Maybe he represents the hopes and dreams of his little town, which has never had a star to call its own. Maybe his college produces a handful of first-round picks each year and is under pressure to meet colossal expectations. Maybe it’s a little bit small, or a little big, or a little slow. Because the NFL is a copy league, its successes – or its failures – could become screening waves that are felt for a generation.
That’s why it’s so important that Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa succeed no matter which team they end up with. If it doesn’t, we may have to declare that the art of left-handed quartering has died out in professional football.
Tagovailoa could be the last, the best hope for a left quarter revival.
If this sounds like hyperbole, consider some facts: Seventy-three quarterbacks played at least one snap during the 2019-20 NFL season. Not one was left-handed. In fact, there hasn’t even been a left-handed quarterback on an NFL list since Kellen Moore was on the Dallas Cowboys Training Team in 2017. The last left-hander to start a regular season game? Michael Vick for the Steelers in week 6 of 2015. The last lefty to start and win a playoff game? Tim Tebow, when the Broncos defeated the Steelers in 2011.
Six of the last 12 presidents have been left-handed, but the only left-handed player to have a touchdown pass in the past five years has been Titans defensive back Kevin Byard – on a punt in 2018.
Where did you go, Steve Young, Boomer Esiason and Mark Brunell?
This is a question that baffles NFL general managers and head coaches. ESPN interviewed 25 teams in this year’s NFL combination in Indianapolis, and none of them were convinced they knew the reason for the drought.
“It’s wild, isn’t it? “Said Eagles coach Doug Peterson. ” It’s a good question. A very good question. I do not know the answer. There is no higher bar to cross, whether you are left-handed or right-handed. Can they complete the passes or not? . “
“I don’t know if I prepared it in my notes,” said Vikings general manager Rick Spielman. “Maybe there are just more right-handed babies?” I usually have an answer that I can dance to, but that one, I don’t have an answer. I’ll ask our analysis department to respond to you. “
In 1994, the year Young was the quintessential player of the NFL regular season and the Super Bowl, 11% of the league’s quarters were left-handed (left-handers represent approximately 10% of the general population). This percentage gradually decreased, but there was still clearly a place in football for a left-hander. Vick was the No. 1 pick in 2001, and there was a wild card playoff game in 2005 between Tampa Bay and Washington that featured left-handed duels in Chris Simms and Brunell. But they continued to disappear. After Vick and Moore – now the Cowboys’ offensive coordinator – retired before the 2016 season, that year marked the first time since 1968 that not a left-hander had seen the action.
All of the coaches and general managers interviewed insisted that they would have no problem writing or coaching a left-handed quarterback – for some, having a left-hander on the list was actually an advantage.
“When I worked with Coach [Mike] Holmgren, he loved it, “said Seahawks general manager John Schneider.” We had Mark Brunell and he had worked with Steve Young, so he saw that as an advantage.
“He always thought it was a way to change the game, just mix it up and do the opposite. “
Sure, there are adjustments you have to make to your team – but all say they are relatively minor.
“You could flop your tackles if you thought you wanted to put a guy on his blind side,” says Duke Tobin, director of personnel for the Bengals. “Other than that, I don’t think there is a big adjustment. “
“As a catcher, catching a left-back quarterback ball sounds funny for the first two shots, but after that you don’t think about it anymore,” said Tom Telesco, general manager of the Chargers.
So why can’t the NFL find the next Steve Young?
It’s something no one has thought about more than, well, Steve Young.
“It’s shocking,” said Young, who has played 15 seasons in the NFL and is widely regarded as the best left-handed quarterback of all time. “If I weren’t such a fundamental, data-driven realist, I would have important conspiracy theories on this. It’s frustrating. Something is wrong when there have been no left-handers in the league for years. “
Young is reluctant to place the majority of the fault on the NFL, citing various obstacles he had to overcome in his youth as an edifying tale. His own father, said Young, tied his left hand behind his back to try to dissuade him from using it for throwing. It didn’t last long, and Young became a high school athlete in Connecticut. But the real test came when he got to BYU and ended up eighth on the quarterback depth chart.
“Doug Scovil was the offensive coordinator, coming out of a year when Jim McMahon had just broken 73 NCAA records,” said Young. “He didn’t know me from Adam because we had so many guys trying to play the quarterback, but I remember once he turned his back on me and as he walked away he said, “I’m not a left-handed coach. ” I had finished. They put me on defense. “
Young spent three miserable months trying to learn to play safe, only to get a reprieve when Scovil obtained a head coaching position with the State of San Diego and Ted Tollner was hired to replace him. When the Cougars returned for the spring ball, Young got into the habit of staying after training to pitch with the quarterbacks. “Tollner saw me throw and said,” Wait, why don’t you play quarterback? “Said Young. “I told him,” Well, Doug Scovil said he wouldn’t coach a left-hander. He couldn’t believe it. “
Scovil died of a heart attack in 1989, so it’s impossible to know if his memory of what happened would have been similar to that of Young. But Young says he encountered similar skepticism in Tampa Bay when he joined the NFL. “It was mostly innuendo and groans, but I think Ray Perkins looked at me and thought, ‘A jammer on the left? No, we don’t do that, “said Young. “There was definitely a cooling down at the time for left-handers. Some coaches just didn’t do it. It could still be true, but you would never hear them say today what Scovil told me. “
Most ESPN coaches and general managers have spoken of believing in a version of the theory that baseball siphons off all the best lefties. “I’ve never had a left-hander in all of my coaching years I remember,” said Bruce Arians, coach of Tampa Bay. “Maybe they’re all throwing baseballs instead of throwing soccer balls. “
Combine the reduced risk factor with the promise of fully guaranteed wages that left-handed pitchers can order – Dodgers lefty Clayton Kershaw has earned $ 220 million in 12 years, almost as much as Tom Brady in 20 seasons – and you can see the logic taking shape.
“If I could go left-handed and throw in the 90s and play baseball, it’s a great concert,” said Jaguars coach Doug Marrone. “I have no one who weighs 300 pounds on me to try to kill me. “
Growing up in Houston, Carl Crawford was a highly recruited three-sport athlete, and although he was a left-handed quarterback, he was interested in the college football powers USC, Michigan and Nebraska. He chose baseball, although he admitted it was his “third love” behind football and basketball when the Rays offered him millions after the first round draft. He continued to play 15 seasons with the Rays, Red Sox and Dodgers, earning $ 180 million despite an OPS (.765) career that ranks 755th in MLB history.
Left-hander Jon Lester was a promising high school quarterback growing up in Tacoma before an ACL injury as a sophomore took him away from the sport. He has earned $ 162 million in 13 years with the Red Sox, A’s and Cubs.
“These lefties who can throw heat are highly coveted by major league baseball, so that may be it,” said Broncos general manager John Elway.
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But – luckily for teams with early draft picks looking for a quarterback this year – the temptation to baseball was not there for Tagovailoa, who was growing up in Hawaii.
“My parents tried to put me in other sports,” he says. “My father wanted me to play baseball. I’ve been playing T-ball for a year and a half. I couldn’t do it. I played in the field and I was there picking weeds. It was so slow. They put me on base at the start thinking that I would get a lot more action. It just didn’t work. I was picking up the weeds again. “
Young doesn’t buy the baseball argument. “Some may be siphoned off by baseball,” he says. “But it doesn’t seem like a one-on-one relationship. I don’t think there are left-handed kids who need to be inspired to play professional football. If you’re left-handed and love soccer, you’re going to push like crazy. There is a number problem, whether naturally or not. “
What is more likely, he believes, is that left-handers are prevented from playing quarterback at an early age by high school coaches who prefer not to adjust their rigid and fixed approach.
“We live in a right-handed world,” says Young. “And football is right-handed. What is the first game you learn to play? Strong straight diving, a right-handed game. Protections are taught to be put in place for right-hand quarters because that’s all they see. If there is a problem, it is a problem with the coaches. I get the impression that the problem begins before college. The pros could say, “Hey, we love lefties! But no one is coming. There is no one to choose from. It’s embarassing. “
Sometimes Young thinks it’s as simple as finding players and coaches who are willing to do the extra work to make it work. When Young joined the 49ers, Jerry Rice said he didn’t like catching the balls with a left turn. But when Young won the job for good and Joe Montana was traded to Kansas City, Rice knew he had no choice.
“The deputy director of equipment at the time was Ted Walsh,” said Young. “Ted was a left-hander. So Jerry would leave with Ted after training. And Ted threw Jerry – no joke – probably 30,000 assists in those first few years. Because Jerry said, “I have to get used to this crazy ride. ‘But he’s the only one to have looked at it. “
Young says he contacted Tagovailoa at one point just to thank him for persevering, keeping the left-handed quarterback club alive. Being left-handed, he said, has always been an advantage in his career once in the pros. The opposing teams could not reproduce it.
“A left-handed quarterback has problems with defenses because they’re all right-handed,” says Young. “You can try to prepare your team to play a left quarter, but every week you play with a right-hander. I always thought there was a slight advantage to this. “
The irony of it all: Tagovailoa is actually a natural right-hander.
“My father, he was the only lefty in our family,” said Tagovailoa, who eats right-handed, plays right-handed golf and holds a right-handed pencil. “He wanted me to be left-handed too, so he changed the way I throw. I didn’t touch the ball with my right when it came to throwing, I just kicked with my left. “
Young was stunned when he heard that Tagovailoa was cast, not born, in the left quarter club.
“It’s pretty amazing because he delivers the ball with a lot of touch,” said Young. “To have this kind of natural ability, he has a left-hander in him. Don’t tell me it’s a learned skill. You don’t just learn that kind of touch; it’s in your DNA. “
With the support of the biggest left-hander in the QB pantheon behind him, Tagovailoa is happy to embrace the whims and burdens of his situation, real or imagined.
“I don’t think I would be here if I were a real one,” he said. “I only know that I’m fine with my left hand which throws the ball. “