Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Big Book of Black Quarterbacks

Marlin Briscoe was rooting for Cam Newton this past Sunday because he thinks black quarterbacks still don't get the respect they deserve.  He should know he was the first black quarterback to start in an NFL game in the modern era.

He recounted a time when he walked into a Chicago bar with his teammate Jimmy Jones.  Marlin was introduced to the bartender by Jimmy as the first black quarterback in the NFL.  A guy sitting next to them said, no you weren't, and introduced himself to the two young players as Willie Thrower, who played one game back in 1953 for the Chicago Bears.  Marlin was thunderstruck as he knew about Thrower but had never met him.  I'm sure the guys exchanged quite a few stories.

Greg Howard has assembled a very impressive on-line reference for every black quarterback to ever play the game, dating back to the early days of the NFL when Fritz Pollard played for a slough of teams between 1920 and 26, the same time Louis Armstrong was honing his skills with the Hot Fives.  The Akron Pros ran a single-wing formation so he was really more a running back than a quarterback, but he commanded the team.  He would later coach several teams, adding the distinction of being the first black coach in the NFL as well.

Joe Lillard on the loose

There were a few other black quarterbacks between Pollard and Thrower, the most famous being Joe Lillard who led the Chicago Cardinals during the 1932 and 33 seasons. So, Thrower was only half right.  He was the first black quarterback of the modern mold, albeit his stats fell far short of Lillard.  For the most part black quarterbacks had a better shot of playing in the Canadian Football League, where Bernie Custis ended up playing after not being given the chance at Cleveland in 1951.

Black quarterbacks were still curiosity pieces like Briscoe, who was drafted as a defensive back by the Denver Broncos in 1968 and took over the position only after all the other quarterbacks went down that year.  He was slight of frame but proved tough as nails, passing for nearly 1700 yards and rushing for 350 yards over nine games.  He was in the running for Rookie of the Year.  Marlin thought he had cinched the starting spot only to find out in the offseason that Lou Saban had other plans, bringing in two new white quarterbacks.  Briscoe voiced his indignation only to be let go by the Broncos.  He eventually found a role as wide receiver, playing for the 72-74 Miami Dolphins, opposite Paul Warfield on two Super Bowl championship teams.  He also had the occasional pass.

Briscoe would have probably been completely forgotten had not some guys decided to make a movie about him entitled The Magician.  He still remains a relatively obscure figure, but will be part of the 2016 Class of the College Hall of Fame thanks to his stellar years at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Gilliam battling Bradshaw and Terry Hanratty for the starting spot

It remained a struggle for black quarterbacks to make it in the NFL throughout the 70s.  Joe Gilliam had earned the starting spot at Pittsburgh with a spectacular 1972 pre-season, only to see it yanked away from him much like Briscoe at Denver.  Terry Bradshaw was considering a trade to Oakland before Chuck Noll decided to reinsert him in the starting spot halfway through the season.  It was odd since the Steelers were 4-1-1 under Gilliam, but Bradshaw was the more popular quarterback in the locker room and was given a second shot.  Gilliam never recovered from that slight.  He would leave the NFL in 1975 and plunge into a two-decade darkness of anonymity and drugs before dying in 2000 from a cocaine overdose.

Other black quarterbacks followed, notably Vince Evans and Doug Williams, but they wouldn't find their footing until the 1980s.  Blacks dominated at pretty much every other position on the field except quarterback.  It was widely perceived that blacks didn't have the mental acumen to play quarterback, often finding themselves converted to other positions if selected in the NFL draft.

When Doug Williams was drafted by the newly established Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1978, he was thrust into the starting role.  At the time, most young quarterbacks were understudies to veteran quarterbacks, but Williams was forced to learn his role on his own.  At 6-4 and 220 lbs, he was considered a very big quarterback in his day, with both speed and strength and a rocket arm.  It wasn't until his third year that he began to flourish, but when he demanded more money he was let go after five seasons, and played briefly in the USFL.

It looked like Williams' career was over, but Joe Gibbs, who had been offensive coordinator at Tampa Bay, was now head coach of the Washington Redskins.  Gibbs took Williams as a back-up quarterback in 1986.  Doug finally got a chance to play again in 1988 and led the Redskins to the Super Bowl, where he put on a staggering show, passing for 340 yards and 4 touchdowns, mostly in the second quarter, earning the game MVP.  Unfortunately, Williams wasn't able to repeat that success, retiring the following year after being relegated to back-up duty once again.

Williams had thrown the door wide open.  NFL teams were now willing to "gamble" on black quarterbacks, with some teams even giving them the option to run or throw.  The most successful of these quarterbacks was Warren Moon, who had a prodigious career spanning more than two decades with four separate teams.

Moon at his peak with the Houston Oilers

Moon wasn't given the chance in the beginning.  He played six years in Canada from 1978-83 before being signed by the Houston Oilers.  His stats at Edmonton were mind-blowing, passing for 5600 yards his final season. To compare, the NFL leading quarterback Lynn Dickey threw for 4500 yards in 1983.  Moon quickly asserted himself at Houston, making the playoffs seven times.  He was traded to Minnesota, where he made the playoffs two more times, and wrapped up his career with two-year stints at Seattle and Kansas City.  He passed for nearly 50,000 yards during this time, and if you add his CFL numbers, well over 70,000 yards. He also has to be considered an "iron man" for playing 23 seasons, although he saw limited action his last two seasons.  He became the first black quarterback inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 2006.

Other big names emerged like Steve McNair, who led the Tennessee Titans to the Super Bowl only to see his final pass play come one yard short of sending the game into overtime.  Donovan McNabb led Philadelphia to a Super Bowl only to come up short against New England, and Colin Kaepernick similarly was unable to seal the deal with San Francisco in the 2013 Super Bowl.

Warren Moon offering advice to Russell Wilson

Doug Williams stood alone as the only black quarterback to win a Super Bowl until 2014, when a young Russell Wilson led the Seattle Seahawks to victory over the Denver Broncos.  No one was more thrilled than Warren Moon, who was now the voice of Seahawks radio, being a Seattle native.  Marlin Briscoe was also thrilled, but reminded everyone that Russell stole his moves from him, being the "magician" that he was all those years ago.  Wilson had a chance to make it two Super Bowls in a row but came up one painful yard short against New England last year.

This set the stage for Cam Newton this year, who broke new ground in becoming the first black quarterback to win the NFL MVP outright.  McNair shared the honor with Peyton Manning back in 2003.  Carolina was the prohibitive favorite in this year's Super Bowl, but Peyton still had a few tricks up his sleeve, not to mention a stout defense to back him up, giving him a second ring.

For Cam it was a bitter pill to swallow, as he knew his place in history and wanted to deliver on his promise.  Manning himself said that Cam is the new prototype for the game -- big, strong and exceptionally athletic -- leaving no doubt he considered Newton the league's MVP before it was announced.

Cam Newton does the dab

Despite the success of Kaepernick, Wilson and Newton all reaching the Super Bowl these past four years, many sports pundits still doubt if there is room for this "style" of quarterback in the league.  They are careful to avoid the racial tag, preferring to call them option quarterbacks because of their ability to both pass and run.

Black quarterbacks come in all shapes and sizes, not to mention style of play.  Warren Moon, for instance, was the classic drop-back quarterback, and both Wilson and Newton have shown they can play just as well from the pocket as they can on the run.  Here we are nearly 50 years since Marlin Briscoe first started with the Denver Broncos, and black quarterbacks are still treated as novelty acts.  I guess Cam or Russell or Minnesota Quarterback Terry Bridgewater will have to win another Super Bowl before black quarterbacks are seen as the real deal.

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