Black quarterbacks win Heisman Trophies, are taken first overall in the NFL draft, earn MVPs, win Super Bowls. Racial stigma and quarterbacking should be in the past tense by now.
But on Saturday, Clemson’s Deshaun Watson and Louisville’s Lamar Jackson will face each other in a showdown between Heisman candidates who have opposite takes on how people will view them as black quarterbacks in America today.
The term used for both is “dual-threat quarterback.” On the surface, all that means is they are players who have the ability to pass and run. But Watson says it means a whole lot more. He told Bleacher Report recently it’s “a code word.”
“People have assumed that I have to run the ball before I can throw it,” he said. “It’s a stereotype put on me for a long time because I’m African-American.”
Meanwhile, Jackson told B/R he didn’t think of it as a stereotype, and certainly not something that will hurt his career. In fact, he thinks it can only help.
“A race thing?” he said. “No.”
So who’s right?
Race is too complicated a subject to answer that question—for one to be right, one to be wrong. But the sport has progressed. Just ask Warren Moon.
Moon is a walking, talking history lesson on the subject. The first black quarterback to get into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he was among the early black QBs who paved the way for players such as Cam Newton and Michael Vick, Donovan McNabb, Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson, Teddy Bridgewater—and now Watson and Jackson.
Moon understands Watson’s feelings, which are based on history. But he also points out how much has changed and says this isn’t as much of an issue anymore, if at all.
“Today, for these kids, there’s no reason why they can’t get a look [from the NFL],” Moon says. “They’re going to be seen no matter what. You could go to Slippery Rock and if you can play, they’ll find you. These stereotypes and labels come a lot more out of the media than out of football. The people in football, they wouldn’t be drafting these guys as high as they do now if they were worried about it.”
Moon speaks from experience. Out of high school, no one recruited him to be a quarterback, only to come in and change position. That is based on the same stereotypes Watson is talking about. Moon went to a junior college where he could be a quarterback. Only two major college teams recruited him to be a quarterback after that. Two years later, he was the MVP of the Rose Bowl for Washington.
And then no NFL team drafted him.
“A lot of people thought I was a lot smaller guy than I was coming out of college,” says Moon, who says he’s 6’2⅞”. “They never looked to see what I was. Back then, they didn’t scout guys the way they do now. I wasn’t even invited to the combine. No teams gave me an individual workout.
“What could I do about it?”
What he did was start his career in the Canadian Football League. After six more years of proving himself, he finally got into the NFL, where he would make nine Pro Bowls.
Moon acknowledges the “run-first” label, if not the “dual-threat” one, has been difficult for plenty of black quarterbacks to handle. So he understands what Watson is struggling with, but he adds, “As long as they make sure the passing side of their ‘dual threat’ is the dominant side of what they do, they shouldn’t have a problem with it.”
He points out that run-first dual-threats don’t make it in the NFL now, black or white. He mentions Tim Tebow. But Tebow is white and kept getting opportunities even after it was clear he wasn’t much of a passer. He was labeled a “leader” or “winner.” A black quarterback with the same skill set might not get those chances.
Moon says the reason Watson and Jackson should concentrate on passing first isn’t because of racial stereotypes, though. It’s because that’s what NFL teams want: a passing quarterback. He says there isn’t an issue anymore about whether the NFL thinks a black quarterback can do the job.
“Having the running ability is just something else you have in your pocket,” Moon said. “That’s just an added luxury.”
But not a luxury to be taken lightly. Griffin, Moon says, “is not a very smart runner. He uses it too much.” And he says the stigma “bothered Donovan [McNabb].”
“There were African-American writers in [Philadelphia] who labeled him an Uncle Tom because he didn’t want to be labeled a scrambling quarterback. So he just didn’t run.
“You don’t want to do that, either. Use it smartly. But Donovan was a big, heavy guy who could move around, and he was known more for his passing by the time his career ended.”
Things have changed. Three of the past six Heisman winners and four of the past 10—including Newton, Griffin, Troy Smith and Jameis Winston—have been black quarterbacks. Before that, black quarterbacks had won two of the previous 71 Heismans. Two of the past six top picks in the NFL draft were black quarterbacks. And one of the starting quarterbacks has been black in each of the past four Super Bowls.
As writer Jason Whitlock, co-host of FS1’s Speak For Yourself, wrote on J.school: “America, by and large, no longer fears a black quarterback. We won.”
Jackson, like Watson, has proved to be a talented runner and passer, and not your stereotypical tall, strong-armed statue planted in the pocket. He said that by now, everyone has seen that “Cam [Newton] can pass. Michael Vick can pass. Nah, I don’t think that [the dual-threat label is code].”
Still, it sticks with Watson, even though most projections see him as an early first-round draft pick which has him. Moon, who is now a radio analyst for the Seahawks and president and co-founder of Sports 1 Marketing, says, “If I were him, I wouldn’t be offended by it.”
But can you blame Watson? His perceptions are based on things that didn’t start dramatically changing until just the past few years. Moon tells stories that sound as if they should have happened in the 1950s. Instead, he retired in 2001 and became the first black QB in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2006.
“I don’t know why that stereotype is still around,” Watson said. “It’s about talent and the ability to throw the ball, not the color of your skin or your ability to also be a dangerous runner. It bothered me when I was young until I finally realized the only way to change it is to make your mark on the field and force them to see. So that’s what I’ve been doing.”
It’s one of the big reasons Jackson chose to play for Louisville. He wanted to be with coach Bobby Petrino, who runs a pro-style offense and has developed pro-style quarterbacks.
“I noticed a lot of dual-threat quarterbacks in the shotgun or in the pistol, and a lot of them don’t last forever…” Jackson said. “I want to go to the next level and be able to be in the pocket, drop back. I don’t want to be known as a spread-option quarterback. I just want to be like everyone else.
“Balanced. I want to be balanced. I can do either one. Whatever wins.”
In spring drills, whenever a play would break down and Jackson would start running, Petrino would blow the whistle to stop the play. Jackson would complain that he could have scored a touchdown, and Petrino said he didn’t want to see a score with his legs, but with his arm. He said the goal was to take Jackson’s legs away.
It’s just too many weapons. That’s not a negative to the NFL.
No one is afraid anymore.
Greg Couch covers college football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter at @gregcouch.
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Source: Bleacher Report-CFB News