Speculating in a Minefield: Race and Quarterbacking

Newton has the ideal personnel for play action passing, but as Lance Zierlein said weeks ago when we talked "On the Couch" with Sigmund Bloom, the zone read offense hinders use of it. it's one of the reasons I wonder if this approach might be hurting the long-term development of quarterbacks. Photo by PDA.Photo
Newton has the ideal personnel for play action passing, but as Lance Zierlein said weeks ago when we talked “On the Couch” with Sigmund Bloom, the zone read offense hinders use of it. it’s one of the reasons I wonder if this approach might be hurting the long-term development of quarterbacks. Photo by PDA.Photo

Recently, ESPN’s Matt Williamson and I were on Sigmund Bloom’s “On the Couch” podcast and Bloom broached the topic of Cam Newton. Williamson went first and talked about why he believes in Cam Newton’s talent. One of the things Williamson mentioned was that if Newton, and eventually Robert Griffin, are to develop into winning NFL quarterback they will need to transition into pure pocket passers that can sometimes run.

I couldn’t agree more. Until this conversation that ensued On the Couch I’ve been having an internal debate about publishing this post. Then when David Whitley wrote his column about Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback’s tattoos and the nature of some of the criticism from readers, I decided it would be a good idea to post this piece. 


The white hoods and the Jim Crow era signs may be a relic in our country, but racism still exists. To be clear, I’m not talking about hate-speech, cross burning, and criminal violence.  It’s true that this in-your-face, brand of intolerance and rage still exists in the dark corners of every community of our country. That’s not what this is about.

Racism is not always about hate. But it is always rooted in ignorance – even when the intentions are noble. Without a well-spring of knowledge to nourish those good intentions, ignorance can take root.

A writer whom I admire recently finished a story that featured a mentoring experience between an executive and a young man. The businessman went above and beyond to assist this young man. He saw shades of his youth in his men-tee. The executive is white. The young man is black.

When the writer finished his draft of the story, he described the young man as a “smart, motivated, and hopeful young black man.”

I know this writer’s work and I’ve met him numerous times and there’s no question in my mind that his description of the young man was well-intentioned. It’s also a case where I believe this writer’s age and experiences influenced his decision to include the young man’s race in the sentence. I know that he wanted to underscore the point to his audience that this young black man is an example of many other black men in the world with the same positive characteristics.

This isn’t cross-burning, white-hooded, racism, but it is a subtler strain steeped in well-intentioned ignorance. Injecting race into a story when the context doesn’t call for it has an unintentional consequence. Describing a subject of a story as a “smart, motivated, and hopeful black man,” infers that there’s something about this combination of characteristics in a human being that is unusual rather than the norm.

If the subject of this story was the evolution of human rights in our country then it might make sense to point out an individual’s race in the context of the story. However, using it when the story has nothing to do with race infers that people of color don’t normally have the same capacity of intelligence, work ethic, and optimism as white people. I’ve been guilty of doing this in conversation before. I would have have been angered if someone accused me of racism for doing so.

That’s part of the delicate nature of the topic of race in our country. The word “racism” is loaded with a history of violent imagery. When a well-intentioned human being in our country is told he or she is ignorant about a matter of race, it’s a common reaction to react as if they were accused of being complicit in crimes against humanity. It’s what makes the topic of race in this country a confusing and emotionally-charged minefield.

It should be.

Slavery was physical, emotional, and spiritual abuse of the worst kind. What people don’t think about is that the actions damaged both the abuser and the abused. And like any radioactive material, the fallout takes much longer to leave our nation’s psyche than the system that was dismantled decades ago.

However, the next time you hear someone comment, ‘slavery is over,’ it would be wise to consider that the fiscal and personal toll from the system’s infrastructure is still rippling through our nation on several levels even if the actual enslavement is gone. It doesn’t mean that you should feel guilty for something that you didn’t do. However, it will help our country come together on this issue if we all learn how to avoid perpetuating ideas – subtle or otherwise – that haven’t changed enough.

There are still bastions of football writing that continue to perpetuate these well-intentioned, but ignorant ideas.

The truth is that there are individuals of every race and gender that have special physical, mental, and emotional characteristics in abundance. Genetics may play a role in exceptional achievements – both positive and negative – but that’s also not exclusive of race. The way that our society reacts to skin color often has external influences on individuals and how they use these qualities.

This well-intentioned mindset can have the unintended consequence of harming those they wish to help. It sends the message that, even when the starting points and resources are relatively equal, that people of color need the help of white people to achieve the same things. This mindset can be just as limiting long-term as the more virulent strains of examples of racism because it subtly ingrains stereotypes.

It still happens in football writing.

I don’t see David Whitley’s piece about Colin Kaepernick as racist. The Sporting News writer’s column is about image and leadership, specifically tattoos and what they state about the image and perception of leadership. As I mentioned yesterday, I disagree with Whitley’s perspective. Quarterbacks should not be regarded as CEOs. It’s an inaccurate analogy. Quarterbacks don’t hire and fire. They don’t make financial decisions for the team. They aren’t the first, second, or even third voice that is important for an NFL organization. If Whitley was going to make a more accurate, but still misguided, business analogy he should have considered the position of quarterback as a middle manager.

In my view, all quarterbacks are military leaders-tribal warriors more than they are businessmen. See below. Photo of Colin Kaepernick by Jason Ku Photography.
CEO or tribal-military warrior? Photo of Colin Kaepernick by Jason Ku Photography.

Taking a quick tangent, the reason I think Whitley is off base with his quarterback-as-CEO argument is that a football field is not a corporate office or boardroom; it’s more like a battleground. Football teams are more like tribes or military units. Because of the physical commitment involved with playing the game that can lead to permanent, long-term disability, or even loss of life, quarterbacks are more like warrior-leaders.

I don’t know about you, but I want a man willing to permanently mark his skin with ink to swear allegiance to his beliefs. That’s the kind of person who is willing to sacrifice his body for what he believes in. There’s no lasting sacrifice demonstrated with a haircut and an Armani suit.

But back to Whitley’s mistake that invited speculation of racism. I believe it occurred when he wrote: It’s not just a white thing, I hope.

He didn’t need to inject race into the equation. It was his decision, and that of his editor to leave it there, which made race an issue in a piece that’s only true position is to rail against tattoos for quarterbacks.

Whitley’s context of race was well-meaning, but inappropriate. When looking at the context of how the NFL openly questioned the intellectual capabilities of black athletes, it made sense to discuss Doug Williams’ blackness when he helped the Redskins win the Super Bowl. It was a historical moment.

Yet, to say that Robert Griffin is an intelligent, articulate, hard-working, black man in a story about him is unnecessary if the context isn’t about the role of race and athletics in American society. Ask yourself this question: when would it be necessary to describe Andrew Luck as a passionate, athletic, and tough as nails, white man in a sports story? Moreover, is Andrew Luck ever described as a “white man” in the average sports story?

The use of “black” as a descriptor is something I hear friends and colleagues use in situations that aren’t necessary. If I were at a future Redskins-Colts football game with my daughter and Luck and Griffin were both in grey sweats having a conversation at the 50 yard-line, I’ll point and say, “The black dude,” if she asks me,  “Which quarterback is Griffin?” If I’m describing the skill of a player, or the personality of an individual’s “blackness” or “whiteness,” then color rarely needs to be a part of the equation.

If it does, ask yourself why its so important that you include race in the context of what you’re telling. Does it need to be for you, or your audience?

The unintentional dark comedy of this entire uproar from writers and bloggers who I’ve seen brand this piece as racist is that the most vocal ones I saw online where white men. It’s usually white men who are quick to correct my wife that she is not black, but ‘African-American.’ Well-intended, but incredibly ignorant.  Most black people in this country have an ancestry of people that hailed from a variety of nations and races. While some people will say that the term was coined by black people (I’ve seen some cite Jesse Jackson) it was white people in America who began using this term as early as the 1850s.

It never occurred to these white male writers that the writer is the father to two black girls, or that the editor is black. It’s not to say that black people are incapable of being racist (If you were one of those white people railing against Whitley don’t be offended that I’m poking fun at you – some of you meant well), but it is sad and funny to me that two writers who should understand the nuance of the issue of race in this country failed to successfully navigate the racial minefield. Of course some may even say they willfully tripped the wires to get attention.

This public service announcement about the state of race in the United States is a necessary prelude to the range of thoughts I am sharing below about Cam Newton, Robert Griffin, and any other quarterback with the incredible physical gifts to thread the needle with his arms and gain huge chunks of yards with his legs. I want my future analysis to be an honest examination of the idea that certain black quarterbacks could see their long-term development stunted because of coaches willing to take a slower transition with a college-based offense or an offense where running is highly encouraged.

Kordell Stewart, Michael Vick, Vince Young, Cam Newton, and Robert Griffin may have looked like superstars in these offenses early in their careers, but in the case of Stewart, Vick, and Young, they didn’t make the transition into pocket passers the way that Donovan McNabb and Steve McNair did and they may ultimately struggled. I fear Newton and Griffin could find themselves along the same road where the team had great intentions, but they didn’t force their quarterbacks to take the harder, but more fulfilling development path.

However, I see evidence where ignorance may take root in terms of the responses I’ll receive. It’s why I think it is important to map the minefield before I take you through it. I want to say upfront that I have no definitive answers. I don’t know if I’m right. My concerns might be unwarranted, but I do see a link between these progressive ideas in football and how they could mimic the progressive or liberal ideas that some in our country have with race. Both have good intentions, but sometimes do more harm than good.  I want to be able to say them while providing enough context that hopefully most people will understand that this is a delicate and nuanced issue and I’m sharing my thoughts, but not making hard conclusions.

Navigating the Minefield

What I fear is that the Redskins and Panthers’ offenses systems, which have been retrofitted to ease the short-term transition of Robert Griffin and Cam Newton, may actually do a disservice to the long-term development of these fantastic quarterback talents. I believe the validity of my concerns will ultimately hinge on how effective these spread offensive concepts taken from the college game will chip away at the validity of the old truism “a successful NFL quarterback must win from the pocket.”

Why race becomes part of the issue is tricky.

The Panthers and Redskins seem more willing to use college option concepts with Newton and Griffin than the 49ers and Broncos were with Alex Smith and Tim Tebow. Both Smith and Tebow were spread option stars at the college level. The 49ers set about grooming Smith to become a pocket passer. Tebow was merely an option of desperation that John Elway tossed aside as soon as the Broncos season ended. If he couldn’t land Peyton Manning, the consummate pocket quarterback, I have no doubts that Elway would have moved heaven and earth to acquire one in the draft with more refined skill than rookie Brock Osweiler.

Alex Smith was a successful college runner-passer in a spread system. Why did the 49ers opt to force him into developing pocket passer? I have no clear answer, but it is food for thought. Photo by  Jason Ku Photography.
Alex Smith was a successful college runner-passer in a spread system. Why did the 49ers opt to force him into developing pocket passer? I hope I’m wrong, but it is food for thought that race was a subconscious factor into the decision-making equation with Newton and Griffin. Photo by Jason Ku Photography.

Tebow’s lack of developed arm talent is an easy reason to explain why no team is willing to invest in him as a starter in an option-based system like Newton and Griffin. Smith is a different story. Gil Brandt reported from Smith’s pre-draft workout that he hadn’t seen as impressive of a performance since Troy Aikman. Remember that Smith was also a dangerous runner at Utah.

It doesn’t take a scout to see the difference between Smith’s size and speed in comparison to Newton and Griffin. However, the 49ers have picked its spots to use Smith’s prowess as a runner. At 6’4″ and an athletic, 217 pounds, Smith was as successful running a spread option as a ball carrier as Newton and Griffin. I doubt he has the athleticism to gain the yardage in chunks that Newton and Griffin have, but I don’t think the overall effectiveness within the scope of a pro offense fitted for Smith to run would have yielded dramatically different results. Here is each player’s rushing stats during their final college season.

Player Att Yds TD
Smith 135 631 10
Griffin 161 699 10
Newton 264 1473 20

From the standpoint of yards per carry and touchdowns per attempt, there’s not a significant difference. This could just have to do with individual preference and willingness of coaches, but I do wonder that, when it comes to teams opting to employ an offense with the quarterback as part-runner and part-passer, if race was a subconscious factor to take that risk.

My fear is that teams are opting to exploit Griffin’s and Newton’s athletic talents now at the cost of their vast potential to develop into true pocket passers later. It’s not an intentional exploitation based on race, but if a player like Newton begins to falter, then the commentary then leads to similar type of grilling that Vince Young or Kordell Stewart earned. The fact that some fans drew parallels between Newton and Vince Young was unfair to Newton and I think some of it had to do with race.

The motivation of these teams  is to maximize Newton and Griffin’s talents to win now. That is admirable and in some ways progressive thinking. But unless the teams find the right combination of quarterback and offense, these players’ lack of pocket development and reading the entire field could set them back in terms of traditional skills.

This view could find its way to the historic dustbin faster than Griffin can cover 30 yards in the open field. The reason is that they may change NFL quarterbacking with their athleticism. But until they do so over a period of years, I won’t believe it.

It has been a truism for decades that in the NFL the quarterback must be able to win from the pocket. Steve Young, Randall Cunningham, Donovan McNabb, Steve McNair, and to some extent Ben Roethlisberger, all had to learn to play better from the pocket to elevate their game.

Now coaches are injecting spread principles into the NFL game, including the zone-read options. This may accelerate statistical production and big-play development, but we haven’t seen lasting proof that the offenses are leading to victories or long-term development of the quarterbacks at the wheel. I want to see Robert Griffin and Cam Newton win and win big. I want them to develop into great quarterbacks.

Perhaps they will never need to lean solely on these pocket skills and they will indeed change the NFL game. If so, that’s terrific. However, I’m skeptical because I believe the hits will take a toll with age. If they are part running back, think about the life expectancy of a runner’s career versus a quarterback’s and you have to begin subtracting years.

Of course there’s no guarantee either Newton or Griffin will develop into a great pocket passer any more than Alex Smith, Sam Bradford, or anything other big-time white quarterback entering the league. Call me old-school, but I’d like to see these teams try. Let Newton and Griffin take their lumps from defenses, coaches, fans, and media as they work on the tried-and-true skills of quarterbacking. I think it’s better to do so earlier where hitting a wall is expected than to give them early success and become the equivalent of many child stars in Hollywood.

If they can do so in this style of offense long-term then great, but I don’t see it working in Carolina. This could have more to do with Carolina specifically, but I want to entertain the idea that it may not. I think how Griffin, Newton, Kapernick, and their teams fare could make my point worth examining.

Right now it’s just speculation in a minefield.

7 responses to “Speculating in a Minefield: Race and Quarterbacking”

  1. Well written on a very sensitive subject. Most see sports as a respite from the real world, unfortunately real world issues and problems manifest themselves in sports too. As a fan of the Philadelphia Eagles, I am very familiar with the racial overtones associated with race and quarterback play. Before Michael Vick joined the Eagles, I was not a fan. I saw him as a novelty, but never really a threat to beat a good team from the pocket. Since 2010, under Andy Reid’s tutelage, Vick has made significant progress as a passer and a player. Any QB is gonna be scrutinized and criticized in a losing situation. However, the comments and undertone is different when the QB is black.

    On talk radio and message boards, its, “Vick is dumb, he cant read a defense,” “Vick sucks, he cant make a presnap read, he’s making the O-line look bad.” When Eli Manning throws 25 picks in a season, is it because he cant read a defense? When Peyton Manning throws 3 picks in a quarter, is it because he cant read a defense? When Tony Romo throws a pick 6 to JPP? Or one to Charles Tillman, one of 5 versus the Bears, is it because he cant read a defense? How bout Brees’ 5 INTs on Monday, cant read a defense? Of course not. But when its Vick its cause he’s dumb and doesnt know what he’s looking at. When Aaron Rodgers gets sacked 8 times vs Seahawks is it because he’s dumb and doesnt recognize where the pressure is coming from or is holding the ball too long? Of course not…….but when the QB is black, the reason usually cited is lack of mental acumen.

    Am I putting Vick in the same class as the aforementioned Super Bowl winning QBs? Of course not, just highlight the hypocrisy in the media and amongst fans. Troy Aikman calling the Giants-Bengals game, when Eli was in the grasp of a defender, threw a left handed pass that was intercepted by a defensive lineman…..Troy said, “Eli was just trying to make a play….” Really? How bout Eli showed really poor judgment and made a dumb play? Nope, had it been Vick, I’m speculating he woulda said something like, “you cant do that…..you have to be smarter with the ball….”

    I’m sure most people dont wanna hear it but the truth is that as you said, racism is very pervasive in life and sports, subtle and overt. As a 50 year old African America man, I can say I’ve seen progress in my lifetime but we’re still not there….for the sake of future generations, I hope this ignorant thinking ceases or at least subsides.

    • Joe,

      Thank you for commenting here. I like example you provided about how people discuss Vick’s mistakes versus those of white quarterbacks. We’ll both hope for the ignorance to end. I think it will, but it will never feel soon enough.

      Thanks again for reading.



  2. Dude. Great read! It’s also nice to not find any links to Kim Kardasian’s ass below your articles. I propose to you this, isn’t it probable young black men early in their football careers see these trends by budding heroes and choose to emulate those traits rather than the “perfect read and throw”? If what you say is true, then it too is radioactive.

    • Thanks for writing Jared. While in some cases it may be true, I think you’re presuming that black quarterbacks only emulate black quarterbacks, which is far from the truth. This also makes the assumption that the quarterback has a choice in the plays and offensive style that his high school and college coaches use. I appreciate you asking the question.

  3. Matt, I love your site……I discovered it earlier this year in pre-draft reading……I shared it on the Eagles message board and everyone loved your detailed film breakdowns…..good stuff, appreciate and enjoy your work. Thanks again

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