George Whitfield, the coach who has been dubbed everything from a quarterback engineer to the Quarterback Whisperer, got a phone call a few years ago from a Pac-12 coach about a potential recruit. Whitfield, who has tutored the likes of Ben Roethlisberger, Cam Newton, and Andrew Luck, was completely caught off guard by a question the coach asked him.
“How athletic is he? Can he beat a defender 1-on-1 if left in a jam?,” inquired the coach who shall not be named.
Whitfield, though, responded without hesitation: “I instantly said yes. I didn’t have his 40 time or his shuttle time in front of me, but my answer was yes.”
Since that innocent phone call a few years ago, Whitfield says that question is now a prerequisite with anyone he speaks with in college football or the NFL.
“Andrew Luck can beat a defender one and one. RG3 can too,” said Whitfield, who played QB at Tiffin University and then in the Arena League. “Gone are the days of seeing a Drew Bledsoe or Jim Everett-type QB. Defensive lineman used to be rhinos who pushed the pile, but now they’re agile and relentless, like bears. The evolution of defensive lineman has been significant.”
A record was set this past week in the NFL, but you probably didn’t hear about it. Nine African-Americans started at quarterback. Seven of them were drafted in the last three years, starting with Cam Newton going 1st overall in 2011.
To combat all the sleek, powerful pass-rushers, NFL teams are increasingly turning to athletic QBs who can beat defenses through the air or on the ground. And African-American QBs – who in the 80s and 90s were frequently diverted at the high school level to play receiver or cornerback or running back, according to Whitfield – are finding immediate success: three of the top four passers in the NFL last year in yards-per-attempt – arguably the most important stat for quarterbacks – were Robert Griffin III (1st), Newton (3rd) and Russell Wilson (4th).
More immensely talented black QBs who will enter the NFL in the coming years. Teddy Bridgewater of Louisville could be the No. 1 pick in the 2014 NFL draft. Clemson’s Tajh Boyd looks like a 1st round pick. Miami’s Stephen Morris could go as high as the 2nd or 3rd round. And in 2015, perhaps the best of the bunch, Jameis Winston (who has played one college game!), will be eligible for the draft.
It is conceivable that by Week 1 in 2015, half of the 32 NFL teams could have a black starting QB.
“Absolutely that could happen,” said Daniel Jeremiah an NFL Network analyst who previously was an NFL scout with the Ravens, Eagles and Browns. “So many African-American quarterbacks are now being allowed to throw the ball in college, and they’re being successful. There’s another whole wave of talented kids coming.”
The NFL isn’t just entering the read option era. The NFL is approaching the Golden Age of the Black Quarterback.
It is difficult to discern when exactly the switch was flipped and African American QBs turned from being viewed as strictly running QBs into passers as well, but those interviewed for this story pointed to a grassroots change: High school coaches, at some point, decided to put the ball in the hands of their best athlete.
Said Whitfield: “Coaches finally realized it was safer to have the ball in the hands of your best athlete on every down, rather than putting him at receiver or running back. You can bracket a receiver or crowd the line to slow a back. But a dual threat at QB? You have your hands full all day with a Taylor Martinez, Tajh Boyd, Jake Locker, whoever.”
At QB on the high school level, these signal callers weren’t running the option like Tommie Frazier did at Nebraska or Tony Rice did at Notre Dame – they were running the spread offense. Teams spread the field, and let their best player make decisions with his arm or legs.
“These kids coming out are very skilled passers because every high school program is throwing the ball now,” Jeremiah said. “Those guys weren’t running the triple option in high school. They’ve been throwing since 9th grade.”
Sixty years ago, Willie Thrower became the third black QB in NFL history. A slow drip of black QBs into the NFL would continue in the 60s and 70s, and then Doug Williams was drafted 17th by Tampa Bay in 1978. It didn’t start a trend though – according to Football Perspective, no black QBs entered the league over the next five years.
Warren Moon, after shredding the CFL, signed with the Houston Oilers in 1984. [Note: Moon was the MVP of the 1978 Rose Bowl for Washington, but wasn't selected in a 12-round draft a few months later.] Randall Cunningham, who would go on post historic passing/running numbers with the Eagles, was drafted a year later. In 1987, Doug Williams became the first (and only) black QB to win a Super Bowl. The 1999 NFL draft saw three African American QBs go in the first round.
A decade ago in week one, eight black quarterbacks took the field as starters. Steve McNair of the Titans was in the prime of his career and Daunte Culpepper was putting up astronomical numbers with the Vikings. The others? Well, Rodney Peete was replaced midway through the season opener for ineffectiveness, and never threw another pass all season. Aaron Brooks of the Saints finished in the middle of the pack in completions and YPA.
A year later in 2004, Culpeper and McNabb ranked 3-4 in YPA, but by 2005, there wasn’t an African-American QB in the Top 12 for completion percentage or YPA. Culpepper and McNabb got injured. McNair was near the end of his storied career.
Then Vince Young came along, fresh off his dazzling performance in the Rose Bowl against USC, and ready to pick up where Mike Vick left off when he was incarcerated. And JaMarcus Russell (1st overall in 2007) was right behind Young.
But both were colossal busts within a few years, something that had Whitfield concerned about the perception of black QBs in the NFL. Russell ate his way out of the league by 2010; Young, a disaster off the field, was let go by the Titans in 2010.
“I was a little nervous when Vince and JaMarcus were out of the league,” he said. “How do other NFL teams view that? Will other young African Americans get those opportunities?”
“Then Cam comes on the scene.”
Newton, 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds, which is bigger than most linebackers, was a pivotal turning point for not only the read option in the NFL, but for the resurgence of the black quarterback. Newton completed 64 percent of his passes and threw for 422 yards in his first career game; his rookie season is arguably the greatest for a QB in NFL history.
Whitfield said he had a discussion about running vs. passing with Newton, and he tells the same thing to all the quarterbacks he coaches, such as Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M or Everett Golson who starred at Notre Dame last year.
“I told him he had to demonstrate his way to fly the ship from the cockpit – leave the parachute on your back as a just in case,” Whitfield said. “Mike Vick, in his first few years, would play with his hand on the rip cord, and he couldn’t wait to rip it and take off and do his thing. I told Cam God gave him the biggest parachute ever for anyone who has played QB. But let’s play it the way Brady, Manning play the position. Survive and thrive for 10-15 years with no parachute.”
The last two years have been a whirlwind – instead of drafting a QB to fit into the team’s existing system, teams began tailoring their system to fit the athletic QB they coveted.
But more than a handful of NFL teams spent the summer preparing for the read option, visiting college campuses and studying copious amounts of film in hopes of containing the likes of Newton, RG3 and budding San Francisco star Colin Kaepernick.
Very early returns are not positive – for defenses.
Kaepernick patiently read that the Green Bay Packers were taking away the run (7 carries, 22 yards) in his season opener, so he sat in the pocket and completed 69 percent of his passes, throwing for 412 yards and three touchdowns in leading the 49ers to victory.
“The mere threat of him running had a major impact on the Packers pass rush,” said Jeremiah. “They weren’t going to rush upfield and give him lanes. They hung out at the line. He had time in the pocket.”
Seattle’s Russell Wilson patiently read that the Carolina Panthers were taking away the run (5 carries, 7 yards) in his season opener, so he sat in the pocket and completed 75 percent of his passes, throwing for 320 yards and the game-winning TD in the 4th quarter in leading the Seahawks to victory.
Terrelle Pryor, who started for Oakland Sunday, needed the parachute often against Indianapolis. With very few skill players around him, the former Ohio State star QB rushed 13 times for 112 yards, often scrambling for his life.
But when passing from the spread attack, Pryor, 24, showed plenty of potential – 65 percent completions and a 7.8 yards per attempt. He kept Oakland competitive in defeat.
What will NFL defenses do if this keeps up?
“They’ll have to play zone,” Whitfield said. “All 11 defenders need their eyes up field on the QB. You can turn your back on Andy Dalton or Christian Ponder all day, what difference does it make? Troy Aikman couldn’t do what Andrew Luck does.”
Everyone loves to play the “what if” NFL game. What if Alex Smith doesn’t suffer a concussion in 2012 against the Seahawks? Alex Smith doesn’t lose his starting job and might still be under center in San Francisco. Colin Kaepernick may still be holding a clipboard.
What if Akili Smith played in the spread offense or ran the read option growing up? What might his NFL career have been like? Smith starred at Oregon in 1998 (pre-Chip Kelly) and led the country in yards-per-attempt (10.1) while throwing 32 touchdowns. A chiseled 6-foot-3 and 227 pounds, he ran a 4.66 40-yard dash and slayed the NFL combine.
He was drafted 3rd overall by the Bengals in 1999. But he only started 17 games as a pro, and was out of the league after three wins in four seasons.
“We were pro style at Oregon, but man, I wish I had the opportunity to run the zone read stuff in college,” Smith said this week. “I can’t look back, though.”
Smith watched Kaepernick pick apart the Packers Sunday. “You can’t prepare for that. If he can run the zone read and not get hurt, and sit in the pocket and pick them apart …” his voice trails, as if imaging himself in one of those fancy NIKE florescent jerseys, destroying the Pac-12 like the current Ducks’ QB, Marcus Mariota, another future pro.
Fortunately for Teddy Bridgewater, Tajh Boyd and Jameis Winston, the NFL is waiting to embrace their athleticism and accurate arms with offenses best suited to their skills.