The Biggest Issue in The NFL Today

Photo via Melina Vastola/USA TODAY Sports Images

Before our very eyes, the National Football league has become a place with a far from ideal identity. From the heroic stance of Colin Kaepernick to the biter back and forth between commissioner Roger Goodell and Dallas Cowboys Owner Jerry Jones, America’s favorite sport has become something of a confusing mess.

Now, while the forefront of the NFL’s news circuit revolves around social protest and April’s NFL draft, the topic of race is at the heart of the conversation, leaving me to ponder on why quarterbacks of color are rarely heralded with the same level of praise as their white counterparts?

For every quarterback such as Sam Darnold or Mitch Trubisky, who receive praise and admiration for their skillset coming out of college — we see sharp critique and undervaluing of a Deshaun Watson or Lamar Jackson — African-American quarterbacks who excelled to the top of college football.

Quarterback Lamar Jackson
Photo Credit: Andy Lyons / Getty Images

This issue has been ongoing for decades, while rarely bringing about healthy dialogue or positive outcomes. Why are quarterbacks of color looked at as gadgets or one trick ponies while their white counterparts are often given more leeway and attention to succeed?

Deshaun Watson versus Mitch Trubisky.

Sam Darnold versus Lamar Jackson.

In 2011, the discussion was centered around young signal callers Cam Newton, Jake Locker or Blain Gabbert. As laughable as that may seem now, Newton, the 2015 MVP, who dominated college football, was scrutinized by some as a kid who would never make it as an NFL quarterback.

Pro Football Weekly’s Nolan Nawrocki had the following to say about Newton leading up to the 2011 NFL Draft.

“Very disingenuous — has a fake smile, comes off as very scripted and has a selfish, me-first makeup,” Nawrocki wrote in his scouting report. “Always knows where the cameras are and plays to them. Has an enormous ego with a sense of entitlement that continually invites trouble and makes him believe he is above the law — does not command respect from teammates and will always struggle to win a locker room … Lacks accountability, focus, and trustworthiness — is not punctual, seeks shortcuts and sets a bad example. Immature and has had issues with authority. Not dependable.”

A fake smile? Nawrocki’s dangerous rhetoric seeps itself into mainstream platforms, forcing young quarterbacks of color into unnecessary criticism.

But why is that? Very rarely do we find an African-American quarterback who is considered the consensus “guy” in a draft class — not without a hurdle or two at least.  Tampa Bay Buccaneers budding star Jameis Winston was a rarity entering in the NFL three short years ago. Winston, in contrast to many other quarterbacks of color actually was regarded as the best at his position throughout the entire draft process. It should also be noted his head coach at the time was Lovie Smith – an African-American.

Cam Newton, Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert
Cam Newton, Jake Locker and Blaine Gabbert caused debates as to who should be No. 1

Before Winston, you’d probably have to go all the way back to 2001 when Michael Vick’s immense abilities running and throwing the football were far too impressive to ignore. Just think about that – a decade-plus gap in between consensus can’t-miss African-American quarterback prospects. While names such as Newton and former Oakland Raider Jamarcus Russell went No. 1 in their respective draft classes, both faced sharp critique throughout the process.

There is something rather odd about that. If you aren’t the most athletic quarterback (Vick) or excelled in a pro-style offense (Winston), you will face harsh critique time and time again.

African-American quarterbacks Russell Wilson, Dak Prescott, and Watson should’ve been top-of-the-line draft prospects, but for some reason, they weren’t. Why is that?

The troubling trend appears to have no end in sight as much of the critique now appears to be even more confusing and simply bizarre. Jackson, a lot like Vick, is a once in a decade athlete with an arm that can rocket 60 yard throws down the field effortlessly. At 6’3 with virtually no injury history, why is Jackson not being considered a first-round prospect?

Recently Mel Kiper and Todd McShay gathered together for a chat around the NFL drafts most promising prospects. During the discussion Jackson became topic of discussion in which McShay had the following to say:

“He’s not in the Round 1 conversation at this point. The Louisville quarterback still has a long way to go in terms of making throws from the pocket and being accurate down the field. He is a dynamic athlete, however, and he’s going to light up the combine. What worries me is that he’s a runner first with a slight 6-foot-3 frame, and those guys don’t usually hold up in the NFL, where everyone’s a great athlete.”

So, he’s a great athlete and needs to improve his accuracy?

This reminds me of another prospect in the 2018 draft that is receiving far more praise than Jackson. As Jackson continues to get criticized for being a phenomenal athlete who struggles a bit with his accuracy, why is Wyoming’s Josh Allen who has greater accuracy concerns in play for No. 1 overall?

Allen has posted a 56% completion percentage over the past two season with the Wyoming Cowboys. Jackson, on the other hand, completed 56% of his passes in 2016 and improved on that number in 2017 completing 59%. Jackson outperformed Allen in every major quarterback statistic over the past year with considerably higher marks in yards per attempt (8.7 to 6.7) and quarterback rating (146.6 to 127.8)

Although Allen is a great athlete with outstanding arm strength, he’s not in the same conversation with Jackson in terms of dynamic playmaking ability. This is the latest example of NFL evaluators being overcritical of African American QB prospects.

The unfair treatment and over-evaluation have a serious impact on the athletes involved.

Buffalo Bills starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor, in the aftermath of briefly being benched in favor of fifth-round rookie Nathan Peterman, stated his frustration with the obstacles that come with being an African-American QB in the NFL.

“It’s always going to be twice as bad just because of who I am – an African-American quarterback,” Taylor said. “Look across the league, man. We’re held to a certain standard. We almost have to be perfect.”

Taylor continued, “I wouldn’t say it’s just an African-American quarterback thing. It’s an African-American athlete thing – or just an African-American thing. And that’s not anything I just found out. It’s been that way since I was a kid.”

From Jackson to Taylor to Newton, this is an issue that remains prominent in the NFL. The question moving forward is when will it ever change?