Black quarterbacks are still not viewed for their intellectual potential

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When Mike Sando of The Athletic released his annual NFL Quarterback Tiers article, in which he spoke with 50 NFL coaches and executives to get a sense of how those in the know see the men who play the game’s most important position, it was clear that Black quarterbacks still face an evaluation gauntlet that white quarterbacks generally do not. We’re used to the old-school opinions in which Black quarterbacks were seen as more athletic, white quarterbacks as more cerebral. If you think we’re past that at this point, we’ll start with one evaluator’s opinion of Patrick Mahomes.

“We love Mahomes because of his unorthodox throws, not because of his natural pocket presence,” one anonymous source told Sando. “And when that disappears, that is when they lose games. I don’t think that is a 1. I think that is a 2. Nothing against the guy. I love the kid. But take his first read away and what does he do? He runs, he scrambles and he plays streetball.”

For Josh Allen, a quarterback who shares a lot of the “streetball” characteristics of Mahomes and Jackson, there appears to be the automatic assurance that he’ll figure it out.

“Josh Allen is a better version of Lamar, and I love him as a football player,” a defensive coordinator said. “I still think he is erratic as a thrower, and so he doesn’t scare me the same way Rodgers does. But he’s ascending.”

“Some guys you’ve got to just give credit for being big, talented guys that can overcome a lot of stuff,” one evaluator said. “He may not be perfect, but he’s so big and so talented that he carries the team. He is a freak. He is not going to expertly handle pure-pass situations, but he doesn’t have to a lot of times. He may have five guys hanging on him and complete it anyway.”

Somehow, we don’t think that evaluator would be as effusive about Cam Newton’s athletic potential when Cam was the 2015 Offensive Player of the Year and the NFL’s Most Valuable Player. Allen and Newton share a similar overall playing profile.

Mahomes? He seems to be stuck in whatever these people think he’s stuck in now.

“It’s like they play NBA iso-ball and just try to get enough space for a matchup on [Travis] Kelce or a matchup on Tyreek [Hill],” another defensive play caller said. “If Mahomes has a ‘flaw,’ I do not think he is the greatest at diagnosing, but he is so extremely talented with his arm, his release and the way that they run their offense, it is just pick your best matchup and go work that. If you’re a matchup-oriented team and you lose one of your top matchup guys like that, it is going to affect how you play. Maybe he has to adapt a little bit, but I think he has all the makeup to do it.”

Mahomes is not the greatest at diagnosing? We’ll come back to that in a minute. Let’s visit the evaluation of Justin Herbert, another AFC West quarterback who made it to Tier 1.

“Man, I was so impressed with him live,” an offensive coach said. “He has a chance to do something special. He’s the best pure thrower of the three young guys [Herbert, Allen, Burrow]. I didn’t realize he was that athletic. One of our studs was chasing him down and he got around him and was laughing at him the whole time. The competitive spirit, the athletic ability, I saw a fricking stud in our game.”

“I didn’t realize he was that athletic” is a bit of a dead giveaway, but again, we’re praising Herbert’s competitive spirit and athletic ability, assuming that everything else required to be a truly great quarterback will fall into place.

Clearly, the opinions of Lamar Jackson’s game caused the most heat. Jackson didn’t make Tier 1. He did regress as a pure thrower of the football in 2021, and there are all kinds of reasons for that. Some were Jackson’s fault. Some were not. But this quote from one defensive coordinator makes it pretty clear that there are people in the league who have their minds made up about Jackson, and there’s nothing he can do to change it.

“If he has to pass to win the game, they ain’t winning the game. He’s so unique as an athlete and he’s really a good football player, but I don’t [care] if he wins the league MVP 12 times, I don’t think he’ll ever be a 1 as a quarterback. He’ll be a 1 as a football player, but not as a quarterback. So many games come down to two-minute, and that is why they have a hard time advancing even when they are good on defense. Playoffs are tight. You have to be able to throw the ball, and he is just so inconsistent throwing the ball. It is hit or miss.”

Well, Jackson did throw four interceptions in two-minute situations last season — with two minutes or fewer left in either half of regulation. Tom Brady threw six interceptions in those situations in 2021, leading the league, and you don’t hear anything about that. But when you have a guy insisting that Jackson could win 12 MFL MVP awards, and it doesn’t matter because he’ll never be one of the game’s best at his position… that sounds like a rigged jury.

Mahomes addressed this after the Chiefs’ Friday training camp practice.

Mahomes’ head coach had something to say about it, as well.

Does Mahomes engage in improvisational tactics on the field? Absolutely. Does this mean that he can’t understand a complicated play, or read a complicated defense? Absolutely not. When I watched tape with Mahomes before he was selected by the Chiefs in 2017, I asked him for the most complicated play call he had at Texas Tech.

Probably ‘Green Rug Rock Pop 2 East Bill Log 95 Z Post B Will.” Pop is play action, and the formation is Green Rug Rock—that’s the backs behind me. Rug means that the B back [second running back] is on the line of scrimmage. We have our ‘Y’ receiver in the game, and our ‘Z’ receiver, and the H-back is out [away from the formation]. ‘Pop 2 East Bill Log’ means that we’re going to fake our outside zone to the right, with the B-back blocking in front. We’re going to fake that. ‘Log’ means the backside tackle is going to lock on the [backside defensive] end, and ’95’ is our concept of the play. We tag a Z Post [the ‘Z’ receiver running a post route], and for the B-back, we tag a ‘Will.’ [the second running back blocking the weak-side linebacker].

That didn’t matter then to those who were fixated on the idea of Mahomes as a one-trick Air-Raid quarterback, and it probably wouldn’t matter now to those who have it in their heads that if Mahomes can’t play “streetball,” he’s sunk. If Herbert or Allen had given such an answer before they were drafted, it undoubtedly would have been seen as absolute proof of their intellectual dominance. With Mahomes, and others like him, it’s passed off in favor of preconception.

It’s a shameful reality, and it may never go away entirely. There are too many people holding positions of power in the NFL who refuse to believe that Black quarterbacks can master the game mentally in the same ways their white peers can. No matter the empirical evidence. That is the dictionary definition of racism, and that so many are so open about it is a stain on the league.

It is now, and it has always been.

Story originally appeared on Touchdown Wire