As we approach Superbowl XLVI (46) with the New York Giants and the New England Patriots, there’s great debate over which team will be the big winner. However, one thing is for sure: there will not be a Black quarterback taking a snap.
Since the Redskins’ Doug Williams became the first Black quarterback to appear in a Superbowl in 1988- winning it in a blowout- only two Black quarterbacks have been to the game: the Titans’ Steve McNair in 2000 and Donovan McNabb with the Eagles in 2005. Neither went home with a ring.
Black players in the quarterback position have a long and arduous history in the National Football League. Quarterback is the most important role on every team in every game, as he is in charge of the offense. He is an on-field extension of the coach and therefore not only has to know his job on each play, but must know everyone else’s as well. Quarterbacks get too much of the credit when their team wins and too much of the blame when their team loses.
The first Black quarterback in the NFL was Frederick Douglas “Fritz” Pollard, who in 1920 led the Akron Pros to the first ever NFL Championship. While there was no official term for a quarterback in 1920, he took snaps under center and threw passes.
In 1949, when the Chicago Bears selected George Taliaferro, he became the first Black man to be drafted as a quarterback. After playing quarterback in ’49 and ‘50, he was quickly converted to halfback in what would become a trend for Black QBs.
While Taliaferro played quarterback, no Black player actually started a game until 1968, when Marlin Briscoe took snaps for the Denver Broncos. Briscoe threw 14 touchdowns in 11 games that year, setting the record for rookies, before he was finally switched to wide receiver.
From the first NFL draft in 1936 through the draft of 2008, there have been 719 quarterbacks chosen, 96 of whom have been Black. Of those 96, 33 – a full third — were converted to other positions. Meanwhile, of the 617 white QBs, only 10 were moved to another position.
One of the things holding back the brothers is the perception that they lack the intelligence to run a complex NFL offense. Media coverage, which presents these men as less intellectual, more physical in playing style, fuels this notion. Often, the Black quarterback’s public image is beaten down while they are still in college, causing many pro teams to to not even look their way come draft time.
Most of the time, Black quarterbacks play a more athletic style than what is traditionally looked for from the position. It’s because of this athletic ability that many Black QBs display that makes teams want to convert their position instead of just releasing them outright.
Drafted in 1985, the Philadelphia Eagles’ Randall Cunningham was the first to establish himself in the NFL while playing a loose, fast and free style. He was a virtual highlight machine. In 1990, he threw 30 touchdowns and rushed for 942 yards. Randall held the record for career rushing yards by a quarterback until Michael Vick surpassed it in 2011.
Cunningham’s unique (and sucessful) style of play paved the way for more quarterbacks that weren’t afraid to use their legs like McNabb, Vick and now, Cam Newton. Teams will now stick with a guy who breaks free and runs when there is no place to throw the ball.
Although, Black players have been at the quarterback position since 1949 and have played on every team in the league, the final team to have a Black quarterback take a snap was as recently as 2007 when the New York Giants finally got on board. Anthony Wright appeared in three games throwing seven passes and completing one for Big Blue that year.
Over 60 years after Taliaferro was picked, the situation for Black quarterbacks hasn’t gotten much better. Of the 32 teams in the NFL, only six have Black starters at the QB position. This is odd considering that last season in the six major conferences—the Atlantic Coast, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-10 and Southeastern-around a third of the 65 QB spots were held by Black student athletes.
In 2011, The Oakland Raiders, Pittsburgh Steelers and Philadelphia Eagles all had multiple Black quarterbacks on their rosters. The Eagles had the highest profile ones with Vick as the starter and Vince Young (who is a starter in this league) as the backup. At this point, it will probably take another Superbowl win or two by Black quarterbacks for the flood gates to open giving all those collegiate Black QBs a legitimate shot at having a professional career.
Chris Wilder is a Philadelphia and NY-based journalist who covers sports for the Associated Press and ESPNU.com. He also writes for Black America Web and Common Ground News Service. He is the former Editor in Chief of The Source Sports. Follow him on Twitter @ceewild