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Cam Newton, Racism, and Black Quarterbacks

Ta-Nehisi Coates presents a statistical comparison that makes a compelling starting point for an argument that Cam Newton is having the best rookie year any NFL quarterback has ever had. With one game remaining on the schedule, he’s already broken Peyton Manning’s record for passing yards by a rookie, tied Dan Marino’s record for touchdown passes by a rookie, and has a higher completion percentage than either. And he’s by far a bigger running threat than either ever was.

As Coates himself notes, the debate is complicated by era effects. It’s simply easier to pass the ball in the NFL of 2011 than it was in 1983, when Marino started, or even 1999, when Manning debuted, because of rules changes. Most of the league’s passing records have been set in the last few years and this season has been especially explosive, perhaps as a function of the cancellation of most of the offseason training activities because of the lockout.

Regardless, it’s an interesting debate. But not as interesting as a related one raised in the post: How much of a factor was the fact that Newton is African-American in the low expectations many scouts and prognosticators had before the season started?

Warren Moon, who had to win five straight Canadian Football League championships before being given a shot to play quarterback in the NFL and a Hall of Fame career, thinks it’s a big factor. Newton tactfully dismisses the charge, noting that the recent flameouts of high profile black quarterbacks JaMarcus Russell and Vince Young justified the fears. But Coates thinks this, too, amounts to racism.

[I]t must be said that accepting Newton’s formulation, he’s actually proving Warren Moon’s point. JaMarcus may well be the greatest bust ever (and like any greatest, that’s debatable) but the list of white quarterback busts is fairly legion ranging from Ryan Leaf to Tim Couch to Todd Marinovich to Art Schlichter. But Newton is Newton worried about walking in the shadow of  say, Joey Harrington or David Carr. He’s worried about the black guys. That is telling.
Our American struggle is not about the freedom to be exceptional–we’ve had that since the days of Frederick Douglass. It’s about the freedom to be mediocre, the freedom to fail, and have that failure, or mediocrity speak only to the  merit of an individual, not to the “group.” I assure you that Andy Dalton does not fear Matt Leinart, in the same way that Cam Newton fears Vince Young.

That’s fair enough. We’re only a quarter century or so into the era where black quarterbacks (most notably Moon, Doug Williams, Donovan McNabb, and Michael Vick) have had success in the League. Only one, Williams, has ever won a Super Bowl. Only three–Williams, Steve McNair, and McNabb–have ever started one. So it wouldn’t be shocking if a lot of analysts, who tend to be middle aged white guys, still harbor subtle doubts about the ability of blacks to quarterback on Sundays.

Additionally, there was much thinly veiled talk that Newton was a thug and not particularly bright, criticisms often made–mostly indirectly these days–about black athletes. But Newton gave the critics plenty of ammunition. First, there was the months-long drama over the fact that his father, Cecil Newton, hamhandedly attempted to shop him to the highest bidder as he was leaving a highly successful junior college career and moving up to Division I. Which, incidentally, he’d left after being thrown off the team at Florida under suspicion of larceny and charges of cheating in the classroom. Nor did he help himself in a truly painful interview with ESPN’s Jon Gruden in which he seemed to have no clue about how to call a simple football play.

But there is quite a bit of mitigating evidence in the case of Newton. Most importantly, he was ultimately chosen by the Carolina Panthers with the first overall pick in the draft. So, whatever doubts there were didn’t keep him from going ahead of every other player, regardless of race, in his draft class.

The doubts about Newton were mostly predicated on two facts. One, he had only started one year in college. To be sure, it was a spectacular year (undefeated season, Heisman Trophy, and BCS national championship) but scouts are leery of QBs that didn’t start at least three years. Two, he played in a high school offense. Literally. Gus Malzahn, his offensive coordinator at Auburn, has spent most of his career as a high school coach perfecting a spread offense.

Observers of the NFL hate, hate, hate quarterbacks who played something other than a pro style system in college. Because it’s damned near impossible to predict how they’ll make the transition. So many of the great college quarterbacks are pro busts because it’s the position that least resembles its NFL counterpart. In college, quarterbacks can win by running the ball constantly; so far, that hasn’t worked on a sustained basis in the NFL. In college, gadget offenses (double and triple option, spread, Wildcat) can overwhelm teams that haven’t faced that style. (Alabama, which held LSU to 6 points in regulation this year, gave up 21 points to lowly Georgia Southern, its worst performance of the year, for this reason.) That just doesn’t work over the long haul in the NFL.

Indeed, another highly controversial quarterback is a classic example of this phenomenon: Tim Tebow. He led Florida to two national titles, won a Heisman Trophy, and was a contender for two more. There’s a strong case to be made that he’s the best college quarterback ever. Yet, he was the 25th pick in the 2010 draft and most analysts thought Denver took him too high, especially with Jimmy Clausen still on the board. Why? Because he won in a spread style offense and relied extensively on his ability to run the ball. Despite considerable success in the NFL, most of us still don’t think he’ll make it over the long haul because he’s not a good passer.

For those who don’t follow the sport, Tebow’s white.

Photo: ESPN/US Presswire

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. I have noted no particular racial component to the Newton discussion (granted, a very subjective situation). Indeed, since about week two or three (once it was decided that week one wasn’t a fluke) I have heard nothing but praise for Newton in sports media.

    The Tebow/Newton comparison is key and you are right: this was all about NFL-centric doubters (myself included) who did not think that the style of play that both QBs had in college would translate to the NFL. Indeed, I always rejected the notion that critics of Tebow were motivated by religious bigotry (as some have argued).

    And I agree with you: I remain unconvinced that Tebow’s situation is sustainable. Newton, on the other hand, appears to be the real deal.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 1

  2. Davebo says:

    James, slow down a bit and try to remember grammar. As in…

    Ta-Nehisi Coates presents a statistical comparison that makes a compelling starting point for an argument that Cam Newton is having the best rookie year and NFL quarterback has ever had.

    See it? If you are going to write professionally, show a little pride.

    Also more to the subject of the post. Warren Moon is in the Hall of Fame.

    Observers of the NFL hate, hate, hate quarterbacks who played something other than a pro style system in college.

    Who are these “Observers” you speak of.

    Indeed, another highly controversial quarterback is a classic example of this phenomenon: Tim Tebow. He led Florida to two national titles, won a Heisman Trophy, and was a contender for two more. There’s a strong case to be made that he’s the best college quarterback ever.

    Well then, make the case James. No one else has tried but knock yourself out. Best college QB ever? What, did you vacation in Tallahassee?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 10

  3. OzarkHillbilly says:

    How much of a factor was the fact that Newton is African-American in the low expectations many scouts and prognosticators had before the season started?

    Racism is, and will continue to be for some time yet, a factor in all things America. We do not yet live in a “post racial” age. The fact that we feel the need to discuss it in this context just proves that point.

    That said,

    Observers of the NFL hate, hate, hate quarterbacks who played something other than a pro style system in college.

    had a lot more to do with any doubts about Cam Newton than anything else.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  4. Rick Almeida says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    Pretty much all of this.

    I was negatively disposed toward Newton, mostly because of his father’s greed and Cam’s apparent character issues in college. Living in SC, however, I see Panthers games on TV, and it was pretty clear from the first game that the man looked like a legit NFL QB.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  5. McCallister says:

    Any doubts about Newton’s success were based on the protection he would get. He’s been knocked around some, but usually has the mobility to move right through the defense.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  6. @Davebo: Wake up a bit cranky this morning? ;)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  7. Davebo says:

    Not at all Steven. Still enjoying the holidays.

    I just think claiming Tebow as the best college quarterback ever shows a severe lack of college football history.

    And as history shows, being a great college quarterback almost never translates to the NFL. Think Vince Young and Colt McCoy to name two from one university in the past decade. (and I’m a huge Hornfan!)

    Now, if you want to claim Earl Campbell was the greatest college running back in history I could probably get behind that! :)

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  8. @Davebo:

    Well, starting off with “If you are going to write professionally, show a little pride.” comes across as a bit cranky, to be honest. There are other ways to note a mistake.

    And as history shows, being a great college quarterback almost never translates to the NFL.

    That is the essence of James’ thesis, I would argue (and the reason why a lot of folks doubted both Tebow and Newton).

    And in regards to Vince and Colt, both have demonstrated the ability to start at the NFL level (unlike, say, a Tim Couch or more recently, Brady Quinn) but Vince’s problems are between his ears and Colt’s problem is that he plays for the Browns.

    The fact of the matter is, Tebow has been hailed (and outside of Gaineville) as one of the greatest college QBs of all time. This is hyperbole, yes, but he did have a rather remarkable collegiate career (which is really all that James is getting at here).

    I just think claiming Tebow as the best college quarterback ever shows a severe lack of college football history.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  9. Anderson says:

    I’d had no clue anyone was crying racism on this. Transition from college to NFL is often not smooth. Many Heisman winners never do anything significant in the pro game. There was ample reason to doubt how Newton would do, particularly since the irony of being a great draft pick is that you have a relatively poor team.

    Glad to see him doing so well, and I hope Newton and the Panthers crush Tebow and the Lord’s Army, er, the Broncos when they meet.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  10. Herb says:

    The race disparity in certain positions in the NFL is a bit weird. Where are the black kickers? Where are the white running backs? Surely, Peyton Hillis is no victim of racism….

    But I also think race just isn’t that much of a factor anymore. The game is more integrated now than ever, and not just for the black quarterbacks. For the black coaches, for the black commentators. It won’t be too long and we’ll have a black owner. (This will take some time, not for any racial reasons, but simply because teams don’t change hands that often and when they do, it’s often to someone in the family.)

    With that said…..Tebowwwwww! I’m a biased Bronco fan genuinely surprised at what Tebow’s done with the team (week 3 I was ready to pronounce the season dead) but…….don’t count Tebow out just yet. Yes, he’s an unconventional quarterback with a question mark when it comes to the NFL system, but the kid has the talent and more importantly the character to do some pretty amazing things. Saw it a couple weeks ago against the Bears. I’m sure we’ll see it again.

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  11. James Joyner says:

    @Herb: I think Tebow is mostly riding a strong defense and an incredibly weak schedule. And the only position on a football team where one can demonstrably be doing a horrible job and yet fall back on the “but we’re winning!” argument is quarterback. If a team were on a 7 game winning streak but the kicker was constantly missing easy kicks, he’d be cut. When a QB throws for 29 yards and 3 picks but the team somehow overcomes his ineptitude to win, he’s called a winner.

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  12. @James Joyner:

    I think the biggest knock against Tebow is that he’s known mostly for come-from-behind wins in overtime. If he were such a great QB his team wouldn’t have to worry about coming from behind to begin with, especially against the scheduled they’ve been playing. I do not expect the Broncos to go very deep in the playoffs

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  13. Dean says:

    This is a tired argument.

    The knocks on Newton as an NFL quarterback prior to the draft were based on three things: 1) he didn’t play in a pro-style offense in college and, in most cases, that has not translated well into NFL success; 2) he only threw 292 passes while in Division I–for comparison purposes, Tebow threw 985 with a 66% completion percentage, the same as Newton; and 3) his throwing mechanics were not consistent with what they like to see.

    Pro scouts get very nervous when they see a quarterback with those characteristics. I have been surprised by Cam Newton this year and hope he continues to be a successful NFL quarterback. However, it’s hard to know how this will turn out in the long run. Both Mark Sanchez and Vince Young had success early in their careers, but are now struggling.

    Race is completely immaterial here. The question is, can he have sustained success in the NFL at the quarterback position?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  14. Herb says:

    Well, understand I’m not making excuses….but he’s young, he’s weird, he’s getting an inordinate amount of media attention, even in non-football related venues, and –let’s be honest– the Broncos just aren’t a very good team. Our running game stinks, our passing game scares no one. (That last one is not all Tebow’s fault…none of our receivers can be trusted to catch the ball on a regular basis.) The winning streak? The come from behind victories in overtime? None of that should happen with this crew. But somehow, Tebow’s been making it happen. Counts for something, I think.

    Also, I’m not so sure about this:

    If he were such a great QB his team wouldn’t have to worry about coming from behind to begin with

    Every Sunday there’s a great QB worrying about coming from behind somewhere. That’s just the game. That the Broncos have to do it often is just testament to the above: they’re just not a very good team.

    I do agree with this:

    I do not expect the Broncos to go very deep in the playoffs

    And add that I’m still surprised they even have a chance to make it there.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  15. Rick Almeida says:

    @Herb:

    Yes, the way Tebow intercepts passes and kicks 65-yard field goals is a wonder to behold.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  16. Tsar Nicholas says:

    Being able to level charges of racism is a raison d’etre of white leftists. It’s de rigueur on college and university campuses. It’s also a cottage industry and big business for black race baiters, e.g., Jackson and Sharpton. Ergo there’s simply no way to escape it, no matter how unfounded or unreasonable. The starting quarterbacks, head coaches and general managers of every NFL team all could be black, but if some white prospect were to get picked ahead of a similarly-qualified black prospect you’d hear cries of racism from certain quarters. Too many people are too invested in the racism industry for racism ever to be contained.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 10

  17. John P says:

    @Davebo: Why would James vacationing in Tallahassee have any relation to his opinion of Tim Tebow?

    Also, I’m unsure how you can look at Tebow’s legacy and say that he was anything but one of the best, if not the best QB/player in college football history.

    His legacy includes two national championships, SEC championships, and a Heisman. How many quarterbacks have that resume? Probably more telling though is the precipitous drop UF experienced as a team after his departure.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  18. Brett says:

    @Herb

    And add that I’m still surprised they even have a chance to make it there.

    Their defense is okay, and they got lucky in the scheduling. The Chiefs, Vikings, and Chargers are bad this year, and the Bears had some significant injuries amongst their starters (including Cutler).

    @James

    Yet, he was the 25th pick in the 2010 draft and most analysts thought Denver took him too high, especially with Jimmy Clausen still on the board.

    People thought Clausen was a better pick than Tebow? Sure, he’s done a “pro offense”, but I thought he had some “red flags” because of attitude problems (which can be very dangerous in a new Quarterback – look at Ryan Leaf).

    As it is, Clausen turned out to be a big bust. He’s the third-string QB there, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Carolina cut him as soon as humanly possible. I wonder how much of that is his fault, since it can’t be easy starting your first year in the NFL (and when your team honestly isn’t that good).

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  19. David says:

    Is there institutional racism in the NFL when it comes to certain positions? Maybe. But there is too much money here for any good QB not to get a slot. As time goes on, this will work out on its own. If the QB does well, the team wins more. The team wins more, team owner makes more. And I don’t care how much of a racist someone is, if their team is winning, they don’t care what color the QB is.

    I think this is a hyper reaction to some of the racial issues in the past (player, coaches, commentators). Does the NFL and associated groups have a ways to go? Yep. But I see it working out a lot better and quicker than some other areas.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  20. steve says:

    Just FTR, there are 6 other QBs who won two national titles. If winning is your metric, why not pick Jimmy Harris who was QB at Oklahoma during their 47 game streak.

    Steve

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  21. James Joyner says:

    @steve: Tebow has two titles in a passing era, was the first sophomore to win the Heisman, and got serious votes as a junior and senior. He set several significant records, including being the first 20 rushing/20 passing touchdown guy, while playing in the dominant league in college football. (Most of the other records are set by guys in joke conferences where teams score 70 points a game.)

    I’m an Alabama guy and an atheist, so I’ve got no special love for Tebow. But he was a great college quarterback that many have touted as the best or in the conversation as the best to ever play.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  22. ponce says:

    It’s hard to take NFL quarterbacks seriously since they stopped calling their own plays.

    They’re really interchangeable now.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  23. superdestroyer says:

    A side issue of this discussion is the unwritten rules of how athletes are compared to each other. White athletes should only be compared to other white athletes and black athletes should only be compared to other black athletes.

    It seems that Cam Newton does not like being compared only to other black quarterbacks but black quarterbacks should never be compared to white quarterbacks. Tebow does not throw as well as most white quarterbacks but is more mobile. Newton is a better passer than more spread formation black quarterbacks but appears a little less mobile.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  24. James Joyner says:

    @ponce: The quarterback’s job has evolved but they’re hardly interchangeable. Aaron Rogers, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and a healthy Peyton Manning are consistently atop the league in performance, with several in the next tier. Only after the top 15 or so are they more-or-less the same.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  25. @ponce:

    It’s hard to take NFL quarterbacks seriously since they stopped calling their own plays.

    They’re really interchangeable now.

    Speaking as Dallas fan who went through a large number of QBs between Aikman and Romo, I beg to differ. And, for that matter, Romo is no Aikman.

    Just look at what happened to the Bears this season once Cutler got hurt this year. So no, not interchangeable.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  26. @superdestroyer:

    A side issue of this discussion is the unwritten rules of how athletes are compared to each other. White athletes should only be compared to other white athletes and black athletes should only be compared to other black athletes.

    I expect that is the case in your world.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  27. John P says:

    @ponce: “I don’t watch the NFL but I’m going to make a lazy generalization…”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  28. ponce says:

    Just look at what happened to the Bears this season once Cutler got hurt this year. So no, not interchangeable.

    OTOH. Matt Cassel stepped in for Tom Brady when he went out for the season in the first game of 2008 and went 11-5 for the season.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  29. @ponce: Well,

    a) Cassel was still not Brady (i.e., hardly fully interchangeable)

    and

    b) The cases of backups coming in and there being no significant drop-off are rare.

    Not to mention, in general, there are a lot of fairly terrible starting QBs out there in a given year, and if they were, in fact, interchangeable this would not be the case (ask the Redskins about Rex Grossman and John Beck). There is a reason QBs are the highest paid athletes on the team (usually).

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  30. ponce says:

    The cases of backups coming in and there being no significant drop-off are rare.

    Tebow is doing considerably better than his replacement.

    As a long time fan of the NFL, it’s hard to compare today’s order takers with the old timey greats who would design their own offenses and call their own plays.

    It’s hard for me to watch some unimaginative goober in the stands stick to his “gameplan” when his team is losing by 30 points on the field.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  31. @ponce: Of course, Denver struggle first to decide who the starter would be and are still in a quandary over the future.

    And really: how far back do you have to go when QBs regularly called their own plays? The mid-70s? The only “modern” QB I can think of who calls his own plays is Peyton Manning.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  32. ponce says:

    How long have quarterbacks been wearing those idiot sheets on their wrists?

    1990 or so?

    I wonder if they have little pictures on them…

    Today’s quarterbacks are only as good as the 500 pound quarterback wannabe in the stands spoon feeding him plays…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  33. superdestroyer says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    The issue of comparing white athletes to black athletes or vice-versa was discussed on the Steve Czaban show on Yahoo Sports Radio. The convention in the sports media is that one never compares a white athlete to a black athlete or vice versa.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  34. @superdestroyer: Well, that proves it!

    The problem is: if you listen to, watch, or read sports media you find that, in fact, they are compared all the time.

    ESPN does not, for example, have a White QBR and a Black QBR.

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  35. superdestroyer says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    But no one is saying that RGIII is the next Peyton Manning, Drew Bress, or Aaron Rodger. RGIII is always compared to other black quarterbacks because no which quarterback has his speed.

    In addition, in basketball it is even worse. No matter now good a white shooting guard is, the white shooting guard is only going to be compared to other white basketball players.

    QB ratings are important but since yards running is not part of the equation, it moves black quarterbacks lower.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  36. @superdestroyer:

    Oddly enough, you are focusing on the wrong variable (race) instead of the skill set.

    Tebow and Newton have, indeed, been compared because they both are runners who ran the spread in college. Indeed, of the two Newton is clearly the better passer (which screws up your entire theory).

    And not all black QBs are runners of the Vick/Young/RGIII category. Doug Williams and Rodney Peete come to mind as does Jason Campbell and Josh Freeman (to name two more recent examples). The best example is Warren Moon.

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  37. Cardsfan says:

    This should not be about race but about skills and basic qb instincts. If you are known as a running qb, a scrambler, you may have some success in the NFL, but will never be a GREAT QB! Cam should never have been a number 1 pick, he will never be in the same league as Manning, Brady, Favre. He does not have the accuracy, he relies too much on running the ball. He also doesn’t have the intelligence.

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  38. @481388″>Cardsfan: I was a Cam skeptic, but your claims make no sense.

    he relies too much on running the ball

    He threw for more than 4,000 yards and broke Manning’s rookie record for yardage. If you want to see a QB who relies too much on his legs, go watch Tim Tebow.

    He also doesn’t have the intelligence.

    Upon what do you base that conclusion? I honestly can’t say how intelligent he is or isn’t, but again: he has had one of the best rookie seasons for a QB ever (at least in terms of stats), so it would seem he is no dummy.

    Also:

    If you are known as a running qb, a scrambler, you may have some success in the NFL, but will never be a GREAT QB!

    Well, I would argue that a running qb and a scambler are not the same thing, but Steve Young was both a scrambler and could run. He was a great QB.

    Roger Staubach’s nickname was “Dodger” because of his scrambling abilities: he started in 5 Super Bowls and won 2.

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