Josh Johnson has seen almost everything professional football has to offer.
Johnson, 37 and in his third stint as a quarterback with the Ravens, has been on so many NFL teams (14) that he relies on the “Madden” video game to quickly learn his new teammates. He’s played in two other professional leagues: the United Football League and the XFL. Last season, after a spate of injuries in the NFC championship game, including a concussion for himself, he watched San Francisco 49ers running back Christian McCaffrey briefly play quarterback.
Still, when Johnson signed with the Ravens this offseason, he experienced a first: an all-Black quarterback group. Johnson, who is Black, joined the unit that includes quarterbacks Tyler Huntley, Lamar Jackson and Anthony Brown, assistant quarterbacks coach Kerry Dixon and quarterbacks coach Tee Martin. It’s believed to be the first time in NFL history a team has had an entirely Black quarterback group.
“The reality of it is, throughout NFL history, there have been relatively very few starting Black quarterbacks, and even fewer quarterbacks coaches,” said Jason Reid, the author of “Rise of the Black Quarterback: What It Means for America.”
“So what the Ravens have right now is definitely groundbreaking, even in 2023. The significance of it is that we are now in the era of the Black quarterback in the NFL.”
The group features a Black starting quarterback with a playing style once considered unsustainable and a historic $260 million contract extension. Backing him up are three Black quarterbacks who haven’t been asked to switch positions. They are led by two Black coaches. The room represents progress for a league that had turned Black people away from football’s most important position for decades because of racist stereotypes, and is a stark reminder of the Black players and coaches never given a chance.
“We definitely are standing on the shoulders of people in the past,” said Martin, who became quarterbacks coach this offseason after coaching the Ravens’ wide receivers for the past two years. “I do think it’s a step forward for people like us, but we’ve got to do a good job.”
Johnson has often felt anxious during meetings in the many quarterback groups he’s been a part of. He was always careful about his diction and the way he spoke in those settings because of experiences earlier in his career when he felt misunderstood because of his identity.
Since he’s been with the Ravens, those nerves have evaporated. Instead, the quarterback meetings have been “like being at the house, chilling with your family,” he said.
“I’ve been in rooms where I speak slang, and I kind of get looked at weird,” Johnson said. “And then guys talk about a topic in their respective ways, and it’s a little weird to me. But here we speak ebonics, and everybody knows what you’re saying.”
He continued: “So it’s just like those little things, you know? Especially having an African American coach, it’s a different vibe in there. Going into my 16th year, I appreciate that.”
Quarterback is the most important position in the NFL, tasked with knowing the responsibilities of every teammate on the field and making swift decisions while enormous men look to smother you. For decades, Black players and coaches were turned away from the role, often because of racist beliefs that Black people were not intelligent enough to play or coach the position.
Warren Moon, the lone Black quarterback in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, is one of the more famous examples of an NFL star whose career was nearly derailed because of his darker skin tone. At the University of Washington, Moon was one of the NCAA’s best quarterbacks. In his senior year, he led Washington to a win in the Rose Bowl and finished the season with 1,772 passing yards and 12 passing touchdowns.
As he talked with teams, scouts and executives ahead of the 1978 NFL draft, Moon remembers being asked to change positions and believing he would be a late pick or even go undrafted if he decided to stay at quarterback.
So Moon signed with the Edmonton Eskimos of the Canadian Football League, where he broke passing records and won five CFL championships and two most-valuable-player awards, prompting a bidding war among NFL teams.
After six years in Canada, Moon signed with the Houston Oilers in 1984 and played 17 seasons in the NFL. Moon made nine Pro Bowls and, when he retired, ranked in the top five in NFL history in passing yards, passing touchdowns, pass attempts and completions.
“I was bitter when the NFL wasn’t going to give me that chance to play quarterback initially,” Moon said in a recent phone interview. “But I try to look at it on the other side that maybe I would have gone to a team where I was behind a veteran, and I would have been a backup for, you know, two, three, four years.”
Since Jackson entered the NFL in 2018, he has been branded with some of the same tropes often used to criticize Moon and Black quarterbacks historically, ranging from commentators describing him as a running back to a former general manager saying he needed to switch to wide receiver.
In an episode of HBO’s “The Shop” from last year, Jackson said racial bias is dying off in the NFL but, “It’s still there. That’s why I need that championship.”
When Jackson was drafted by the Ravens, he arrived in a city with one of the highest Black populations in the United States and a team led by the NFL’s first Black general manager, Ozzie Newsome. The Ravens are still one of 13 teams never to hire a Black head coach, but the team had developed a reputation as an organization in which Black people could thrive, Martin said. (Newsome moved into his current role of executive vice president after the 2018 season. Eric DeCosta, who is white, is now general manager.)
“When we speak about the Ravens, the first thing I think about is Ozzie,” Martin said. “I was at another organization looking at what he was doing, so that meant a lot in terms of how we can grow here.”
Martin played quarterback in the NFL for two years. As a rookie with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2001, he was part of a group that included two other Black quarterbacks, Kordell Stewart and Anthony Wright. Tommy Maddox, who is white, was also a quarterback on the team. Martin remembers feeling he was a part of something special then, but he said this moment with the Ravens feels different.
“This is so cool, man. We’ve really come a long way,” Martin said with a smile. “I think it’s about us getting the opportunities, being in an organization that believes in us to put us in these positions to grow, and having a player like Lamar Jackson, who relates to us and us relating to him.”
For Moon, the Ravens’ quarterback group represents a shift in the barrier for entry for Black quarterbacks in the NFL. There was a time when if you were a “tier below a first-round guy” teams were going to advise players to go to lesser leagues or change positions, Moon said. Johnson has made a 16-year career out of being a backup; Huntley has backed Jackson up for two years; Brown was the third-stringer last year.
“I think it’s about us getting the opportunities, being in an organization that believes in us to put us in these positions to grow, and having a player like Lamar Jackson, who relates to us and us relating to him.”— Tee Martin, Ravens quarterbacks coach
Martin’s place as the quarterbacks coach is also crucial, Moon added. There are just three Black head coaches in a league where nearly 60 percent of the players are Black. It’s a problem that has been long documented, and one the NFL has tried — and failed — to combat with the Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview two external minority candidates for open head coaching positions and at least one external minority candidate for a coordinator job.
In recent years, the most straightforward path to becoming an NFL head coach has been coaching a thriving offense, typically as a coordinator or quarterbacks coach. Sixteen of the 26 head coaches hired since 2019 coached offense before getting their first head coaching jobs. But those offensive coaching jobs are largely held by white men; Martin is one of six Black quarterbacks coaches in the NFL.
With the Ravens poised for a dynamic season on offense — Jackson, one of the league’s premier quarterbacks, has a new coterie of pass catchers and a new system under coordinator Todd Monken — Martin could be in the conversation for head coaching jobs next year. So Moon is rooting for the Ravens, with the hopes that Martin becomes the NFL’s next Black head coach — and he’s thinking of all the players and coaches before them who made the Ravens quarterback group possible.
“It was not easy coming up when I came up,” Moon said. “I’ve always felt bad for the guys who didn’t get the opportunity at all and how it changed the course of their lives. We all played a small part in all this progress, and it’s good to see.”