The Extinction of the Left-Handed Quarterback?

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistJune 22, 2017

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Kellen Moore throws a pass during an NFL football practice at the team's training facility, Tuesday, June 13, 2017, in Frisco, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

The 2016 NFL season was the first in modern league history in which a left-handed quarterback did not throw a single pass.

Sure, quarterbacks occasionally improvise by throwing the ball with their wrong hand, and Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant threw a left-handed touchdown pass off a reverse against the Detroit Lions in December. But Cowboys backup Kellen Moore was the only active left-handed signal-caller in the NFL last year, and he continues to be today. Moore spent the entire 2016 campaign on injured reserve while recovering from a fractured fibula in his right leg.

Seasons with the fewest left-handed passes since 1970
SeasonLeft-handed passes
20161*
200831
197037
2007120
2014123
2009137
2013142
2015170
* Thrown by wide receiver Dez Bryant

In 2010, the Denver Broncos selected left-handed quarterback Tim Tebow in the first round of the NFL draft. Two days later, the New Orleans Saints chose lefty Sean Canfield in Round 7. Both are out of football now. NFL teams have selected 81 quarterbacks since then, but none are southpaws. All 25 rookie quarterbacks currently on NFL rosters (10 draft picks, 15 undrafted free agents) throw right-handed. 

Most studies indicate about 10 percent of the general human population is left-handed, but only 0.9 percent of current NFL quarterbacks throw with their left hand. 

It's shocking when you think about it. Southpaws Ken Stabler and Steve Young, whose careers spanned the first 30 years of the post-merger era (Stabler from 1970 to 1984, Young from 1985 to 1999), are enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Four-time Pro Bowler and 1988 MVP Boomer Esiason was a lefty quarterback, as were three-time Pro Bowler Mark Brunell, four-time Pro Bowler Michael Vick and longtime NFL starters Jim Zorn, Bobby Douglass and Scott Mitchell. 

At least one of those guys was active in every NFL season between 1970 and 2015, before Vick ran out of work last year. He's now retired, leaving a lefty void. 

Highest left-handed passer ratings in NFL history
PasserComp.%YardsTDINTRating
Steve Young64.33312423210796.8
Mark Brunell59.53207218410884.0
Boomer Esiason57.03792024718481.1
Michael Vick56.2224641338880.4
Brock Huard56.16894280.3
Scott Mitchell55.515692958175.3
Ken Stabler59.92793819422275.3
Tim Tebow47.9242217975.3
Erik Wilhelm56.69125671.1
Kellen Moore58.77794671.0
Pro Football Reference (min. 100 attempts)

Left-handed quarterbacks never robustly populated the NFL, but there was always at least one strong starter until now.  

"I don't really think about it a whole lot," Moore told Bleacher Report of being the last lefty standing. "But a few people have made me aware of it, and I guess it's sort of a unique accomplishment."

Where have all the lefties gone? Some theories, along with some analysis... 

They're tougher to catch

Is it more difficult for a receiver to catch a ball from a left-handed passer than from a righty? Perhaps. Just as left-footed punts spin differently—as New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick will attestpotentially inducing more muffs, left-handed throws move differently than right-handed throws. 

"The ball comes out different," said Moore. "When it naturally fades or drifts, it's going the opposite way as it would from a righty. I don't think it's a critical thing. It's not like a receiver simply can't catch the ball because it's coming from a lefty. But sometimes guys, the first time they see itespecially if they've never caught from a lefty beforeit feels little bit different. But they get used to it pretty quickly."

Indeed, Moore said he's never received a complaint from a receiver about his lefty spin. He's been told his throws "feel different," but the reality is that if a receiver is significantly affected by a change that subtle, he likely has bigger problems on his hands. 

They're tougher to block for

With a left-handed quarterback under center, the right side becomes the blind side. In theory, that means teams with left-handed starting quarterbacks should have stronger right tackles than left tackles, which isn't easy considering that the majority of the league's top pass-protecting tackles reside on the left side. 

But that might also be overblown. 

"I don't think the whole left tackle-right tackle thing matters anymore," said Moore. "You need two really good ones nowadays. Defenses aren't stupidif you have a really good left tackle and an average right tackle, they're going to put their best defensive end against your right tackle all day."

They're tougher to scheme for

Jaime Dunaway/Associated Press

Do coordinators have more trouble drawing up plays and designing offensive schemes for left-handed quarterbacks? 

"When you're thinking through play action and the easiest way to fake and the most comfortable throw, you automatically think of how it affects right-handers," said Houston Texans quarterbacks coach Sean Ryan. "You have to kind of think it through, but that's probably the biggest obstacle. And it [isn't] even an obstacle, you just have to think about it a little bit."

Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Ken Zampese was more blunt. 

"None of those things make any difference," he said. "It makes absolutely no difference. We're not into left hand/right hand, we're into production. Because that's what wins. I'm way more concerned with what's between the ears than height/weight/speed stuff or stuff that matters even less, like what hand he throws with."

They're playing baseball

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

"I like to joke that most other lefties were smart enough to get into baseball," said Moore. "That sport's kind of designed for them."

But it's no joke. There is at least one left-handed pitcher on every team in Major League Baseball. Premiums are placed on lefty pitchers because of the advantage they have over batters, who face right-handers in the vast majority of their at-bats. 

More than 25 percent of the pitchers MLB teams have used this season are southpaws. 

Is America's former pastime stealing all of the lefties from its new pastime? 

"All the high-end guys that can throw it left-handed get yanked into baseball so fast that they never get a chance to develop into football," Zampese theorized. 

But while that might explain why lefties make up a disproportionately high percentage of the professional baseball populationand to an extent why they make up a disproportionately low percentage of the professional football populationthere's nothing new about that in baseball. So it still doesn't explain why the NFL has fewer left-handers than ever right now. 

They're starters or they didn't happen

Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

After essentially debunking those four theories as potential causes for a southpaw quarterback ice age—they're minor annoyances more so than legitimate deterrents, and none are new trends—it might be worth considering there have never been many left-handed backups. 

A total of 29 left-handed quarterbacks have played in the NFL since the 1970 merger. Eight—or 28 percent of those 29 signal callers—were the stars/solid starters listed above. In addition to that, four more—Todd Marinovich, Cade McNown, Matt Leinart and Tim Tebow—were drafted in the first round as would-be starters before becoming busts. 

On the other hand, only five lefties—Zorn, Jim Del Gaizo, Matt Lytle, Jared Lorenzen and Moore—have thrown NFL passes despite not being drafted.

Lefties seem to be less valuable when it isn't apparent they're the types of quarterbacks you might be willing to build a system around. 

Moore heard it coming into the league. 

"We're probably not going to take you because you're a lefty, we have a righty starter and I think it's hard to have a lefty backup when all of your offense is tailored for the righty starter," he said they'd tell him. 

Cowboys offensive coordinator Scott Linehan—who has coached several lefties and just last week strongly endorsed Moore as his backup, per Jon Machota of the Dallas Morning News—made an exception for Moore, who is backing up right-hander Dak Prescott. But it might not be a coincidence that Moore is one of only roughly 16 reserve left-handed quarterbacks in modern NFL history. 

While he believes talent always outweighs preferences regarding a quarterback's dominant hand, Ryan agrees left-handed backups could be at a disadvantage with all else being equal.

"If you've evaluated two guys and you feel they're probably the same," he said, "then you probably will go with what's more comfortable and what you know best, what you've worked with more, and someone who kind of mirrors your starter in terms of technique." 

There are never usually more than a few left-handed quarterbacks on NFL rosters. But there is usually at least one lefty starter, even if there are no lefty backups. It's the opposite case right now, which makes it feel as though the league has encountered a more significant shortage than is actually the case. 

Just a drought?

This, instead, could be a small drought, accentuated by the fact we're missing left-handed starters rather than backups. It's always been slightly harder to catch passes from lefties, designing plays for lefties has always required a little bit of extra work and lefties have always been heavily recruited into baseball. None of that has changed. 

"It probably is more cyclical than anything else," said Ryan, "and I only say that because I really feel like if somebody comes along who's talented enough that a team feels can help them win, then they're not going to care if he's left-handed. The talent and the ability would far outweigh any sort of drawback associated with having to think things through a little bit with a left-hander."

So we're waiting for the next Ken Stabler, Steve Young or Michael Vick. And if/when that southpaw emerges, we'll forget about this left-handed dry spell. 

Vick was one of the most popular players in the world between 2001 and 2006. How many current teenagers watched him then and decided to pursue football rather than baseball? 

Check back in a few years for the answer. 

Endangered species, for now

Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

There are a few good left-handed college and high school quarterbacks trying to buck the trend.

There's the big-armed, mobile Malik Zaire, who will compete for the starting job as a redshirt senior at Florida after an offseason transfer from Notre Dame. And there's dual-threat Middle Tennessee starter Brent Stockstill, who has thrown 61 touchdown passes to just 16 interceptions the last two seasons and is entering his redshirt junior year in Conference USA. 

A lot of hype surrounds Alabama freshman Tua Tagovailoa, who—per SEC Country's Matt Jennings—former Tide assistant coach Lane Kiffin says reminds him of Steve Young. And 2018 Mississippi State verbal commit Jalen Mayden also has a chance to be a starter in the SEC in the next couple years. 

But there are no obvious southpaws of the future, which means this drought could last a while. And the longer it spans, the more we'll wonder if left-handed quarterbacks will ever reemerge at the NFL level.

"It's hard to say there is one major factor at play," Brunell told Dan Wiederer of the Chicago Tribune in 2015. "But unfortunately, we're a dying breed. We need someone to relight and carry the torch for us. If we don't find that, we could become extinct here soon." 

        

Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.

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