Forward progress in NFL - The Buffalo News

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Forward progress in NFL

For the first time in Buffalo Bills history, two black quarterbacks will oppose each other. ¶ That’s not the story. ¶ What’s noteworthy is that nobody noticed. ¶ Today’s quarterbacks in Ralph Wilson Stadium will be rookie EJ Manuel, the Bills’ first black quarterback in 26 years, and Carolina Panthers star Cam Newton. ¶ This bit of history wasn’t explored or even acknowledged throughout the week. ¶ Should it have been? ¶ That a matchup of black quarterbacks wasn’t discussed could be viewed as sociological progress. We don’t think about the color of an athlete’s skin as much as we used to. ¶ But perhaps it’s worthwhile to reflect on these moments so we don’t take such significant improvements for granted. ¶ “A lot of people probably won’t pay attention to it, but we should,” Manuel said. “Twenty years ago, this wouldn’t happen.” ¶ Manuel was born in 1990. That year, Warren Moon estimated, he still was receiving death threats merely for being a black quarterback. That year, a fourth of the NFL’s teams still hadn’t asked a black quarterback to throw.

Manuel last Sunday was one of nine black quarterbacks to start on opening day, an NFL record. The league needed 55 years before its ninth black quarterback attempted a pass.

“The change is in every stadium,” said Marlin Briscoe, the first black quarterback to start in the modern NFL and later a Bills receiver. “There was a point in time not too long ago when there weren’t two black quarterbacks in the whole league – starting, backup or development squad.”

Now we’re entering Week Two with a quarterback matchup that would’ve been a national storyline 15 years ago.

There wasn’t a whisper locally.

“That’s a good thing,” Moon said by phone from the Seattle area. “That’s what we’re trying to get to, where there’s just two quarterbacks going against one another. They both happen to be black.

“A quarter of the league has African-American quarterbacks. I’m really happy about that, but I’m also happy that it’s not a big deal because I think people are accepting it a little more.”

Black quarterbacks aren’t curiosities anymore. Yet white quarterbacks maintain a distinct majority even though about 67 percent of all NFL players are black.

“We still have some work to do in that area,” said James Harris, who played for the Bills one year after Briscoe reintegrated the position. “The answers can be in the numbers as to how far we have to go.”

Dr. Harry Edwards stressed the rise of black quarterbacks is an issue worthy of continual examination. Edwards was the activist behind the iconic black-power salute at the Olympics in 1968, the same year Briscoe started for the Broncos.

“There’s the underlying story of how we got here that we should be cognizant of,” said Edwards, a sociologist, author and longtime San Francisco 49ers consultant. “When we really don’t understand the dynamics and substance of how things came, we’re typically doomed to lose them.

“That’s the importance of the story: How we got here, not just that you have two black quarterbacks facing each other.”

Edwards and Moon, a Seattle Seahawks broadcaster, could discuss the subject tonight at CenturyLink Field. They’ll be there to watch the 49ers and Seahawks, teams with black starting quarterbacks.

Position change stings

In 1969, the Bills had on their roster two of the NFL’s first six black quarterbacks.

The Bills drafted Harris in the eighth round and signed Briscoe to play receiver. Briscoe was unable to find work as a quarterback despite starting for the Denver Broncos the year before.

They became roommates and constantly counseled one another on how to handle their plights.

“James dealt with hell just like I did,” Briscoe said. “It was a long, arduous track.”

Harris recalled an environment in the 1960s and 1970s “where you’re expecting to get cut every day and know each practice could be your last, each play could be your last.”

Briscoe went 2-3 in five starts for the Broncos as a rookie. He completed 41.5 percent of his passes with 14 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. He ran for 308 yards and three touchdowns.

But the Broncos didn’t consider Briscoe a quarterback candidate the next year. So he shopped himself around and found Bills coach John Rauch the only one willing to bring him aboard. The Bills already had Jack Kemp, Tom Flores and Harris. Briscoe had to learn a new position.

“My lot was going to be either switch positions or go home and teach school,” Briscoe said from his home in Long Beach, Calif. “I had too much pride to give up.”

Briscoe had a Pro Bowl season for the Bills in 1970 with 57 receptions, 1,036 yards and eight touchdowns. He was a receiver on the Miami Dolphins’ undefeated 1972 squad and enjoyed a nine-year career.

But getting forced to change positions always stung Briscoe.

“I felt very bad for Marlin,” Harris said. “I was as frustrated as he was because it was just so unfair for him and all the other outstanding black quarterbacks who didn’t get a chance.

“Marlin was bitter, and I was bitter for Marlin. That really bothered me because it was something he wanted real bad and had proven it. It wasn’t right. It hurt.”

Harris bemoaned countless quarterback careers that were lost to bigotry.

Sandy Stephens was a Heisman Trophy finalist for Minnesota. The Cleveland Browns drafted him in the second round, and the New York Jets took him fifth overall in 1962, when the NFL and AFL conducted separate drafts. Both teams intended to switch Stephens’ position, so he played quarterback in Canada instead.

Three rounds before the Bills took Harris in 1969, the Boston Patriots made Onree Jackson from Alabama A&M the first black quarterback drafted to play that position alone. Jackson was cut in training camp.

The Cincinnati Bengals drafted Alcorn State star Marvin Weeks in the 15th round in 1970, but to play defensive back. The Bills selected Matthew Reed from Grambling in the 10th round in 1973, but Reed played in Canada.

“If today’s black quarterbacks played in 1968, they would be wide receivers, defensive backs, tight ends,” Briscoe said. “If I played today, I would be a quarterback. Those just were the times. If you were black and mobile, you switched positions.”

Harris started three games for the Bills over three seasons, but said “They gave me an opportunity, and I’m thankful for that.”

Harris found success with the Los Angeles Rams. He went 18-4 as a starter in 1974-75 and went to a Pro Bowl before injuries rendered him a backup again. Harris lasted 11 years as a player and has been an NFL personnel executive since 1997.

Booker Edgerson, a member of the Bills’ Wall of Fame, played with Briscoe and Harris in 1969. Edgerson will be mindful of how far black quarterbacks have come when he attends today’s game in Ralph Wilson Stadium.

“I like to see individuals achieve through their abilities rather than focus on their racial background,” Edgerson said. “Unfortunately, we’re not at that point yet.

“I’ll have to defer to that and say, yes, I am looking at history. I’ve got to be happy with that, happy to see two black quarterbacks going head to head.

“It’s not something I need to cheer about, but it’s definitely worth noting that finally the African-American quarterbacks are getting the respect they should’ve had years ago.”

Different philosophies

Manuel and Newton seem to have different philosophies on the subject.

At the Panthers’ training facility this week, Newton downplayed the significance of nine black starting quarterbacks. He brushed off the notion skin color matters anymore, that there’s some black quarterbacks club.

“You don’t have a bar mitzvah just because you’re a starting African-American quarterback in this league,” Newton said.

Manuel was more introspective when asked how he views his place on the black quarterback timeline.

“Obviously, I’m very proud to carry the torch for guys like Doug Williams and Randall Cunningham and Warren Moon and all those other quarterbacks who were treated unfairly,” Manuel said.

“You want to move past that, where we’re not talking about white quarterbacks or black quarterbacks. I want to be known as a winning quarterback. But at the end of the day, you are who you are, and it does matter.”

Although the Bills signed Vince Young and traded for Tarvaris Jackson last year and have Thad Lewis on their practice squad, Manuel is only the third black quarterback to play for them.

Manuel became Buffalo’s first black quarterback in 26 years, when Willie Totten played two games as a 1987 strike replacement.

Only the San Diego Chargers, at 34 years, entered this season with a longer interval; Harris was their last in 1979. The Green Bay Packers are at 26 years and counting, but that could end this year. New backup Seneca Wallace is black.

Six years ago, a black quarterback still hadn’t played for the New York Giants.

Stereotypes still exist

Integration hasn’t eradicated the negative stereotypes.

Black quarterbacks almost never are compared to white quarterbacks in terms of playing style or demeanor. Black quarterbacks are assumed to be runners. As pro prospects entering the draft, their character often is looked upon wearily.

For instance, while Newton won the Heisman Trophy at Auburn, many analysts and fans predicted he would be another JaMarcus Russell. The Oakland Raiders drafted Russell first overall in 2007 and cut him after three atrocious seasons. Russell is considered football’s biggest draft bust.

The problem with that comparison, aside from the fact Newton being named Offensive Rookie of the Year and going to the Pro Bowl, was Russell and Newton are totally unalike except their general physical appearance.

Russell was a pocket passer with 40 rushing attempts in three years for Oakland. Newton ran 253 times his first two seasons.

“That just shows the ignorance of some people for trying to lump everybody in one basket,” Moon said. “I hate that. Everybody should be treated as an individual.

“I don’t know if you’re ever going to change everybody’s mindset. There’s still a lot of bias out there. But as long as we continue to let people excel on their own merits, then we will continue to have progress.”

Had the typical NFL observer been told 20 years ago there’d be nine black starting quarterbacks in 2013, he’d likely assume the position was dominated by scramblers who preferred to scamper and threw only out of desperation.

Last weekend, quarterbacks passed for 8,143 yards and 63 touchdowns, all-time records for any week.

Edwards emphasized that breaking down color barriers isn’t necessarily synonymous with equality.

“What gave us the black quarterback was not a sea change in racial attitudes,” Edwards said. “What gave us the black quarterback was a business consideration. You can’t give a guy $50 million and then have him sitting in the tub half of his career.

“What gave us the black quarterback was Lawrence Taylor, Charles Haley, Reggie White, Kevin Greene, Chris Doleman. Those are the people who gave us the black quarterback just as surely as the lion gave the antelope his speed.”

The need for elusive quarterbacks could change, Edwards noted.

As the NFL continues to micromanage collisions and constantly tweaks its safety policies and rules, pocket passers could become more valuable.

“If they protect the quarterbacks to the point where they say ‘You can’t sack the quarterback,’ then you will see the black quarterback go away,” Edwards said. “We’re in an evolutionary process, not a linear process, not a straight line toward a specific destination.”

Third start will be historic

Unless an injury prevents it, Manuel will start next Sunday against the New York Jets. Their quarterback, rookie Geno Smith, also is black.

So a unique game in Bills history quickly won’t be unique anymore.

Manuel’s third start will tie Harris for most in club history by a black quarterback, and maybe that’s not a big deal to most.

But it’s notable to Manuel, whose father conveyed how much harder a young EJ would have to work and how much better he must perform to override stereotypes and labels.

“You certainly hope we get to the point where it’s all based on the best player and you don’t have to say what color he is,” Harris said. “That’s all it’s ever been about, people getting the opportunity to compete and let the best players play.

“It is still newsworthy when it happens for the first time, but all we ever wanted was a fair chance. We all had dreams. Like any kid growing up, we had dreams.”


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