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The decade QBs of color took over college football

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The highest levels of quarterbacking used to be mostly for the whitest of faces. In the 2010s, that changed dramatically. So did the fortunes of teams that put black and brown QBs in charge of their offenses.

Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images. Banner Society illustration.

I. Cam Newton, starting all of this

How could we have known how this lightning bolt from Blinn College would generate such power for Auburn? Newton was a force of nature. If you crafted a football player from marble, he’d be the model. 6’5, 250 pounds. He ran like a thoroughbred and threw a ball that scorched through the air.

I never thought the Superman celebration fit him, because Superman has a weakness. He had to struggle. Newton’s athleticism flashed as effortlessly as that sometimes devious smile. Cam, how did you make it look so easy?

Offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn was an innovator, but that was not as much about his schemes as how he blended tempos and communication. There’s a two-play play sequence that shows how Malzahn and Newton combined to make things devastating.

Auburn came out in its sugar huddle to hide its plans against LSU. Auburn hid a running back crouching down in a pseudo-Annexation Of Puerto Rico. Newton rose and fired:

When he wanted to get the ball into a tight space, it looked like he put every sinew of his strength into it. He rocked back and unleashed with such force that he fell backward.

Auburn then hurried to the line of scrimmage but didn’t snap the ball right away. They looked to the sideline for a play meant to exploit LSU’s personnel package, which the visitors couldn’t have subbed out if they’d wanted to (the real benefit of the no-huddle). Malzahn and Newton had LSU right where they wanted them. Then Cam did Cam:

It was a winding romp through 21 other Tigers that ended with a clutch drop into sixth gear before Newton extended into the end zone. He did it on a play from Malzahn’s toolbox referred to as the inverted veer. Other teams like TCU and Florida had used it around that time. Nobody had used it with someone like Newton.

Newton’s impact was not just at Auburn. I told you Florida used the veer. There’s an alternate universe where Urban Meyer uses it with Newton in more than just a spring game and mop-up duty. One of the sport’s great what-ifs is if Newton didn’t get in trouble at Florida. Or if he decided to transfer anywhere other than Auburn. You can plug him into nearly a dozen landing spots and imagine a changed sport for years.

In Cam’s journey from Florida to a junior college to Auburn, the Newton family allegedly got a large sum of money (we don’t know exactly how much, we do know it was worth it) to ensure Cam became an Auburn Tiger and not a Mississippi State Bulldog. Cam was never really fingered for the “crime” of him and his father knowing his worth. It will forever be an ongoing investigation.

Players being investigated for alleged payments was not new. But Newton’s talent was unique to this decade. You could tell the story of the sport for nearly the whole 2010s by taking a group of QBs and examining how they wowed us on the field at the highest level. There was no more fitting start to the decade than Newton’s dominance.

II. Robert Griffin III, all alone

There is a temptation to view the rise of QBs of color in the 2010s as the rise of just the mobile quarterback, using the mobile moniker to put down the full suite of a player’s skillset. But that’s not accurate. Here is where we find RGIII.

In the first 59 minutes and 43 seconds against Oklahoma in 2011, Griffin had accounted for 517 of Baylor’s 583 yards and three of five touchdowns. Another TD had been called back, another dropped, and another barely missed a receiver’s hands. Meanwhile, Baylor’s defense, which would finish 100th in SP+, had ceded over 600 yards to Oklahoma.

If this particular Baylor team had not had Robert Griffin III at quarterback, it’s doubtful they’d have had a shot to beat Oklahoma. In 2010, the year before, Griffin piloted a team that couldn’t beat anyone with a pulse. The Bears eked out bowl eligibility with a handful of one-score wins before losing out through November.

This 2011 season was their proof of concept, but they were not supposed to beat Oklahoma anyway. They entered 0-20 against OU all-time, and they were 17-point home underdogs.

And then Robert Griffin III lined up in the backfield by himself.

The receiver he targeted was one of three in Baylor’s ridiculously wide trips set. Baylor used three receivers bunched together to get one isolated. Not open. There’s a difference, and “isolated” was a workable concept thanks to Griffin’s arm talent:

Griffin was no longer alone. Thousands chanted “Heisman” behind him on the field nearly drowning out the interview he’s trying to do. He was the reason they rushed out of the stands. He was the reason Baylor finally beat Oklahoma.

III. Jameis Winston, debuting in style

On a Monday night in Pittsburgh, Winston was 25-for-27 in his debut, a feat that’s hard to do against air. It woulda been 26-for-27 if the refs had reviewed a toe-tapping throw on a second-and-17. Winston came back on the next play and threw this to make up for it, with Aaron Donald bearing down on him:

It looked different that night, because it was different. With Winston at the wheel, Florida State reached the potential the program had hinted at for years.

The stunning thing was the amount of command Winston had over that offense from Day 1 as a redshirt freshman. It’s not that FSU had a bunch of different routes in the passing game, but the concepts they did have adjusted to both the defense and the game situation. You have to master a few concepts and know how to use them in dozens of different ways.

At a coaching clinic, Fisher once said red zone offense should be about “taking your pass plays and keeping them the same — not creating a whole new offense — and being able to tweak ‘em to shorten it depending on how deep and how far out of the end zone. So your kids aren’t really learning a new play, they’re learning a new twist to the play.”

Think about that other Monday night — the one in Pasadena — when Winston and the Noles looked mortal and found themselves down 21-3. They roared back to win the national championship.

The play they won it on was a flat route by a fullback with a slant behind it. Two receivers in the pattern and that’s it.

It looks an awful lot like a truncated version of Fisher’s Houston concept. In Fisher fashion, the play can be run out of any formation or personnel package. As long as the quarterback gets the concept right, it doesn’t necessarily matter who’s on the field.

Falling backward, hand near his face, over one defender and beside another draped over his wideout, Winston made the throw. He’s the guy who elevated Fisher’s offense.

Winston was the purest form of the gunslinger. In his holster was the mindset that let him make throws like that winner and this one from earlier in the game:

He had the incomprehensible belief in his arm talent in more ways than simply slinging it 40 yards down the field. Maybe he didn’t have time to set his feet and throw. Maybe he didn’t think he needed it. Of course he could make that throw, he figured.

Winston has spent every year since unable to get within a Hail Mary of that four-to-one touchdown-to-interception ratio in 2013. He is still chasing the high from that Monday night from Pasadena, no matter how many NFL picks it takes him to find it.

IV. Braxton Miller, J.T. Barrett, Cardale Jones, the fleet that won a title

Miller was shortchanged. In 2012, his Buckeyes went 12-0 but were postseason-banned. In 2014, his shoulder gave out on a short pass in a practice, basically ending his career as a QB. He would return at a different position to deliver this as a wildcat quarterback in 2015.

But by the time of that preposterously smooth spin move, Miller’s legend as an Ohio State QB had been usurped by two others.

One was old reliable J.T. Barrett, who was thrust into Miller’s shoes and delivered game after game. By the time Barrett was done in scarlet and grey, he had 39 records to his name. But against Minnesota late in that 2014 season, he broke off the longest rush by a QB in school history (86 yards) en route to rushing for the most yards by a QB in school history (189).

Where Miller was flash and dash, Barrett’s thing was consistency. There are no violent cuts or fantastic moves in that run. There is only a talented athlete being just fast enough to run away from his opponents.

Before Ohio State’s Playoff run, Barrett got hurt too. Where Miller was a tight-cornering sports car and Barrett a trusty four-door sedan, Cardale Jones was a goddamn tank.

The Buckeyes rumbled through the three highest-stakes game of the season. It was supposed to be Miller, and it ended up being Jones.

Sometimes you’re so good it doesn’t matter.

V. Marcus Mariota, cheating what we know about athleticism

Similar to Malzahn at Auburn, much of Chip Kelly’s approach at Oregon was about manipulating time. The Ducks did the most with the least of it, scoring in the dozens at will. The option in every one of its forms (zone-read, midline, triple) is about waiting. It’s a millisecond when the defender makes his decision, so the quarterback can make his.

But Mariota was special. He could wait and wait and then wait some more for you to make your move, because he could make up for it in ways other QBs couldn’t.

It’s hard to tell when exactly Mariota actually did the work of acceleration. A player is supposed to show his work when running away from people. We’re supposed to be able to see and parse how and when they get from point A to point B.

Mariota was just this unique blend of stride length and foot speed. He wasn’t so much a cheat code as he was a part of the video game that glitched. He sped the frame rate up on his ethernet while your ass was still on dial up.

VI. Deshaun Watson, surviving

You might think the enduring image of Deshaun Watson is this from a moment of triumph:

CFP National Championship Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

Allow me to posit that it is, in fact, this from a moment of struggle:

You know Alabama is built to break opponents, spiritually and physically. I’m still not quite sure how they didn’t do that to Watson. How did his left leg not dislodge from his body and keep spinning through the air all the way into Tampa Bay? How did his surgically repaired left knee absorb that groundforce? How in the blue hell did he hold on to the ball?

Watson had been broken before, and he had responded before. Two years earlier, when he tore his ACL as a freshman in a practice, he missed one game. He then suited up to beat South Carolina and then rehabbed for an offseason. The next year, he took Clemson to the title game, and two years after that, he won it. (His NFL career then started similarly.)

Watson is not unbreakable, but that simple fact of human frailty isn’t going to stop him. He survives, and then he thrives.

VII: Lamar Jackson, showing us what we missed

There’s one thing Jackson never got enough credit for at Louisville: operating in an advanced offense. It was qwhite interesting that people treated Jackson like he played in a dumbed-down college offense, given Bobby Petrino’s system and how certain other QBs got draft credit because of who coached them in college.

Petrino’s Louisville operated with a communication structure called Erhardt-Perkins, renowned in NFL circles as the building block of the Patriots offense and others:

The backbone of the Erhardt-Perkins system is that plays — pass plays in particular — are not organized by a route tree or by calling a single receiver’s route, but by what coaches refer to as “concepts.” Each play has a name, and that name conjures up an image for both the quarterback and the other players on offense. And, most importantly, the concept can be called from almost any formation or set.

Jackson said this system was the reason he went to Louisville. His personal brand of brilliance was operating, elevating, and — when necessary — playing outside it.

Let’s take one part of one simple play. Double slants are called “tosser” in footballese, and that’s how that concept would be conveyed in Erhardt-Perkins systems.

Look at tosser here:

Underneath, Louisville has a mesh concept. This uses two crossing routes that mesh together in the middle of the field. Crossing routes are something Petrino weaponized better than most, and Petrino had been using mesh for quite a while by this time, too.

I haven’t shown you Lamar yet. Don’t worry, he’s here for when everything involved with this pretty little play goes to hell and he has to make something happen:

If you can’t build an offense around Jackson, your offense sucks. Petrino got to do with Jackson what he wasn’t able to do with Michael Vick. Vick got in the way of those plans with his own terrible choices, and Petrino’s hubris might’ve gotten in the way even if Vick weren’t out of football.

While enjoying Jackson, you can also mourn what we missed. How many Jackson-like talents never got the chance to operate an offense tailored to them? So many square pegs met so many round holes. So many wideouts and corners who maybe coulda gotten an honest shot behind center didn’t.

Jackson showed how dumb it was to force players like him into non-QB positions. He set our eyes on fire in a way many before him didn’t get a chance to show.

VIII: Two Alabama quarterbacks, together

What are Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa’s greatest moments of triumph without the other?

When Hurts was failing, Tagovailoa succeeded. Hurts was limited in the air, and Tagovailoa entered to look off a safety and throw a peach to win a national title game on four verts. Never forget how he looked off that safety:

ESPN animation

When Tagovailoa was failing, Hurts succeeded. In the next year’s SEC Championship, Tua dealt with an injury that would require surgery. Hurts came in to scalpel through Georgia en route to a win, and the Dawgs still haven’t found the anesthetic to dull that pain.

Both took opportunities in the second half and finished what the other started. They boosted each other in key spots like they were playing Counter Strike.

In the most unique position in team sports — the one where they say “if you have two quarterbacks you don’t have one” — Alabama needed two. In different ways, they fired into that exhaust port in that mini Death Star Kirby Smart was trying to build.

IX. Kyler Murray, baseball player

Someone told you Murray ended his flirtation with the diamond. The truth is that you can take the man away from baseball, but you can’t take baseball away from the man.

You can see it in the way he slides into second base after hitting a double.

You can see it in the way he turns two to pull off a double play.

And you can see it when he hits the home run ball.

If you think of a baseball player when they swing, and the way they generate force with the bat or when they generate force even throwing, it’s the same as a quarterback.

Murray was too gifted for one sport. He couldn’t help but graft one onto the other. His skills in the old national pastime made him virtually unstoppable in the new one.

Minority QBs weren’t a flash in the pan. They took over the sport.

The quarterbacks mentioned here won six of the decade’s Heismans, plus a bunch of All-America honors, and national championships (only four men of color had won the Heisman as a quarterback before 2009).

QB play at the highest levels of college football now has unprecedented racial parity. The mark these quarterbacks left in the 2010s will never go away. Some of that is because banners fly forever. Some of it’s because they altered how offenses work and how defenses respond. And that’s what makes this change different from what we saw in the 1980s and ‘90s. These men are all going to an NFL that both wants and needs them. Charlie Ward switched sports. Shawn Jones switched positions. Jamelle Holieway and Tommie Frazier weren’t drafted. Tee Martin was taken in the fifth round.

Jackson and Watson were taken in the first round. Newton, Griffin, Winston, Mariota, and Murray were taken either first or second overall.

The 2010s didn’t open the door. The men who came before did that. This was the promise that began with Sandy Stephens, Jimmy Raye, and Jim Plunkett. It continued through Andre Ware, Warren Moon, Ward, and Frazier. It ratcheted up with Vick, Troy Smith, and Vince Young. The 2010s just broke down what was left off the hinges.

As ideas about the sport permeate up from high school to college to pro, the 2020s will be about what’s next for the minority QB: fully conquering postgrad football. In college that means winning and then being drafted. In the NFL that means being drafted highly and then winning.

Just like in college, there have been blips. A Doug Williams here, a Randall Cunningham. Colin Kaepernick and Newton got close to Super Bowl glory, Russell Wilson got over the line. Now Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and Drew Brees are gone or close to it. Waiting in the wings are Patrick Mahomes, Watson, Jackson, and plenty more QBs of color who haven’t emerged yet.

But it shouldn’t require true greatness for QBs of color to stay in the NFL. They need to be allowed to be average too. They should be able to be recycled and hold clipboards and ride pines. They should be called upon to tutor more talented rookies and be seen as “team guys.” They should be Josh McCowns but a few shades darker, like Griffin’s been for Jackson in Baltimore.

They shouldn’t always have to be twice as good, and we shouldn’t only consider them noteworthy when they’re elite. But the ones who are deserve to be celebrated for just how uniquely they dazzled us.