"I know I'm not going into the NFL as a black quarterback."
Grambling State quarterback Mike Howell told his coach, the legendary Eddie Robinson, he wanted to get reps in the secondary. Howell knew it was his only hope of playing football for a living.
Robinson told that story to Mitch Albom in 1988, on the heels of Grambling State star Doug Williams becoming the first African American quarterback to win the Super Bowl. "Never again," wrote Albom, would a great college quarterback be stereotyped and marginalized as Howell was.
Williams' win shattered the barrier of overt racism. There isn't a scout, personnel manager, or coach who will tell you African-Americans are too dumb to read a defense—as they would have in the 1940s, '50s and '60s. But 24 years later, Williams remains the only African American quarterback to lead his team to Super Bowl victory.
The barriers that African American quarterbacks must surmount to succeed in the NFL are no longer explicit. But, like in the rest of society, just because the barriers are hard to see doesn't mean they aren't there.
Here are Rivals.com's top 15 "Pro Style" quarterbacks for the 2012 college recruiting class:
Here are Rivals.com's top 15 "Dual-threat" quarterbacks for the 2012 college recruiting class:
By the time kids establish themselves as prospects to watch, they're already christened "pro style" or "dual threat." Either they're the kind of quarterback that can succeed in the NFL, or they're black.
The problem isn't in who's doing the classifying, at least not entirely. Rivals' rankings are made by people with biases and preconceptions just like the rest of us, but they're accurately describing what they're seeing: youth and high school football coaches grooming kids to fill these roles.
Football coaches, especially those at the youth and high school level, teach from two foundations: tradition and experience. They teach as they were taught, and they do what works.
It's why we see "coaching trees" that branch up to the highest levels of the sport. Players learn the game from their coaches, and often begin their coaching careers as assistants in the programs they came through. Assistants become coordinators, mastering the ways of their mentors. Coordinators become head coaches, or more prominent coordinators, taking their system with them.
But more than Xs and Os, they take the values of their program with them. Their attitudes towards discipline and work ethic. The roles they expect players to fill: big linemen or fast linemen, strong wide receivers or fast wide receivers, power backs or scatbacks..."pro style" quarterbacks or "dual-threat" quarterbacks.
Why must quarterbacks be one or the other? Let's go back to tradition and experience.
The image of the Golden Boy quarterback is firm in our minds: tall, lean, cannon arm. Handsome, clean-cut, dates the cheer captain. Stays in the pocket, stays cool under pressure. Confident, outgoing, looks you right in the eye and shakes your hand. Well spoken. Makes good decisions. Smart. White.
Football coaches look for this player because that is what's always succeeded at the highest levels. That's the kind of quarterback their mentor won with, or they played with—or they were themselves, years ago.
That's why the Rooney Rule exists: given their choice, football men seek to repeat the past. Empirically, (white) executives hire (white) coaches who come from a background of historical (white) success, who then draft quarterbacks that pass the "eyeball test" (and are thereby white).
The problem is, there are a lot more clean-cut white boys than there are John Elways, and just because a kid looks the part doesn't mean he can lead you to the promised land.
Winning trumps tradition, and you can't win States with Uncle Rico under center. The breaking of the quarterback color barrier coincided with the rise of the Wishbone, Wing T, I-Option and other option offenses.
Coaches at every level still struggled to see African American kids as pocket passers, but found it easy to put the ball in the hands of their best athlete on every play. Especially in youth and high school ball, quarterbacks with size and speed give defenses fits—and what works gets repeated.
Today, the quarterback position is in a state of rapid flux. Offenses at every level are incorporating more four- and five-wide receiver sets, emphasizing pre-snap reads, quick decision-making and pass accuracy. Offenses at every level are incorporating mobile quarterbacks—emphasizing size, speed and elusiveness with just enough passing ability to be dangerous.
Overwhelmingly, players that are groomed on the first track fit the old archetype. They're trained to polish their mechanics, improve their footwork, fit the profile that colleges—and ultimately, pro teams—are looking for.
Overwhelmingly, players groomed to the second track are barely "groomed" at all. Their coaches build the offense around their athletic gifts. They're not expected to hone their craft as passers; that's just wasted time. They're human weapons, whose strengths are systematically maximized and faults systematically minimized.
Look at Terrelle Pryor. Coming out of high school, Pryor was listed at 6'6", 234 lbs., with a 40-yard dash time of 4.4 seconds. He was one of the most athletically gifted quarterback prospects of all-time and recruited to Ohio State, a traditional Big Ten school with a "pro style" offense. Despite being blessed with prototypical size and a cannon arm, Pryor was used like a gimmick.
Instead of grooming Pryor within the existing system, Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel deployed Pryor in specific packages designed to exploit his athleticism. In the second game of Pryor's freshman year, Tressel threw Pryor into the fire against mighty USC. Tressel had Pryor run more often than he threw into the teeth of a USC defense stacked with NFL talent.
Pryor was brutalized en route to a 35-3 road defeat—not the way an elite "pro style" quarterback prospect is ever developed.
Pryor's career at Ohio State disintegrated along with the rest of the program, but after three full seasons of college football, he was barely more polished a quarterback than when he left high school.
Pryor's dazzling, but raw tools were enough to convince the late Al Davis to park him on the Raiders' bench.
It's been nearly a half century after Howell was drafted as a safety, and nearly a quarter century after Williams led the Redskins to the mountaintop. Ironically, it may be in the NFL where Pryor and other gifted African American quarterbacks finally get the chance to develop their mechanics in the "pro style."