jackson is the NFL’s best pocket passer. And although there are metrics that show Jackson’s progress in the pocket, he must continue to make strides in the dropback game. That’s fair.
Much of the narrative about Jackson as a passer, however, is highly flawed — and anonymous quotes only fuel the wrongheaded thinking. The Ravens can win with Jackson passing the ball. Heck, they have. Often. Like in Week 5 last season against the Indianapolis Colts.
With Jackson delivering a virtuoso performance passing (he threw 442 yards, four touchdowns and a pair of two-point conversations), the Ravens overcame a 19-point deficit during a 31-25 victory in overtime. Jackson’s 86% completion rate was the highest of any quarterback in NFL history who’s attempted more than 40 passes in a game, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Jackson became the first passer in NFL history with at least 400 passing yards and a completion percentage above 85% in a game, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Granted, one great passing performance does not an elite passer make. But Jackson isn’t close to being as ineffective as his doubters contend. That’s a lazy narrative.
Also, Jackson is far from being a finished product. This season will only be his fourth as Baltimore’s Week 1 starter. Based on what Jackson has accomplished to this point and his improvement, the Ravens do, in fact, have a talented quarterback they should continue to back.
The Cardinals do as well, though last week it was difficult to tell how they view the Pro Bowler.
On the one hand, the Cardinals gave Murray the contract extension he demanded, guaranteeing him $160 million for injury and $105 million at signing. But the contract also included language mandating that Murray must study four hours of film a week when he’s away from the team facility. After the independent study addendum was widely slammed, the Cardinals removed it from Murray’s contract.
Too late. The damage was already done, said Warren Moon.
Moon, the only Black passer enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, said the language initially included in Murray’s contract “reinforces the idea that we [Black quarterbacks] are lazy and have to be required to study. No matter how much we accomplish and how hard we work to achieve, things like that just make some people say, ‘See. I told you so.’ ”
The Cardinals really stepped into it.
Someone (multiple people?) up high enough in the organization to have influence over the franchise quarterback’s contract extension had concerns about Murray’s study habits. There’s no other way to look at it.
To add that language to the final paperwork, however, makes everyone involved look awful. If the Cardinals are really that concerned about Murray, they shouldn’t have given him the deal. Murray’s agent should have insisted the language be removed.
Now, the whole episode could be a cloud over Murray for the remainder of his career. It’s not where Murray expected to be after winning the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year award and being selected a Pro Bowler twice.
“To think that I can accomplish everything that I’ve accomplished in my career, and not be a student of the game and not have that passion and not take this serious is disrespectful,” Murray told reporters. “And it’s almost a joke.
“To me, I’m flattered … that you all think that at my size, I can go out there and not prepare for the game and not take it serious. It’s disrespectful, I feel like, to my peers, to all the great athletes and great players that are in this league. This game is too hard to play the position that I play in this league. It’s too hard.”
Perhaps the Cardinals are generally OK with Murray’s study habits, but just wanted to nudge him to do a little more in an effort to realize his full potential. And it’s fair for Mahomes and Jackson to be evaluated and criticized, fairly, where criticism is warranted.
There are no sacred cows. No one in the NFL is redshirting. The scoreboard tells the story — and everyone is judged accordingly. That’s the deal.
Problem is, even for today’s superstar Black quarterbacks, when it comes to any question about intelligence, possessing the basic skills required to compete at the position or the requisite work ethic, things are, well, still too often viewed in Black and white.