This year’s NFL playoffs will feature a record number of Black men who have thrived in leadership positions they rarely had the opportunity to hold in previous generations.
Three Black head coaches have reached the playoffs — Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin, Tampa Bay’s Todd Bowles and Houston’s DeMeco Ryans. Miami coach Mike McDaniel, who has a Black father and identifies as biracial, also is in the playoffs. No more than three Black coaches have reached the playoffs in any previous season.
An all-time high of six Black quarterbacks are starting among the 14 playoff teams — the Ravens’ Lamar Jackson, Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes, Philadelphia’s Jalen Hurts, Dallas’ Dak Prescott, Green Bay’s Jordan Love and Houston rookie C.J. Stroud.
“It’s great to see,” Jackson said of the Black quarterbacks. “Life’s just different now. Stuff is evolving. Guys are just being great and just showing off their true talent.”
Having so many Black men succeed in two of the most visible cerebral leadership positions in American professional sports – NFL head coach and starting quarterback – should be celebrated, said N. Jeremi Duru, director of the Washington College of Law’s Sport & Society Initiative at American University. He said millions are watching them shatter the stereotype that Black men don’t have the mental acumen to excel in those roles.
“As huge an organization as IBM is, or any other Fortune 500 company, people aren’t watching IBM,” said Duru, who is Black. “They aren’t tuning into IBM on Sundays. And so, for us to be able to observe the battling of inequity when everybody’s watching and observe successes of people of color when everybody’s watching, I think that inures to the benefit of the movement for greater equity in society.”
Fritz Pollard became the NFL’s first Black head coach in 1921. He died before the Los Angeles Raiders hired the next one, Art Shell, in 1989. A report from The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport before the 2023 season showed there had been only 27 Black head coaches, including Pollard and McDaniel, in the more than 100-year history of the NFL. Even with the New England Patriots hiring Jerod Mayo as their first Black head coach Friday, Duru said, the fact that so few of the league’s 32 head coaches are Black when more than half of the players are Black is problematic.
“It’s important for us to seize upon and celebrate the triumphs that we are seeing now,” Duru said. “But we cannot lose sight of the fact that that triumph does not mean that the problem is solved.”
The growth at quarterback has taken time. The first Black pro starting quarterback of the modern era was the late Marlin Briscoe with the Denver Broncos of the American Football League in 1968. James Harris was the first Black pro quarterback in the modern era to open a season as a starter with the AFL’s Buffalo Bills in 1969, and the first to win an NFL playoff game, with the Los Angeles Rams in 1974. Doug Williams was the first to win a Super Bowl, with the Washington Redskins in 1988. The late Steve McNair was the first to win a league MVP award, with the Tennessee Titans in 2003.
Thanks in part to their work, Black quarterbacks aren’t a rarity anymore. There were a record 14 Black starting quarterbacks at the beginning of this season. And, with so many in the playoffs, it’s clear they are excelling.
“Shows how far we’ve come since people said there wouldn’t be that number consistently, just even starters — much less, these are in the playoffs, playing at a high level,” Prescott said. “Super, super honored.”
Still, there are issues with perception. Just recently, a radio host said Jackson wasn’t “quarterbacky enough,” saying he was more athlete than true quarterback. Jackson followed it by throwing five touchdown passes and posting a perfect passer rating in a 56-19 win over Miami. The team posted the stats on social media with the heading “Quarterbacky.”
Black quarterbacks celebrate each other’s success, in part, because they often face similar criticisms. Mahomes was thrilled when Hurts signed his five-year, $255 million extension last April. Mahomes’ Chiefs defeated Hurts’ Eagles last year in the first Super Bowl matchup between Black starting quarterbacks.
“I think he’s someone who plays the position the right way, he goes about his business the right way and that’s why they were in the Super Bowl,” Mahomes said. “I mean, he played a great game in the Super Bowl and proved a lot of people wrong that were still doubting him. Obviously, it’s great for the quarterback position [and] the Black quarterbacks that are coming up behind us and them getting their deals.”
Jackson said Stroud is just one reason he’s excited about the future of Black quarterbacks in the league.
“C.J. Stroud is a tremendous quarterback,” Jackson said. “I told him when we played against him earlier this season, in the first game of the season. I was like, ‘You’re amazing out there.’ College doesn’t even compare to what he is right now, just from me watching from afar. He’s a great quarterback, and for other Black quarterbacks to be playing in the playoffs — that’s tremendous. Hopefully, more guys will be included as the years go on.”
Duru, who also is on the board of directors for the Fritz Pollard Alliance, said past NFL hiring patterns indicate the growth at quarterback could pay off down the road.
“The head coaches are often former offensive coordinators, former quarterback coaches and former quarterbacks,” he said. “And so once you begin to see more Black quarterbacks, particularly in a league that values offensive-minded head coaches ... then you’re building up the ranks of potential future head coaches.”