Discovered: Black Gold in the NFL

Seattle Seahawks Quarterback Russell Wilson (Heightline Photo)

By Gregory Smith, Jr.

It was 33 years ago when Doug Williams became the first Black quarterback to be a starter and Most Valuable Player in a Super Bowl. Williams led the Washington Redskins to victory over John Elway and the Denver Broncos, 42-10. So much for those who had argued that Black athletes could excel at the brawn but not the on-field brains of professional football.

More than three decades passed before Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs became the second Black quarterback to start a Super Bowl and finish as the game’s MVP. Mahomes was poised to repeat the feat in back-to-back years, but Tampa Bay defeated Kansas City in Super Bowl LV in February. Season over.

When the season began last year, 10 of the NFL’s 32 teams had Black quarterbacks as starters. And as top coaches, team executives and owners entered the post-season months focused on the future, some of those Black quarterbacks, well aware of their value, were among those bargaining for bigger roles, both on and off the field.

“A great QB isn’t a brick of gold; he is an entire vault,”  sports columnist Jerry Brewer wrote in The Washington Post At any time, there are only a handful of special ones, and if a team is blessed with such a player, it has a ticket to sustained success and prolonged pursuit of championships, which cannot be taken for granted in a sport of roster attrition and fluctuation.”

“Power is different from acclaim, influence, fame and money,” Brewer said, speaking of a new generation of quarterbacks that includes Mahomes and Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks; both are Black. “The best quarterbacks are realizing that, while they have it good, they’d like more control. And they are so hard to find that teams just can’t ignore them or trade them for a low-maintenance replacement.”

Wilson has said he is taking cues from NBA icon LeBron James, who, when Wilson was still in high school, left the Cleveland Cavaliers to play for the Miami Heat, and once there, reconstructed the team’s roster around himself—a task usually reserved for head coaches, owners, and front-office executives.

The Seattle quarterback, who increasingly is being pounded by defenders who push around, past and through his blockers, said he wants to be involved with the selection of future blockers for his own well-being, and the Seahawks’ fortunes, too. 

“It’s the guys you get into the huddle with, at the end of the day, those guys you’ve got to trust,” Wilson told Brewer. “You think about guys like LeBron. He was able to be around great players that he can trust,” Wilson said.

Other star NFL quarterbacks, including Tom Brady of the Buccaneers and Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers, both of whom are White, are thinking and acting in similar fashion, Brewer wrote.

“This could be a transformational offseason in terms of player movement,” former New York Jets and Miami Dolphins executive Mike Tannenbaum told Adam Kilgore of The Post. “It’s going to be fascinating to see if we’re headed toward more of an NBA model.”

NFL teams “have changed how they view quarterbacks within the context of team-building. They are no longer content to stand pat or build slowly,” Kilgore wrote. “Meanwhile,” he said, “cultural norms of fandom continue to shift. Younger fans attach themselves to players as much as, if not more than, teams. Changing teams might have diminished a quarterback’s stature in the past, but no more.”

One of the top quarterbacks looking to change teams at the beginning of the offseason was Deshaun Watson of the Houston Texans, who was rated second only to Green Bay’s Rodgers as the league’s best passer last year. Rodgers was selected as the Most Valuable Player in the NFL during the regular season.

Watson signed a four-year, $158 million contract with the Texans last year, but shortly afterwards said that the team’s former owner had assured him that he would be meaningfully involved in the selection of a new head coach and general manager, but that commitment was not kept.

Houston’s new general manager, Nick Caserio, in whose selection Watson said he was not involved, said at a news conference in late January that Watson has had “a great impact on this organization, a great impact on a lot of people, a great impact on his team…And, you know, we have zero interest in trading the player.”

The NFL and team owners have been pressed on why there are not more Black head coaches in a league where 70 percent of the players are Black.

There were three Black head coaches when the season began, and three after it ended and seven vacancies had been filled. Anthony Lynn, of the Los Angeles Chargers, was among the first fired. David Culley of the Baltimore Ravens, was the last hired. Both Lynn and Culley are Black. Culley was hired by the Texans.

Watson of the Texans, acting on a good word from Mahomes of the Chiefs, had pressed the Texans to interview the Chiefs’ offensive coordinator, Eric Bieniemy, who is Black and had been interviewed several times for head coaching jobs, but not hired. The Texans did talk to Bieniemy, but hired Culley instead.

Introduced as the new head coach, Culley suggested that he agreed with the new general manager that Watson will not be traded. “He is a Houston Texan, and I want him to be a Houston Texan. And the reason I’m in this position today is because I knew he’s going to be a Houston Texan,” Culley said at a news conference.

L.Z. Granderson, a sports columnist for The Los Angeles Times, linked the problem of Black coaches and the reluctance to grant broader authority to Black quarterbacks to a common source.

“This is about the white men who make the final call. The ones who recognize their franchises depend on the bodies of Black men but are still unwilling to hand over the keys in terms of leadership,” Granderson wrote. “We saw it with the quarterback position decades earlier. We also saw it with team presidents.”

April 8, 2021

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Milton Coleman