If Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow were black, it’s unlikely that he would ever get a chance to play quarterback in the NFL. With an awkward and inaccurate throwing motion but a strong running ability and excellent leadership skills, Tebow would most likely be converted to another position such as running back or tight end. History shows that unconventional quarterbacks who happened to be black were either moved to different positions, given a very short time to prove themselves as quarterbacks or weren’t even given chances to become backups.
One thing that can’t be denied about Tim Tebow is that he is a celebrity. As for whether he is a good quarterback, the answer is probably no. Tebow’s record over two years is 8-6, but he has benefited from a staunch defense, a timely kicking game and a multitude of breaks at the end of games. In fact, an argument can be made that the Broncos knew they had to pull together and try harder to make up for Tebow’s deficiencies once he became the starter.
Tebow didn’t earn the starting quarterback job in Denver. It was handed to him on a silver platter. Sure, Kyle Orton lost the job after going 4-14 over the last two years as Denver’s QB, but teammates said backup Brady Quinn knew the offense better than Tebow and outplayed him during the preseason.
Sure, Tebow is a great leader and can rush the ball much better than most quarterbacks. But there are times when he couldn’t throw a ball into the ocean, and others when you can time his release with a sundial.
As the 8-8 Broncos prepare to host the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs, Tebow will get a chance that many black quarterbacks—who may have been just as good or even better than Tebow—never got.
Some great black college quarterbacks never got much of a chance in the NFL. Former Florida State quarterback Charlie Ward won the Heisman Trophy as the Seminoles won the national championship in 1993. He completed nearly 70 percent of his attempts, threw for 3,032 yards, 27 touchdowns and just four interceptions.
Tebow also completed 70 percent of his attempts, and threw for 2,895 yards with 21 touchdowns and five interceptions his senior season at Florida. Of course, Tebow rushed for more yards and touchdowns, but NFL teams value passers more than runners at the QB position.
Ward wanted to be drafted in the first round of the NFL draft, but opted for an NBA career after he was bypassed in the NFL draft. He likely would have been a mid-to-late-round selection.
Like Tebow, Tommie Frazier of Nebraska quarterbacked two national championship teams. But unlike Tebow, Frazier started on both of them in 1994 and 1995. Frazier is the only college quarterback to lead his team to back-to-back titles since the 1950s. Frazier accounted for 34 touchdowns in 1995. Tebow passed and rushed for 35 TDs in 2009, his senior year. Frazier never got drafted by the NFL, in part because of blood clots and other medical problems. But he did play in the Canadian Football League before leaving football for medical reasons, so an NFL team could have drafted him.
Chris Leak was the starting quarterback on the 2006 Florida national championship team, though Tebow is often credited for “winning two national championships.” Leak broke the Gators record for most career passing yards but went undrafted and went on to play in the CFL.
Former Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith won the 2006 Heisman and finished his college career with 54 passing touchdowns and just 13 interceptions while completing 62.7 percent of his passes. The Baltimore Ravens drafted Smith in the fifth round of the 2007 draft. Smith had a career record of 4-4 in the NFL for the Ravens and 49ers, connecting on 51.7 percent of his passes with eight touchdowns and five interceptions. He averaged 7.4 yards per pass attempt. Those stats aren’t that far off from Tebow’s 47.3 percent, 17 touchdown passes and nine interceptions, with 6.8 yards per pass attempt in 23 games (14 starts). However, Smith was cut by the 49ers and played the 2011 season in the United Football League.
Andre Ware was the first black quarterback to win the Heisman when he set 26 NCAA records in 1989 for the Houston Cougars. Drafted in the first round by the Detroit Lions, Ware only started six games between 1990 and 1993, going 3-3 until his NFL career ended.
Former Virginia star Shawn Moore led the NCAA in passing efficiency in 1989. Drafted in the 11th round by Denver in 1991, Moore served as a backup QB from 1991 to 1994.
D.J. Shockley of Georgia connected on 56 percent of his passes and threw for 2,588 yards and 24 touchdowns with seven interceptions in 2005. He was drafted in the seventh round by the Falcons but never appeared in any regular-season games.
Michael Bishop was a seventh rounder in the 1999 draft for the New England Patriots. He starred at Kansas State, accounting for 59 total touchdowns during his two seasons there, leading the Wildcats to a 22-3 record. Bishop threw a handful of passes in 2000 before his NFL career was over.
Rohan Davey was a fourth-round pick of the Patriots, for whom he threw 19 passes from 2002 to 2004 before he was cut in 2005 despite success in NFL Europe. Davey passed for 3,347 yards his senior year at LSU.
Don McPherson of Syracuse was the 1987 college player of the year and was named to the NCAA College Football Hall of Fame. The Philadelphia Eagles drafted him in 1988 but he never played a down in the NFL.
What do all the quarterbacks above have in common? All of them played fewer games in the NFL than Tebow, so they didn’t get a true chance to prove themselves in regular-season action. While Shockley backed up John Elway in Denver and Davey backed up Tom Brady in New England, it’s surprising that they weren’t able to catch on somewhere as backups for more than a couple of seasons.
If great black college quarterbacks had a hard time getting a chance to start in the NFL, getting long-term positions as backups was nearly as difficult. Rodney Peete, Charlie Batch and Seneca Wallace are three of the very few players to disprove the rule.
Some of the best black college quarterbacks never got a chance to play QB in the NFL at all because they were switched to different positions.
Former Kent State star Joshua Cribbs became a Pro Bowl kick returner for the Cleveland Browns. Cribbs is the only player in college football history to lead his team in both passing and rushing four seasons. He also rushed and passed for 1,000 yards in three different seasons. Cribbs, with blazing speed, was a 6-1 strong-armed quarterback who played in the Mid-American Conference, the same conference that produced Ben Roethlisberger and Chad Pennington.
Brian Mitchell starred at quarterback at Louisiana-Lafayette, becoming the first quarterback in Division-I history to pass for 5,000 yards and rush for 3,000 yards. Mitchell went on to win a Super Bowl with the 1991 Washington Redskins, and set several NFL records as a kick returner.
Brad Smith, who plays receiver for the Buffalo Bills, became the first player in Division-I history to pass for 5,000 yards and rush for 3,000 yards when he quarterbacked Missouri.
Former Rice QB Bert Emanuel had a successful career as a receiver in the NFL. Emanuel made 57 percent of his passes in 1994, throwing 12 touchdowns with just four interceptions for the Owls.
The quarterbacks mentioned here don’t even begin to scratch the surface of all the black quarterbacks who may have been talented enough to play in the NFL, but were forced to switch positions or not even given an opportunity to make it.
Traditionally, it has been harder for black quarterbacks to get starting positions than white quarterbacks, and black QBs to this day are held to a higher standard than whites.
When Michael Vick finished his prison sentence three years ago, nearly every talking head on ESPN debated what position he would play when he returned to the NFL. He wouldn’t play quarterback, they said. He wasn’t a quarterback. Really? All he did before going to prison was lead Atlanta to a 38-29-1 record as he made three Pro Bowls. In 2003, he became the first quarterback ever to defeat the Packers in a playoff game in Green Bay. Yet winning wasn’t enough. The talking heads all suggested Vick would play receiver, running back, kick returner, or Wildcat quarterback—anything but quarterback. Vick went on to throw for more than 3,000 yards with 21 TDs and six interceptions in 2010 in just 11 starts for Philadelphia.
Then there were the two Jacksonville quarterbacks, Byron Leftwich and David Garrard, both with winning records for a mediocre franchise. Both were cut right before the start of the regular season after successful seasons, Leftwich in 2007 and Garrard in 2011. Leftwich never started again for a good team, and Garrard sat out the 2011 season. The clutch Leftwich authored seven fourth-quarter comebacks and 10 game-winning drives during his NFL career.
Like Tebow, Vince Young won a national championship with equal parts passing and running. Since Young’s title win for Texas in 2005, his record as an NFL starter is 31-19. But apparently, winning isn’t enough. After five years with the Tennessee Titans, Young played the 2011 season as a backup to Vick in Philadelphia.
Young’s name is rarely mentioned for starting jobs in 2012, and in fact he is often derided because he has had personal problems in the past. But he wins. If he were white, it would probably be good enough. Young has seven fourth-quarter comebacks and 13 game-winning drives in his NFL career. By comparison, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers has three fourth-quarter comebacks and six game-winning drives.
It’s exceedingly rare for mediocre black quarterbacks to hold onto starting jobs for several seasons. Two examples are Tarvaris Jackson (38 touchdowns, 35 interceptions) and Tony Banks (77 touchdowns, 73 interceptions). There just aren’t many black quarterbacks who are allowed to be Rex Grossmans.
Of course, there have been black quarterbacks who were high draft choices but became busts, such as JaMarcus Russell and Akili Smith. And some non-traditional white quarterbacks such as Doug Flutie and Eric Crouch weren’t given much of a chance. Flutie would have been a great NFL quarterback, but he was deemed too short. But history has shown that the black quarterback has to play better than the white quarterback to start or even be a backup in the NFL.
The NFL has come a long way, and black quarterbacks are given equal opportunities much more than in previous decades. Pioneers like Fritz Pollard, Marlon Briscoe and Joe Gilliam paved the way for players like Super Bowl XXII MVP Doug Williams, Hall of Famer Warren Moon, Pro Bowlers Randall Cunningham and Donovan McNabb, MVP Steve McNair and likely 2011 Rookie of the Year Cam Newton. But black quarterbacks are still held to a higher standard than their white counterparts.
Tebow has already gotten more of a chance in the NFL than many great black college quarterbacks ever did. Sunday’s playoff game against Pittsburgh may be a turning point for the second-year Bronco. It will either help launch his career as a starting NFL quarterback or become the beginning of the end. Meanwhile, for the NFL to make progress in treating all quarterback prospects fairly, it’s going to have to judge players by their success on the field, not the color of their skin or their celebrity status.