By Lenny Moon
This is Part I of our essay about the evolution of the starting quarterbacks of African American decent that’s proving given an opportunity can evolve to the top level of their chosen profession. Each segment is an indication that their respective pedigree reflects winning has always been a part of their development. At the time of publication, there were nine Black starting signal callers (4 AFC and 5 NFC). The AFC starters are featured here with the NFC starters to be profiled in a future edition of the series.
Jacoby Brissett, Indianapolis Colts
If there was ever an athlete that understood the formula of taking advantage of an opportunity when there’s an opening it’s Jacoby Jajuan Brissett. Ranked as the third best dual threat quarterback as a prep athlete (Palms Beach Gardens-Florida), Brissett selected his home state University of Florida coming out of high school. Relegated to backup duties there, the 6-4 signal caller opted to transfer to North Carolina State. After sitting out a year due to transfer rules, he stepped into the starting position for the Wolfpack his final two campaigns averaging 2600 passing yds, 22 TDs while completing 60% of his tosses and earned NFL Draft considerations. Jacoby was selected in the third round of the 2016 NFL Draft (fifth QB taken) by the New England Patriots. After serving as a backup to Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady his first seasons, the Florida native’s break to take more NFL snaps occurred early the following year.
The Pats traded Brissett to the Indianapolis Colts who were in dire need of a quarterback to spell their injured star Andrew Luck. Although not having the benefit of a training camp and forced to learn a totally new system on the fly, Brissett still threw for over 3,000 yds with 13 TDs vs only 7 int, and completed 59% of his passes in 2017. Once again postering himself in a position where he nudged himself closer to good fortune the unexpected happened. When Luck returned last season to enjoy perhaps his best statistical year as a pro, he abruptly retired just before the start of the current regular season opening the door for Jacoby to settle in and show the league that he was ready for the task. Based on his early his early reviews as the starting quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts, Jacoby Brissett has once again met opportunity head-on.
Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens
There are mercurial athletes that come along from time to time that captures the imagination of the gridiron world who has the ability to convert routine plays to highlight reels. One such football player is Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson. A product of the University of Louisville, Jackson began to penetrate the national spotlight by starting 8 of 12 games as a true freshman while passing for 1,840 yds and 12 TDs and rambling for 960 yds and 11 TDs in. He capped his initial campaign by throwing for 227 yds and 2 TDs and set a Music City Bowl record by rushing for 226 yds and two more scores in a 27-21 victory over Texas A&M in 2015. There was no looking back from there, winning the Heisman Trophy over DeShaun Watson and Baker Mayfield as a sophomore and finishing third in the voting his junior year.
Foregoing his senior yr, Jackson was not considered a dual threat quarterback by the NFL but more of a runner with questionable passing skills. Jackson was still very much a prospect but not as a signal caller. Eventually five players at his position were selected ahead of Lamar before being taken by the Baltimore Ravens with the 32nd pick of the first round in the 2018 NFL Draft. The rookie saw spot duty for his new team until veteran starter Joe Flacco was injured along the mid-season part of their schedule. Led by Jackson, the struggling Ravens squeezed into the playoffs by winning 6 of their last 7 games. Flacco departed to Denver during the offseason as the team’s commitment was to their 22-year old rising star. Lamar launched his 2019 campaign with a career-high 324 passing yds on 17 of 20 tosses and five touchdowns in a 59-10 win over Miami. Early returns suggest that former Ravens General Mgr Ozzie Newsome and the brain thrust of that franchise vision of Jackson is on the realm of “20-20”.
No football player in recent memory has exploded on the National Football League scene the likes of this product of a small town in East Texas. Located 11 miles southeast of Tyler, Patrick Lavon Mahomes II was a dual threat quarterback at Whitehouse High in Whitehouse, Tx. His exceptional athletic talents surfaced in both football and baseball. Baseball was imbedded in his DNA in that his father Patrick Mahomes Sr pitched 12 years of pro ball for several ball clubs, spending his longest stint with the Minnesota Twins.
While at Whitehouse, Mahomes Jr closed out his prep days by throwing for 4619 yds, 50 TDs and rushed for 948 yds and 15 touchdowns his senior campaign. In baseball, he pitched a no-hitter while striking out 16 and was actually drafted by the Detroit Tigers. Recruiting service MaxPreps named him their Male Athlete of the Year for 2013-14. Patrick Jr was only getting started as he chose to remain in his homestate to attend Texas Tech University. As a freshman at the Lubbock based institution, Mahomes took over the reins about midseason and proved to the coaching staff that this was the right decision as he posted a Big 12 freshman record of 598 yds with six touchdowns and only one interception in a victory over Baylor.
Before he would hang up his spikes at Texas Tech, he led the nation in passing his junior year by passing for 5,052 yds and 41 TDs (including a NCAA record 734 yds vs Oklahoma and Baker Mayfield in a 66-59 defeat). In his three year collegiate career, he posted a whopping 11,252 yds and 93 touchdowns before declaring for the NFL Draft. If his collegiate career wasn’t impressive enough, the Texas gunslinger was named 2nd Team Academic All-American while in Lubbock. Mahomes was selected with the 10th pick of the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft by the Kansas City Chiefs. After backing resident signal caller Alex Smith his rookie season, the veteran was traded to Washington the following year clearing the way for the cyclone that was embarking upon the NFL.
Mahomes stepped right in and lit up the league with 5,097 passing yds, 50 touchdowns and 12 interceptions and was named the 2018 NFL Most Valuable Player. If the start of the 2019 season in any indication, the 6-3 230 rifle-armed field general has picked up where left off last season while taking the league by storm at 23 yrs of age.
A winner is described as one that is successful through praiseworthy ability and hard work. This would be an adequate location to begin the discussion of Derrick DeShaun Watson. A native of Gainesville, Ga (55 miles NW of Atlanta), Watson earned the distinction of becoming the first freshman to win the starting quarterback position at Gainesville High School. Apparently head coach Bruce Miller recognized a winner when he crossed one as Watson would launch a prep career that would re-write most of the passing and rushing standards by a quarterback in the history of the state of Georgia. Led by DeShaun, Gainesville High became a perennial state power, winning the title his junior campaign.
Before he hung up his high school spikes, Watson set state records in total yards (17,134), total touchdowns (218), career passing yards (13,077) and career passing touchdowns (155). As a sidebar, he also rushed for 4,057 and 63 touchdowns for the 5-A high school. Needless to say, DeShaun was on every collegiate radar screen and had risen to ESPN’s top quarterback recruit in 2014. He selected Clemson (about 84 miles from Gainesville) where they immediately showed their appreciation by un-retiring the #4 jersey honored to former signal caller Steve Fuller. Watson took that now un-retired jersey and gradually won the starting spot his freshman year. Although that season was injury plagued, he splashed onto the scene with a school record six touchdown tosses while throwing for 435 yards in a 50-35 victory over North Carolina.
A healthy Watson led his Tigers to an undefeated regular season his sophomore year, eventually losing to Alabama 45-40 in a classic championship game. Leaving it all on the field, he threw for 405 yards and four touchdowns and ran for another 73 yards, also finishing third in the Heisman Trophy balloting (behind Derrick Henry and Christian McCaffrey). This represented the first time in the storied history of Clemson football that one of their gridders had earned Heisman finalist status. Proving that his early success was no illusion, Watson led Clemson to the #1 team in the country and once again met Alabama in the championship for all of the marbles the next season. This time the outcome would be different as the All-American QB led his team to a 35-31 victory, throwing for 420 yards and three touchdowns against the top defense in the country. He would again come up short in the Heisman voting as Lamar Jackson of Louisville walked away with the prize.
After foregoing his senior year of eligibility, DeShaun was taken by the Houston Texans with the 12th pick overall of the 2017 NFL Draft and the third quarterback selected behind Mitch Trubisky (2nd) and Patrick Mahomes (10th). Now in his third season as a NFL starting quarterback, Watson posted a ledger that reads 4,165 passing yards with 26 TDs and 551 rushing yards and 5 TDs leading his team to an 11-5 record and an AFC South title,while earning his first Pro Bowl appearance. Watson and his Texans are now projected to improve upon his breakout NFL campaign and no doubt his team will go only as far as he leads them.