For the first time in the Cam Newton era, the Carolina Panthers will face consecutive teams with quarterbacks of African-American descent after hosting Russell Wilsons Seahawks and traveling to E.J. Manuels Bills on Sunday.
There were an NFL-high nine black or biracial quarterbacks who started in Week 1. One media outlet has dubbed it, The Golden Age of the Black Quarterbacks.
Newton isnt throwing a party.
You dont have a bar mitzvah just because youre a starting African-American quarterback in this league, Newton said Wednesday. Even though Im a fan of everybody, I cant say I just root for Michael Vick, (Robert Griffin III), Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick. I still feel like I learn just as much from Michael Vick as I do from Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers or even RG3.
While Newton took a post-racial tone, the historical inequities of black quarterbacks in the NFL are undeniable. Prior to the mid-1980s, only a handful of black quarterbacks made it to the league. The likes of Randall Cunningham, Warren Moon and Doug Williams began to change that, and 10 years ago, Steve McNair, Donovan McNabb and Daunte Culpepper headlined a growing field of black starting quarterbacks in the league.
But that trailed off in the late-2000s when highly-touted college quarterbacks Vince Young and JaMarcus Russell struggled to find their way in the NFL. So when the Panthers had the No. 1 overall pick in 2011 and Newton atop their board, coach Ron Rivera heard the concerns about taking a black quarterback.
I think as we were looking at Cam we kept hearing the same things about what was happening with JaMarcus, what was happening with Vince, Rivera said. These guys didnt have a lot of success. Are you guys taking a big risk? But as far as we were concerned he was the best quarterback coming out.
Newtons immediate success hes the fifth-fastest quarterback in NFL history to reach 8,000 career passing yards has validated the Panthers decision. Since Newtons Week 1 start in 2011, Griffin, Wilson, Manuel, Kaepernick, Terrelle Pryor and Geno Smith have all started in the NFL.
According to the 2012 Racial and Gender Report Card for the NFL, the league has hovered around 67 percent African-American participation for the past 20 years. The nine quarterbacks comprise only 28 percent of the leagues starting quarterbacks.
But had Newton failed, would last weeks total of nine quarterbacks have been so high? If another black quarterback became a bust, would several others have been given a chance so quickly?
If he hadnt (succeeded), yeah I think people would have continued the perception that an African-American quarterback, an athletic quarterback, didnt fit in a pro style, Rivera said. I think whats happening too though with the need to put quarterbacks on the field so quickly, I think thats a big reason why youre seeing more of the zone read because thats what everybodys doing.
If you want to put an explosive quarterback on the field, you have to go to the zone read. Youre not going to be able to say, Were going to make you a pocket passer. I think thats what playing into more than anything else.
Because of a higher demand for instant-success quarterbacks out of college, teams have had to adjust, or sometimes completely overhaul, their offenses to fit a quarterback. Where a team could hone the talents of a pro-style quarterback like Rodgers for a few years on the sideline, the NFL landscape doesnt afford clubs that option as often anymore.
The zone-read option has dominated college football in recent years with several players coming to the NFL after 2-4 years in that system. If a team is looking for its quarterback to have an easy transition while also making a fast impression, former Panthers offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski laid out the blueprint with Newton in 2011.
I think if Cam wouldnt have had success, we wouldnt have some of the zone-read option we have going on with some of the other quarterbacks, wide receiver Steve Smith said. It isnt just black quarterbacks. You got (Clevelands) Brandon Weeden doing it. Its a copycat league. Youre going to get people to copy success. And if success is in the style of quarterback, people are going to do it. Doesnt matter the race.
Smith said theres a lot of racial code when it comes to football. An athletic quarterback is a black guy, he says, and a high-motor guy on defense is white. Newton was pegged as an athletic quarterback coming out of Auburn for his size (6-foot-5, 250 pounds) and rushing ability (he rushed for 1,473 yards as a junior).
His stature is the same, and hes also kept up his big rushing numbers last year he became the first NFL quarterback to lead his team in rushing since 2000. But Rivera said one of the biggest misconceptions about Newton coming out of college was that he was a run-first quarterback.
Its the other way around. When we did the study on it and we looked into it ... when he scrambled, it was to extend the pass play. It wasnt to run. Most of his runs were actually called runs. And people didnt look at that, Rivera said. We researched what these calls were supposed to be. Was he supposed to run or not? The whole misconception was, he was a scrambler that ran. It was the other way around. When he scrambled, it was to throw the ball downfield.
Newton doesnt perceive himself as one who paved the way for black quarterbacks in the league who have come after him, nor does he believe race hinders anyone at the quarterback position in 2013. Hes just making the most of his opportunity.
If you have skills to play the game of football, then youre going to play no matter what your race, Newton said. I didnt feel any type of pressure coming into this league saying that I have to represent for all African-Americans, like saying all my fans are just African-American. When I play this game I play it to the best of my ability so I can inspire everyone, not just a particular set of people.
Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9
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