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The most scrutinized position in the country’s most popular sport

Football quarterbacks have the most coveted, high-profile and high-pressure positions in American sports, says author John Feinstein. The role demands athletic prowess and strategic thinking--but it also takes a huge toll on the body and mind. Feinstein, whose new book profiles five current and former NFL quarterbacks, joins Amna Nawaz to discuss racial bias and why "football will never be safe."

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  • John Yang:

    Now a pair of stories about the competitive spirit, tied to some big contests today.

    Let's start with America's most popular professional sport, football.

    Tens of millions of viewers will tune in today to at least one of the three NFL games on the schedule. That includes tonight's contest, with the Atlanta Falcons playing the New Orleans Saints, who are led by one of the league's best quarterbacks, Drew Brees.

    Quarterbacks, of course, are the highest-profile players in the game.

    Amna Nawaz a look at the position's glory and the pain.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Drew Brees, Tom Brady, and Cam Newton are household names, of course, and some of the best quarterbacks in the league, but those are the exceptions.

    It's a much rockier ride for most quarterbacks in the NFL. The Wall Street Journal did its own analysis and concluded the average career for that position is now just over three years in the league.

    A new book takes a close-up look at the ups, downs and challenges of the position by profiling five well-known current and former quarterbacks.

    Naturally, it's called "Quarterback." The author is John Feinstein, the prolific author, writer and columnist for The Washington Post, who is back with us.

    Welcome back to the "NewsHour."

  • John Feinstein:

    Good to see you. Happy Thanksgiving.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Happy Thanksgiving to you too.

  • John Feinstein:

    And you like that clever title, "Quarterback"?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    It was great. How did you come up with that?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • John Feinstein:

    Thought for hours and hours.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You wrote in the book, no position in sports is more glamorous, more lucrative, more visible than being a starting NFL quarterback.

    What was it about this position that made you want to dig into it?

  • John Feinstein:

    Well, part of it is that the NFL is so popular. Even with some of the downs that it's had in the last couple years, it is still by far our most popular sport, and it's our most scrutinized sport.

    And quarterback is the most scrutinized position, because, let's face it, the quarterback touches the ball on every single play, and has to make probably eight to 10 decisions on every single one of those plays, both before the snap and after the snap.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Mm-hmm.

  • John Feinstein:

    And when a team is going well, he is a hero in his city. When a team is not going well, he is very much a goat in his city.

    That's why there's an old cliche that, when a team is losing, the most popular guy in town is the second-string quarterback.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So you focused in on five names in particular, Andrew Luck, Joe Flacco, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Alex Smith, and Doug Williams.

    Big picture, how hard was it just to pick those five? And why those five?

  • John Feinstein:

    Well, the common thread among the five of them, because they're very diverse in terms of their career paths, is, they're all very smart.

    And I need — I need smart in these books, because I need guys who are willing and able to share the kind of details and insight that I'm looking for when I try — when I report these books. And all five of these guys were willing to give me the time, were willing after we started talking to kind of pull the curtain back on their careers and on their lives.

    Andrew Luck was going through the worst year of his life, because he had to sit out the whole season. And he was very blunt about what that did to him and how he hadn't realized how much of his identity was wrapped up with being a football player, because he had taken it for granted, because he'd always been a star.

    The one non-active quarterback is Doug Williams. And I wanted Doug because I needed an African-American voice in the book. And Doug was one of the first starting quarterbacks in the NFL who was African-American, first one to start and win a Super Bowl, was the first one taken as a first-round draft pick back in 1978.

    And now, as a personnel director here in Washington, he still sees that, in 2018, we have made a lot of progress.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Yes.

  • John Feinstein:

    But there's still bias against African-American quarterbacks against — by a lot of scouts. They still don't see them "naturally" — quote, unquote — as quarterbacks very often.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That part of the book did strike me, when you said, this is something — it still very much exists today.

    Is that specific, though, just to quarterback…

  • John Feinstein:

    Yes.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    … that kind of prejudice?

  • John Feinstein:

    Yes, it is, because the old cliche back in the '60s and '70s was, quarterbacks weren't smart enough, blacks were not smart enough to play the quarterback position, because it is such a cerebral position, unlike, really, the other 10 positions on the football field. You don't have to think quite as much.

    You're the guy calling the plays. You're the guy in control at the line of scrimmage. You're the guy making those decisions after the snap.

    And there was that — it's like the old line about why aren't there more African-American managers, when Al Campanis said all those years ago, they didn't have the necessities. There was thinking among football people that African-Americans didn't have the necessities to play quarterback.

    And the stereotype was, well, they're really fast, so let's put them at wide receiver, let's put them at defensive back. And even this past year, Lamar Jackson, coming out of Louisville, who won the Heisman Trophy as a quarterback, 6'3", all the tools, there were scout saying he should be turned into a receiver.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Those ideas persist today.

    I want to ask you about some of the money, though, you focus on, because you wrote in here, billion-dollar franchises can rise and fall on the shoulders of these guys. And that's when you look at the impact of injuries and how those can change the entire trajectory of an entire franchise.

    You cite the example of Aaron Rodgers in here in 2017, how the Packers did before and after his injury.

  • John Feinstein:

    Right.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And just this week, we saw what happened with Washington and Alex Smith.

    So, tell me, what's the impact of that, all the money that goes into this one role, and how much rises and falls on one guy?

  • John Feinstein:

    Well, very much.

    And you cited good examples. Aaron Rodgers last year, the Packers were 4-1 when he hurt his collarbone. They finished 7-9.

    Andrew Luck missed the entire season. The Colts ended up 4-12 without him. And, this year, they're in contention for the playoffs with him back healthy again.

    Now, there are exceptions. Nick Foles was able to step in for Carson Wentz last year in Philadelphia, and the Eagles won the Super Bowl. But he was a guy who'd been a starter.

    And that's why it is important to have a good backup quarterback, because quarterbacks get hurt.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Right.

  • John Feinstein:

    They take — one thing people don't understand is the pounding that a quarterback takes, because he's always going backward when he gets hit.

    So, unlike guys who are going forward into one another, where some of the impact is — isn't as much because they're going forward into each other, he takes huge hits.

    I have stood at locker rooms with all these guys, inside locker rooms, and watched them slowly peel their clothes off. And it's physically painful to watch. And that's why quarterbacks are so vulnerable.

    And that's why, when one does get hurt — you were talking about Alex Smith getting hurt here in Washington. And there are a lot of people saying, well, Colt McCoy is just as good as he is.

    Colt McCoy is a very good backup quarterback. There's a reason why Alex Smith is being paid a guaranteed $71 million.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    I want to ask you about that health impact, too, because, obviously, there's a lot of conversation around the future of football, when we look at what we know about head injuries, repeated head injuries.

    We have got bodies now coming forward, a sports institute in Aspen saying, OK, we don't think kids should be playing tackle football anymore.

  • John Feinstein:

    Right.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    We think flag football should replace that as the standard until high school.

    The more we learn, the more that conversation advances, do you think that's going to have an impact on how we see football or the place it holds in our society?

  • John Feinstein:

    I think it very much will. And we may not see it really manifest for 15 or 20 years.

    Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner, keeps saying football is safer than it's ever been, because they have made rules to avoid helmet-to-helmet hits and to protect players.

    Football will never be safe. I have been in lots of locker rooms throughout my career. The only one where you feel palpable fear before a game is football, because they know it's going to hurt to play, and they also know someone may end up like Alex Smith did on Sunday. That's a very real fear that they all feel before they go out onto the field.

    Once upon a time, mothers didn't want their sons to play football.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Right.

  • John Feinstein:

    Now fathers don't want their sons to play football, because they see all the numbers out there with CTE, with concussions, and with what the game can do to you.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Some former football players themselves don't want their kids to play, right?

  • John Feinstein:

    With good reason.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The book is "Quarterback." The author is John Feinstein.

    Thank you so much for being here.

  • John Feinstein:

    Thanks for having me. My pleasure.

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