NOTE: This story was originally published on April 16.
Every quarterback, as he begins his NFL career, carries a unique set of burdens.
Maybe he represents the hopes and dreams of his small town, which has never had a star to call its own. Maybe his college churns out a handful of first-round draft picks every year and he’s under pressure to live up to colossal expectations. Maybe he’s a little short, or a little tall, or a little slow. Because the NFL is a copycat league, his successes — or failures — could become scouting ripples that are felt for a generation.
That’s why it’s so important that Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa succeed with the Miami Dolphins. If he doesn’t, we might have to declare the art of left-handed quarterbacking extinct in professional football.
Tagovailoa might be the last, best hope for a lefty quarterback revival.
If that sounds like hyperbole, consider some facts: Seventy-three quarterbacks played at least one snap during the 2019-20 NFL season. Not a single one was left-handed. In fact, there hasn’t even been a left-handed quarterback on an NFL roster since Kellen Moore was on the Dallas Cowboys practice squad in 2017. Moore’s two late-season games way back in 2015 were the last starts for a lefty (Michael Vick also had three starts for the Steelers that season). The last left-hander to start and win a playoff game? Tim Tebow, when the Broncos beat the Steelers in 2011.
Six of the past 12 presidents have been left-handed, but the only left-handed player to throw a touchdown pass in the past five years was Titans defensive back Kevin Byard — on a fake punt in 2018.
Where have you gone, Steve Young, Boomer Esiason and Mark Brunell?
It’s a question that flummoxes NFL general managers and head coaches. ESPN surveyed 25 teams at this year’s NFL combine in Indianapolis, and not one of them felt confident he knew the reason behind the drought.
“It’s wild, right?” says Eagles coach Doug Pederson. “It’s a good question. A really good one. I don’t know the answer. There is no higher bar to clear, whether you’re left-handed or right-handed. Can they complete passes or not? That’s the bottom line.”
“I don’t know if I have that one prepared in my notes,” says Vikings general manager Rick Spielman. “Maybe there are just more right-handed babies? I usually have an answer I can dance around, but that one I have no answer. I’ll get our analytics department on that and get back to you.”
In 1994, the year Young was the MVP of the NFL’s regular season and the Super Bowl, 11% of the quarterbacks in the league were left-handed (lefties make up about 10% of the general population). That percentage gradually declined, but there was still clearly a place in football for a southpaw. 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 dueling left-handers in Chris Simms and Brunell. But they kept disappearing. After Vick and Moore — now the offensive coordinator for the Cowboys — retired before the 2016 season, that year marked the first time since 1968 that not a single left-hander saw action.
All the coaches and general managers queried insisted they’d have no issue drafting or coaching a left-handed quarterback — for some, having a lefty on the roster was actually a benefit.
“When I worked with Coach [Mike] Holmgren, he loved it,” says Seahawks general manager John Schneider. “We had Mark Brunell and he’d worked with Steve Young, so he saw it 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 tweaks you’re forced to make to your team — but all say they are relatively minor.
“You might flop your tackles if you thought you wanted to put one guy on his blind side,” says Duke Tobin, the Bengals’ director of player personnel. “Other than that, I don’t think there is a big adjustment.”
“As a receiver, catching a ball from a left-handed quarterback looks funny for the first couple throws, but after that you don’t think about it anymore,” says Tom Telesco, the Chargers’ general manager.
So why can’t the NFL find the next Steve Young?
It’s something no one has pondered more than, well, Steve Young.
“It’s shocking,” says Young, who played 15 seasons in the NFL and is widely regarded as the best left-handed quarterback of all time. “If I was not such a fundamental, data-driven realist, I would have significant conspiracy theories about this. It’s frustrating. Something feels amiss when there are no lefties in the league for years.”
Young is reluctant to place the majority of the blame on the NFL, citing various obstacles he had to overcome in his youth as a cautionary tale. His own father, Young says, tied his left hand behind his back to try to deter him from using it to throw. That didn’t last, and Young grew into a star high school athlete in Connecticut. But the real test came when he got to BYU and found himself eighth on the depth chart at quarterback.
“Doug Scovil was the offensive coordinator, and he was coming off a year where Jim McMahon had just broken 73 NCAA records,” Young says. “He didn’t know me from Adam because we had so many guys trying to play quarterback, but I remember once he turned his back to me and as he was walking away, he goes, ‘I’m not coaching a lefty.’ I was done. They were moving me to defense.”
Young spent three miserable months trying to learn how to play safety, only to get a reprieve when Scovil got a head-coaching job with San Diego State and Ted Tollner was hired to replace him. When the Cougars returned for spring ball, Young made a habit of sticking around after practice ended to throw with the quarterbacks. “Tollner saw me throwing and said, ‘Wait, why aren’t you playing quarterback?'” Young says. “I told him, ‘Well, Doug Scovil said he wouldn’t coach a lefty.’ He couldn’t believe it.”
Scovil died of a heart attack in 1989, so it’s impossible to know whether his recollection of what transpired would have been similar to Young’s. But Young says he ran into similar skepticism in Tampa Bay when he made it to the NFL. “It was mostly innuendo and grumbling, but I think Ray Perkins looked at me and thought, ‘A lefty scrambler? Nope, we’re not doing that,'” Young says. “There was definitely a cooling back then for lefties. Some coaches just wouldn’t do it. It might still be true, but you’d never hear them say today what Scovil said to me.”
Most of the coaches and general managers ESPN spoke to believe in some version of the theory that baseball siphons away all the best lefties. “I’ve never had a lefty in all my years of coaching that I can remember,” says Tampa Bay coach Bruce Arians. “Maybe they’re all pitching baseballs instead of throwing footballs.”
Combine the reduced risk factor with the promise of fully guaranteed salaries that left-handed pitchers can command — Dodgers lefty Clayton Kershaw has made $220 million in 12 years, nearly the same as Tom Brady has made in 20 seasons — and you can see the logic taking shape.
“If I could become a left-hander and throw in the 90s and play baseball, that’s a pretty good gig,” says Jaguars coach Doug Marrone. “I don’t have anyone 300 pounds running at me trying to take me down.”
Growing up in Houston, Carl Crawford was a heavily recruited three-sport athlete, and despite being a left-handed quarterback, he had interest from college football powerhouses USC, Michigan and Nebraska. He chose baseball, despite admitting it was his “third love” behind football and basketball, when the Rays offered him millions after drafting him in the first round. He went on to play 15 seasons with the Rays, Red Sox and Dodgers, earning $180 million despite a career OPS (.765) that ranks 755th in MLB history.
Lefty Jon Lester was a promising high school quarterback growing up in Tacoma before an ACL injury as a sophomore steered him away from the sport. He has earned $162 million in 13 years with the Red Sox, A’s and Cubs.
“Those lefties that can throw heat are pretty coveted by major league baseball, so maybe that’s it,” says Broncos general manager John Elway.
But — luckily for the Dolphins — the temptation of baseball wasn’t there for Tagovailoa growing up in Hawaii.
“My parents tried to put me in other sports,” he says. “My dad wanted me to play baseball. I played T-ball for a year and a half. I couldn’t do it. I played outfield, and I was out there picking weeds. It was so slow. They put me at first base thinking I’d get a lot more action. It just didn’t work. I was picking weeds again.”
Young doesn’t buy the baseball argument. “It’s possible a few get siphoned off by baseball,” he says. “But it doesn’t feel like it’s a one-to-one relationship. I don’t believe there are lefty kids out there who need to be inspired to go play pro football. If you’re lefty and you love football, you’re going to push like crazy. There is a numbers problem, whether it’s naturally or unnaturally.”
What’s more likely, he believes, is that lefties are being steered away from playing quarterback at an early age by high school coaches who would rather not adjust their rigid, fixed approach.
“We live in a right-handed world,” Young says. “And football is right-handed. What’s the first play you learn to run? Strong right dive, a right-handed play. Protections are taught to set up for right-handed quarterbacks because that’s all they see. If there is a problem, it’s a problem with the coaches. I feel like the problem starts before college. The pros might say, ‘Hey, we love lefties!’ but there is no one coming. There is no one available to pick from. It’s embarrassing.”
Sometimes, Young believes, it’s as simple as finding players and coaches who are willing to put in the extra work to make it work. When Young joined the 49ers, Jerry Rice made it known he didn’t love catching balls with left-handed spin. But when Young won the job for good and Joe Montana was traded to Kansas City, Rice knew he didn’t have a choice.
“The assistant equipment manager at the time was Ted Walsh,” Young says. “Ted was a lefty. So Jerry would go off with Ted after practice. And Ted threw Jerry — no joke — probably 30,000 passes during those first years. Because Jerry said, ‘I’ve got to get used to this crazy spin.’ But he’s the only one who ever said a peep about it.”
Young says he reached out to Tagovailoa at one point just to thank him for persevering, keeping the left-handed quarterbacking club alive. Being left-handed, he pointed out, had always been an advantage in his career once he got to the pros. Opposing teams couldn’t replicate it.
“A lefty quarterback presents problems for defenses because they’re all right-handed,” Young says. “You can try to prepare your team to play a lefty quarterback, but every week you play someone who is right-handed. I always thought there was a slight advantage in that.”
The irony of it all: Tagovailoa is actually a natural righty.
“My dad, he was the only lefty in our family,” says Tagovailoa, who eats right-handed, golfs right-handed and holds a pencil right-handed. “He wanted me to be a lefty as well, so he switched the way I threw. I didn’t touch the ball with my right as far as throwing, I just threw with my left.”
Young was stunned when he heard Tagovailoa was molded, not born, into the lefty quarterback club.
“It’s pretty amazing, because he delivers the ball with great touch,” Young says. “To have that kind of natural ability, he’s got some lefty in him. Don’t tell me that’s a learned skill. You don’t just learn that kind of touch; it’s in your DNA.”
With the backing of the greatest lefty in the QB pantheon behind him, Tagovailoa is happy to embrace the quirks and burdens of his situation, real or imagined.
“I don’t think I’d be here if I was a righty,” he says. “I only know I’m good with my left hand throwing the ball.”