Brown Men Throwin’: Cam Newton Paved The Way

(Editor's note: "Brown Men Throwin'" is a new weekly feature here at The Shadow League that we're running throughout the NFL season. This is by no means a feature meant to ghettoize or marginalize the black men playing America's most high-profile position. For an introduction to why we're running this feature at all, click here.)

EJ Manuel was a shock selection when the Bills selected the former Seminole with the 16th overall pick in the draft, also making him the only quarterback selected in the first round. If any QB was supposed to go that early, it would have been Geno Smith, and even that decision would have raised some eyebrows.

Buffalo went against the grain with this one. But not much was made of Manuel being a black quarterback until Week 1, when it was time to tally up the black QB starters around the league. With the increasing popularity of “athletic quarterbacks” – often code for Brown Men Throwin’ – it doesn’t come as much of a surprise that minds are starting to open toward incorporating QBs of color to plan the future around.

The EJ Manuel Era in Buffalo is officially on the clock after the rookie debuted with a solid performance with Tom Brady running the other team, then snagging his first career win with a near-last second drive to beat Cam Newton’s seemingly hopeless Panthers squad.

It was especially interesting since Cam appears to be the trailblazer for the accepted option-QB, with Robert Griffin III, Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson and now even Terrelle Pryor getting serious looks since Cam was drafted No. 1 overall in 2011. Cam showed in one season that an option-QB can throw for 4,000 yards, then do it again and lead his team in rushing yards the next.

Panthers head coach Ron Rivera, one of just four minority head coaches in the NFL, had an interesting take last week on Cam’s impact on the game in just his third season, via Jonathan Jones of the Charlotte Observer.

“If he hadn’t (succeeded), yeah I think people would have continued the perception that an African-American quarterback, an athletic quarterback, didn’t fit in a pro style,” Rivera said. “I think what’s happening too though with the need to put quarterbacks on the field so quickly, I think that’s a big reason why you’re seeing more of the zone read because that’s what everybody’s doing.

“If you want to put an explosive quarterback on the field, you have to go to the zone read. You’re not going to be able to say, ‘We’re going to make you a pocket passer.’ I think that’s what playing into more than anything else.”

Yet Cam Newton has typically shied away from the race discussion. When Hall of Famer and mentor Warren Moon said before the 2011 draft that the heavy dose of criticism of the Auburn Heisman Trophy winner was racially motivated – back when critics were judging the authenticity of his smile – Newton downplayed the whole thing.

He would do the same thing if you asked him about it today, even if he’s completely missing the point.

“If you have skills to play the game of football, then you’re going to play no matter what your race,” Newton told the Observer. “I didn’t feel any type of pressure coming into this league saying that I have to represent for all African-Americans, like saying all my fans are just African-American. 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.”

At least Manuel understands all of these guys are being compared to each other, regardless of what they intentionally put on for. Neither of them seems to get that even with the progress that’s been made in terms of respect for black quarterbacks, and even with nine of them starting in the first two weeks of the season, there’s still few enough to peg them into a small, vastly-critiqued fraternity.

"They try to fit us all into the same category, as African-American quarterbacks," Manuel told on draft day, standing 30 yards from Geno Smith, who also is black and also carries questions about his suitability for a typical NFL attack, even though he’s less mobile than Andrew Luck, Jake Locker, Aaron Rodgers and few other White Men Throwin’. "We're always going to be compared to players similar to us. Donovan (McNabb) did a really good job. Cam Newton's having a great career. If people are going to continue to compare me to those guys, I'm doing something right."

But what happens when the league has to acknowledge that these “athletic quarterbacks” made a contribution to the game that’s just as impactful as anything a “pocket passers” have submitted? What about – and it’s coming – when the explosive signal caller becomes the rule over the exception?

It’s still unclear if the game or its critics are ready for that kind of turnover in leadership. Then again, when are we ever really ready, we’re talking wholesale ready for that type of change? Guess we better get ready.