A record 10 African-Americans opened the 2020 NFL season as starting quarterbacks in the NFL and there are several responsible for finally shattering the racial stereotype at the position.
James Harris became the first African-American to open a season as a starting quarterback in 1969 with the Buffalo Bills and also the first to go to a Pro Bowl in 1974. Doug Williams became the first to become a first-round draft pick in 1978 and also the first to quarterback a Super Bowl champion in 1988. Warren Moon became the first enshrined in the Hall of Fame.
All nudged the door open.
But the man who kicked that door open was Joe Gibbs – and he did it long before he became a Hall-of-Fame head coach with Washington.
In 1978 Gibbs was on John McKay’s staff as offensive coordinator of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Tampa Bay was awarded an expansion franchise in 1976 and became the epitome of ineptness over its first two years. The Bucs debuted with 26 consecutive losses before managing to win two of the 28 games over those first two seasons.
McKay knew the Buccaneers needed a quarterback to change their fortunes and told Gibbs to go find him. Gibbs studied Matt Cavanaugh, who led Pitt to a national championship. He studied Guy Benjamin, the All-America from Stanford. He studied them all. When Gibbs returned from his campus visits and workouts, he told McKay the best quarterback in the country played for Grambling.
“People don’t realize that Joe Gibbs changed the face of the NFL by having the courage to say, in a Southern town at that time, that Doug Williams is the guy we should take,” said Hall-of-Fame coach Tony Dungy, himself a decorated college quarterback who never got the chance to play the position in the NFL. “When they drafted Doug, it shocked the whole country to take this unknown from Grambling over those star players from Pitt and Stanford.
“But that was Joe Gibbs. He was looking for the best player possible. Coach McKay had had Jimmy Jones and other African-American quarterbacks at Southern Cal so it wasn’t a big deal for him.”
In his second season as the starting quarterback at Tampa in 1979, Williams took the Buccaneers to the NFC championship game. But placing Williams in Tampa was not the end of the Gibbs contribution to shattering the NFL’s quarterbacking stereotype.
Nine years after that 1978 draft, Gibbs was the head coach at Washington. With Williams out of work following the demise of the USFL, Gibbs signed him as a backup quarterback to Jay Schroeder. Williams threw only one pass in 1986 but came off the bench in relief of Schroeder to win two games for Washington in 1987.
Gibbs then named Williams the starting quarterback for the playoffs and he won three consecutive games, culminated with Super Bowl MVP honors after passing for 340 yards and four touchdowns against the Denver Broncos.
The success of Williams in the late 1980s and the emergence of both Randall Cunningham and Warren Moon pried the door open for African-American quarterbacks for good. It came too late to help Sandy Stephens, Chuck Ealey, Condredge Holloway and Jimmy Jones, who all had to go to Canada in the 1960s and 1970s to continue their professional careers at quarterback.
But it has benefitted Steve McNair, Michael Vick, Cam Newton, Russell Wilson, Deshaun Watson, Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson and a host of others.
If Gibbs hadn’t stuck his neck out for Williams – and Williams not enjoyed the success he had first at Tampa and then Washington – who knows what the NFL’s quarterbacking landscape would look like today.
“Russell Wilson might be playing baseball in the Mariners' or Yankees' system,” Dungy told “The Franchise” podcast. “Deshaun Watson would be in Canada. Lamar Jackson would be playing wide receiver. Now we get to see these guys on a weekly basis and were thrilled. Patrick Mahomes…he made a couple plays against the Chargers that you just shake your head and say, `Wow. What a shame it would be if we never got to see this.’”