CHARLOTTE — 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 Wilson’s Seahawks and traveling to E.J. Manuel’s 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 isn’t throwing a party.
“You don’t have a bar mitzvah just because you’re a starting African-American quarterback in this league,” Newton said Wednesday. “Even though I’m a fan of everybody, I can’t 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 didn’t 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.”
Newton’s immediate success – he’s the fifth-fastest quarterback in NFL history to reach 8,000 career passing yards – has validated the Panthers’ decision. Since Newton’s 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 league’s starting quarterbacks.
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 doesn’t afford clubs that option as often anymore.
Smith said there’s 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 he’s also kept up his big rushing numbers – last year he became the first NFL quarterback to lead his team in rushing since 2000.
Newton doesn’t perceive himself as one who paved the way for black quarterbacks in the league who have come after him.
“If you have skills to play the game of football, then you’re going to play no matter what your race,” Newton said. “I didn’t feel any type of pressure. 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.”