On Black quarterbacks, the desire to be great, and the words we use

Doug Farrar
·12 min read

When it comes to how the Black athlete is portrayed to the public, there’s an obviously ugly history, and it hasn’t changed nearly as much as it needs to over time. The words used are different and the codes are more highly enforced in a more supposedly evolved age, but the effect is sadly similar.

If we wanted to show how things used to be, we could go back to Braven Dyer of the Los Angeles Times, who was trying to be “cute” in this November 5, 1937 article that mentioned UCLA star running back Kenny Washington:

The lad’s a wow in boldface caps, but it’s mostly what he doesn’t do on the football field that impresses me. He doesn’t overwork, he doesn’t get excited, he doesn’t get those black steel muscles busy until it counts. In short, Kenny has the complete relaxation of his race. You never saw a member of his race eat a po’k chop and then go into a heavy campaign of worrying about where his next one is coming from. No, sah, he may bear down on the po’k chop, but when it’s gone, he just unlaxes until the next po’k chop comes along. Well, K. Washington plays football like that, if you know what I mean.

Unfortunately, we know exactly what you mean.

Back then, you could get away with this garbage. Dyer’s “work” had to go past an editor or two. It had to be typeset. It went out to however many subscribers the Times had at the time, and on that day, for those who had never seen Kenny Washington play, that was the picture. There was no internet. There were no Kenny Washington GIFs. There was a loose language in how Black athletes were perceived and described, and the pushback was minimal. If you wrote this now, you’d have people coming for your head, and rightly so.

Words matter, especially when describing Black players.

(Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports)

The language has changed, but the destructive impact has not. Far more recently, we have the scouting report that Nolan Nawrocki of Pro Football Weekly put out on Auburn quarterback Cam Newton in 2011, before Newton was drafted first overall by the Carolina Panthers.

“Very disingenuous — has a fake smile, comes off as very scripted and has a selfish, me-first makeup. 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.”

In April 2016, the right-wing website Breitbart published a column by Daniel Leberfeld entitled, “Top Draft Analyst Nolan Nawrocki Isn’t Racist, Just Good At His Job” in which it was pointed out that Nawrocki also wrote unfavorable reports on white draft prospects. “We treat every player the same,” Nawrocki said in that article, two paragraphs after Leberfeld praised Nawrocki because he didn’t ‘cower to the PC thought police.’ “We’re just trying to get to the end result… Evaluate the character and get the evaluation right. We’re not trying to take shots at anybody. It’s all about getting the evaluations right.” Whether Nawrocki was just “good at his job” or not—and generally, his pure football and non-personal evaluations of draft prospects have been fairly on point and well-researched—his unintentional utility for a site like Breitbart should have raised more than a few eyebrows. According to a study published by Deadspin in 2014, in which the text from scouting reports written by Nawrocki for NFL.com as well as other analysts for CBS and ESPN was reviewed, the disparity in how white and Black draft prospects were portrayed was significant. The word “natural” was used 263 times for Black players, and 48 times for white players. The word “smart” popped up 6.13 times per 10,000 words for white players, and 2.32 times per 10,000 words for Black players. The word “intelligent” was seen 2.48 times per 10,000 words for white players, and 0.67 times for black players. The word “athletic” was used 82 times for white players, and 221 times for Black players. There were 203 uses of the word “speed” describing white players, and 878 for Black players. The word “struggle” showed up 17 times for white players and 56 times for Black players. Vice Sports’ Aaron Gordon, who shared a byline on the Deadspin piece, wrote a separate article in 2015 in which he reviewed specific scouting terms used by ESPN analysts Mel Kiper, Jr. and Todd McShay for white and black players. Among the words used most commonly for white players: Tough, effort, leader, toughness, intangibles, consistent, overachiever, smart, instincts, learn. Among the words used most commonly for Black players: Athlete, athletic, productive, physical, explosive, dynamic, inconsistent, aggressive. That's not to pick on Kiper and McShay specifically; the point here is to reveal how different draft prospects are talked about and written about. It's to discuss how examples of descriptive language have become burned into our collective consciousness, and we may not even realize it. And it leads up to the case of ESPN's Dan Orlovsky and Ohio State's Justin Fields.

How Justin Fields got caught in the crossfire.

Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields throws during an NFL Pro Day at Ohio State University Tuesday, March 30, 2021 in Columbus, Ohio. (AP Photo/Paul Vernon)

Last week, on the Pat McAfee Show, Orlovsky, the former NFL quarterback and current ESPN analyst, was asked by McAfee why Fields' draft stock might be slipping. “One, I have heard that he is a last-guy-in, first-guy-out type of quarterback,” Orlovsky said. “Like, not the maniacal work ethic. I’ve even heard it compared to Justin Herbert, where it was like, dude, when Justin Herbert showed up, he was like a psychopath when it came to working and get ready for the draft. Or even at school, like, ‘Give me more, I want to work non-stop.’ And I’ve heard that there are issues with Justin Fields’ work ethic. “The second thing is … Where is his desire to go be a great quarterback? I think that there’s a desire to be a big-time athlete, from what is expressed to me, but where is his desire to be a great quarterback? And to be great, you gotta be willing to find the things that you are not good at and just freaking grind on them.” Now, Orlovsky made it clear that these were not his opinions. These were things he's heard. Disclaimer: I know Dan, and he's been very helpful to me when I've reached out to ask specific questions about quarterbacking and offensive systems in general. I would be utterly shocked if he put these things out there with his belief behind them. I do not believe that he intended to go after Fields in a "Nawrockian" sense. I think that he was trying to answer a question with things he'd heard from people in and around the league, and he got his you-know-whats caught in a tractor in the process. McAfree tried to do damage control after the fact. https://twitter.com/PatMcAfeeShow/status/1377378404840960002 It happens. The ceaseless need for content once the Draft Industrial Process gets rolling can make the most reasonable person say unreasonable things. But the song remains the same, and the casual ways in which Black athletes are marginalized in the media today perpetuate the call of a system that has denied some of the greatest players you never saw the opportunity to ply their trade at the highest level. So, if you get your you-know-whats caught in a tractor in the process, that's progress. Braven Dyer didn't. He was a sports reporter and sports editor for the Times for decades. Nolan Nawrocki didn't. The Raiders hired him in an "undetermined scouting role" in 2019. This isn't about punishment for past transgressions -- it's about being aware of the language we use, and when and how we use it. Because Justin Fields has answered all the questions about his work ethic and his desire to be great in the only arena that matters: The football field.

Yes, Justin Fields wants to be great. No, he's not a "one-read guy."

(Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports)

It was Fields who led a petition for the Big Ten to play the 2020 season in the wake of COVID. It was Fields who played through a rib injury against Clemson in the 2021 Sugar Bowl, nuking the Tigers for six touchdown passes after a brutal hit by Clemson linebacker James Skalski. And say what you want about Fields' processing abilities -- he was running perhaps the most complicated passing game in the NCAA last season, especially when it came to option routes. Still, Fields has been denigrated as a "one-read quarterback," and in context, we know exactly what that means. “The main concern is that Justin Fields stares down the primary target. He doesn’t look away from the primary target," said Tony Pauline of the Pro Football Network, when he was asked why Fields' draft stock might be slipping. "He doesn’t process things as quickly as they want him to. During the Senior Bowl, I mentioned how there was one team who has broken down all of Justin Fields’ passes in 2020. They said that just seven times, he looked off the primary target. The other 200+ passes he threw to his primary target.” Regarding "He doesn’t process things as quickly as they want him to," well... let's walk through that. Here are two plays from Ohio State's playbook.

On the “Follow/Drive” concept, it’s an empty look with the trips right receivers running deeper routes unless coverage indicates otherwise. The free safety is the key defender. The inside slot receiver (F3) could run one of three different routes (a protection crosser if the safety is aggressive), as could the outside slot receiver (F2). The outside receiver to the right side might run with free access to the boundary if there’s no aggressive coverage. On the left side, which is where Fields starts his reads on “8 Duo H-51 Bench Follow, Stitch,” the slot receiver (B2) is running a drag route for the quick conversion if necessary, but he may have to throttle that down depending on coverage. And the outside receiver to that side will run a follow concept that varies depending on man or zone coverage.

On “8 Duo RT G-50 Field Option,” we have another empty package with trips right. Now, the inside slot man to the right takes one of three angular routes based on coverage at the eight-yard point. The backside slot receiver has a similar construct at 10 yards. And the outside receiver to the back side is running either a boundary vertical route, or kicking it inside at 10 yards based on coverage. It’s a bit more complicated than a bunch of simple slants on two-level RPOs. When my Touchdown Wire colleague Mark Schofield sent me these plays, I was immediately reminded of the 2004 New England Patriots playbook I’ve seen, in which there were option routes all over the place. Here’s “1 Out ZAC Slot” from that playbook — the diagram is from my book, The Genius of Desperation.

Here, the fullback (lined up wide left) runs a 14-yard in, unless he has to run an outside release because the defender is cheating up expecting something quicker. The halfback reads the blitz, hits a sneak route through the A-gap if he’s free, and digs sharply to the right. The “X” receiver does a slight adjustment, reads the coverage, and could either come back inside or loop to the seam. The “Z” receiver motions from the right slot and heads six yards upfield into a four-way option. The “Y” receiver could run a chute route, or me might hook inside. Asking Tom Brady to do that is one thing. Asking any college quarterback to take on this level of complexity is another. Because when your offense has this many options, here’s your tax as the quarterback: Not only do you have to remember all the possible options for as many as five receivers on any given play, you also have to wait for those options to play out and the receivers to present themselves. No wonder Fields takes time through his reads. He has no other choice! So, perhaps Justin Fields isn’t a slow processor. Perhaps Justin Fields is a potential next-level mind who has passed multiple processing tests at an NFL level before he ever enters an NFL facility. And perhaps it’s past time to stop thinking of Fields as an athlete, and to start thinking of him as a high-level quarterback. Which, by the way, Orlovsky has also said. https://twitter.com/danorlovsky7/status/1376873198432747524

Why it matters to be careful.

(Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)

Because, as Mark Twain once said, "A lie can travel around the world and back again while the truth is lacing up its boots.” Because that stuff about Fields' intelligence and work ethic and first-in/last-out ability is now out there. Whether it's true or not, it's out there. Whether the guy who said it posts 100 follow-up examples of the natural opposite or not, it's out there. And it's going to follow Justin Fields, just as it followed his predecessors. Because for all the people who want to believe all those things about Justin Fields for one obvious reason, that's all they need. And if there are people in the facilities of NFL teams who think that way, perpetuating their viewpoints, especially in an anonymous and therefore "safe" sense, is a harmful practice that needs to stop. Right now. With this particular example. Because it's happened, unabated, far too long.

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