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Year of the Black QB

How long will black QBs have to endure racist double standards?

Quarterback guru Quincy Avery works to turn the corner

Last year, Quincy Avery decided to convene a conference to discuss the new realities for young African American quarterbacks. Avery, who privately coaches quarterbacks, was prompted to convene the conference by a racist social media post directed at Houston’s Deshaun Watson, with whom Avery has worked since 2014.

Watson had made a poor decision that contributed to a Texans loss. In a Facebook post that became public, Lynn Redden, the superintendent of the Onalaska school district north of Houston, wrote, “When you need precision decision making you can’t count on a black quarterback.”

“For him to say something like that let people know that, even though we have so many black quarterbacks doing all these great things, we’ve made strides but we haven’t made enough,” Avery said.

Numerically, there have been strides. On Sunday, nine African American quarterbacks will start for NFL teams. The season is young, but black quarterbacks are already making an impact.

Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes continues his brilliant play.

The Indianapolis Colts’ Jacoby Brissett has played well in place of the retired Andrew Luck. Teddy Bridgewater led New Orleans to victory in his first game playing in place of the injured Drew Brees.

From the outside, this is great progress. “It seems rapid from the outside,’’ Avery said, “but as you peel back the layers, it’s not.”

The challenges that previous generations of black quarterbacks faced have simply changed form for a new generation.

“Previously, black quarterbacks had to face overt prejudice,” Avery said earlier this week. “They didn’t think they were smart enough; they looked at athleticism as a negative. Black quarterbacks didn’t get the same opportunities.

“Today it’s systemic: They are afforded opportunities, but they aren’t allowed to be average because they don’t have enough decision-makers who look like them.”

Avery said he wanted to host an event where young black quarterbacks could compare their common experiences: being the only African American in the quarterback room, “dealing with the stigmas about their intelligence or ability to play from the pocket,” he said.

“They are now given the chance to play like themselves. They are not forced to play in a box.” — Quincy Avery

Unlike the rest of players in the largely black locker room, African American quarterbacks are on an island.

“They don’t have black quarterback coaches, black coordinators or GMs [general managers],’’ Avery said. “And those are the people who give them the opportunities.”

Kansas City has a black offensive coordinator, Eric Bieniemy, and Tampa Bay’s quarterbacks coach, Byron Leftwich, is African American. Outside of those two, black offensive coordinators and executives in the NFL are few and far between.

Avery attended Morehouse College, where he played quarterback for two seasons. He spent three seasons as a coach at UCLA and worked as a private quarterback instructor beginning in 2012. Avery also works with Elite 11, a quarterback competition for high school quarterbacks across the country.

Besides Watson, Avery works with Joshua Dobbs, the backup quarterback for the Jacksonville Jaguars. Avery said he began working with Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts last year.

Aside from a numeric shift that has seen the number of black starting quarterbacks increase, the most significant change in this narrative has been the liberation of the black quarterback. Stylistically, he has been set free.

“They are now given the chance to play like themselves,” Avery said. “They are not forced to play in a box. If you are athletic, they let you make plays. If you are Lamar Jackson, they let you be dynamic with your legs; when you are an appropriate passer like Dwayne Haskins, they let you play from the pocket. When you are Pat Mahomes, they don’t overcorrect you, they let you be yourself.”

What remains disheartening — and this affects all aspiring quarterbacks — is the insistence of scouting services to divide quarterbacks into categories that often have racial overtones. The “dual threat” designation primarily refers to black quarterbacks, while “pro style” usually refers to white quarterbacks.

During the quarterback conference last spring, Watson said he was pigeonholed and it cost him a higher position in the NFL draft because he was profiled. “He’s a dual threat, so he can’t read coverages; he can’t read defenses, he can’t be accurate,” Watson said.

“I love sitting in the pocket. I love making those decisions,’’ Watson added. “Anyone asks me if I’d rather run for a touchdown or throw, I’m going to choose pass. But sometimes I feel like I get labeled as a running quarterback a lot more than passing.”

The next significant evolution is to tear down barriers and distinctions around quarterbacks.

“The two types of quarterbacks they try to throw out there are silly,” Avery said. “The only thing that matters is if they can play or cannot. Can they handle a coordinator’s playbook? Being mobile can only be a benefit. We don’t need these terms.”

There has been progress in this area, largely because the coaching establishment has accepted, if not embraced, the reality that so-called athleticism at quarterback is a must.

As recently as a decade ago, there was a deeply ingrained sense that the NFL would never yield to the college game. I remember reading a New Yorker piece written by Malcolm Gladwell that reflected the idea that college football and the NFL were two distinct worlds and never the two would meet. The NFL game was faster, the athletes were superior; the defensive linemen were so much faster than their college counterparts that “they would shoot through those big gaps in the offensive line and flatten the quarterback,” Gladwell wrote.

The logic a decade ago was that quarterbacks who ran the spread in college would struggle in the NFL “because the athleticism these quarterbacks face would be unbelievable.”

Instead, what we have seen in the NFL is equally unbelievable athletes playing quarterback.

This follows an evolution that has resulted in African American players going from being marginalized to becoming forces of nature in the NFL.

A number of years ago, R.C. Owens, the legendary “Alley Oop,” gave me his perspective on the evolutionary trail that led to black players becoming a dominant force in the NFL. Owens, who helped invent the alley-oop pass in pro football, talked about Willie Galimore, the great Chicago Bears running back whose nickname was “Willie the Wisp.”

“He was one of a kind,” Owens said of Galimore, who played for the Bears from 1957 until his death in 1963. “Of course, pretty soon you got more players who were black, and soon everyone was a cloud of dust.”

“What they’re looking for in today’s game, they’re looking for quarterbacks like us, who are dual threats. We’ve always been dual threats, but we were always criticized for it.’’ – Warren Moon

Owens said this created “a domino effect.” “First the running backs, the receivers, then the defensive backs to cover them and the big, fast defensive linemen and linebackers to keep up with them and the big, mobile offensive linemen to block bigger, faster defensive players.”

The same evolution is happening today with black quarterbacks as they neutralize NFL defenses.

They are also making an impact in the broadcast booth. The term “athletic” is being used to describe more white quarterbacks and is no longer a bad word, no longer used to marginalize intelligence.

The word was repeatedly used on Sept. 22 to describe the play of New York Giants rookie quarterback Daniel Jones, playing dynamically in place of Eli Manning.

As broadcasters gushed over Jones’ performance, they lauded him for the athleticism that he brought to the position.

Athleticism has always been an asset. The heartbreak for generations of black quarterbacks is that their athletic ability was cast as a weakness.

“What they’re looking for in today’s game,” Warren Moon said during the conference, “they’re looking for quarterbacks like us, who are dual threats. We’ve always been dual threats, but we were always criticized for it.”

One thing that has not evolved is the double standard by which black and white quarterbacks are judged.

As much as athleticism is being mainstreamed, what Avery is trying to get a generation of young black quarterbacks to understand is that the double standard is alive and well.

“We will know we are there when we have a few black quarterbacks who are the bottom tier of quarterbacks. That’s when you will see we are at a true meritocracy.” – Quincy Avery

In a 2017 interview with The Buffalo News, Tyrod Taylor, who was the Bills’ starting quarterback, was asked if he felt black quarterbacks were held to a higher standard. Taylor said, “It’s always going to be twice as bad just because of who I am — an African American quarterback.

“Look across the league, man. We’re held to a certain standard. We almost have to be perfect.”

Taylor was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens, signed with the Bills as a free agent, started, then made the Pro Bowl and helped the Bills clinch their first playoff berth in 17 years. He was subsequently traded to Cleveland in 2018 and started three games before being injured and replaced by Baker Mayfield.

Taylor is currently a backup with the Los Angeles Chargers.

Will black quarterbacks someday be as prevalent in the NFL as defensive backs and running backs?

“One day,” Avery said. “We are progressing. We are moving in the right direction.”

He added: “We will know we are there when we have a few black quarterbacks who are the bottom tier of quarterbacks. That’s when you will see we are at a true meritocracy.”

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer-at-large for Andscape.