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Are Lefty Quarterbacks Going Extinct?

There were 786 touchdown passes in the NFL last season, and 785 of them were thrown from the right arm of a passer. The one lefty to complete a touchdown pass in 2016 wasn’t even a quarterback. It was Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant, who hit Jason Witten for a touchdown off a trick play in the Week 16 victory over the Detroit Lions.

Southpaw quarterbacks have been few and far between, but in almost any year since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970, there has been at least one prominent lefty slinging passes. Not now. And there’s no clear end in sight to this lefty drought.

Michael Vick retired this year. Tim Tebow is playing minor-league baseball. Matt Leinart is in broadcasting. The one lefty quarterback (out of 118 total) currently on an NFL roster: Dallas backup Kellen Moore. Lefties might make up about 10 percent of the population, but they currently make up 0.85 percent of the NFL’s throwers.

Moore was the last lefty to start a game at quarterback in the NFL. At the end of the 2015 season, he lit up Washington for 435 yards in a Week 17 loss, playing in place of an injured Tony Romo. That might be our last lefty impression for some time.

“When I came into the league [in 2012], I think there were six lefties,” Moore said. “Now I’m the only one standing. Kind of weird.”

Moore still has to earn his roster spot during training camp and preseason, even after making a strong impression in Thursday’s Hall of Fame game. If Moore does make the team, he’s not likely to see the field much — if at all — since he’d be backing up Dak Prescott, who was a breakout star for the Cowboys during his rookie season in 2016.

We’re a long way from lefties Ken Stabler and Jim Zorn in the 1970s; Boomer Esiason, Steve Young and Mark Brunell in the 1980s and 1990s; and Vick — imperfect as he might have been — leading the way through the 2000s. Even the unorthodox Tebow, with his brief flurry of success, qualifies as a notable lefty in recent years. And it wasn’t that long ago — 2005 — that we had a lefty-vs.-lefty playoff battle (Brunell vs. Chris Simms). As a group, the lefty heyday came in the three seasons from 1995 to 1997, when the league’s southpaws — including Brunell, Esiason, Young and Scott Mitchell — combined for more than 36,500 passing yards.

There are a lot of working theories about why lefty quarterbacks have gone the way of the dodo. Clearly, the root of the problem is that there haven’t been any top left-handed talents at the position in recent years. Tebow was a first-round pick of the Denver Broncos in 2010, and fellow lefty Sean Canfield was drafted in round 7 that same year. After Canfield (who never attempted a regular-season pass), 81 quarterbacks have been drafted — all of them right-handed.

The next wave of college quarterbacks has some solid lefty talent but lacks a sure-fire NFL quarterback in the pipeline. Alabama’s true freshman, Tua Tagovailoa, is at least a few years away. Others college football lefties include senior Malik Zaire, who transferred from Notre Dame to Florida, as well as solid underclassmen such as Brent Stockstill (Middle Tennessee State), Alex Hornibrook (Wisconsin) and Andrew Ford (UMass).

So where is the next generation of Youngs, Esiasons and Vicks? Possibly on a diamond somewhere. “I think all the smart lefties went and played baseball,” Moore joked. “The sport is kind of designed for them. There’s a little more lefty influence in that sport.”

Indeed: Left-handed pitchers might be one of the most sought-after commodities in all of sports, and MLB teams are always hunting for the next Chris Sale, Clayton Kershaw or Madison Bumgarner. Plus, there’s a track record of success: Six of the top 10 active leaders in ERA+ (a weighted pitching metric that accounts for a pitcher’s ballpark and league) are southpaws. It makes good sense that a left-handed quarterback would chose the safer, more lucrative sport of baseball.

But the baseball theory lacks real meat. After all, left-handed starting pitchers in baseball also seem to be thinning out — from 32.0 percent of all starters in 2012 to 25.5 percent in 2016.

San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan dismisses the lefty-QBs-are-becoming-pitchers theory. Shanahan said he wouldn’t shy away from bringing in the right lefty. All Shanahan asks is that he be able to run the offense in either direction. “I like to be balanced,” he said in March.

Shanahan pointed to the more common explanation for the dropoff in lefty QBs, which is that the lefty quarterback complicates both the playbook and practice. Shanahan likes to be hands-on in his coaching, demonstrating how he wants his quarterbacks to execute throws and footwork. He’s found that teaching technique to left-handers poses a problem in that he himself is right-handed and the mechanics are different. “The only reason I wouldn’t want a lefty is because I would have to demonstrate lefty,” he said. “You try to do it, show the [throwing] motion, and it makes you feel a little silly. I did it once and said, ‘Never again.’”

David Carr, who was the starting quarterback for the Houston Texans in the 2000s, is right-handed. He has witnessed firsthand how lefties have more to overcome than their right-handed counterparts. “My only son who plays quarterback is left-handed,” Carr said. “All the plays are drawn right-handed. It’s kind of funky. For left-handed quarterbacks, it’s hard for them to go into the lineup and feel comfortable. It’s like handing them a pair of right-handed scissors.”

Added Buccaneers head coach Dirk Koetter in March, “We have certain plays that are ‘one way plays,’ we call them. I’ve been on teams with a righty and a lefty, and it’s weird to have to flip that around [during practice].”

When asked how Young’s handedness would affect the practice field, Steve Mariucci, who was Young’s coach in San Francisco and is currently an NFL Network commentator, said that it drove him nuts. “There is a little preference to have two guys throwing with the same hand,” Mariucci said. “I asked Steve one offseason, ‘Can you practice throwing with your right hand, please? I need some continuity in my practices!’”

There’s also the matter of the receivers who are catching the passes. Cris Carter and Reggie Wayne, two of the top 10 receivers in league history by catches, both agree that there’s an effect on the flight of a lefty’s pass that’s noticeably different from that of the righties they see all the time.

“Typically, when a right-handed quarterback throws the ball, the ball spins right to left,” Carter said. “Anytime I am running a route to my left, the ball will be spinning in toward me. When I am running to the right, the ball is spinning away from me. That might not sound like much, but when you get every step of your routes down to the inch, like [we] perfectionists do, it makes an extreme difference.”

Joked Wayne, “I am definitely not complaining I didn’t play with many lefties, trust me. Not only does the ball turn differently, but it affects the deep ball. [A right-handed QB], his pass turns inside; a lefty, it turns the other way. That’s a lot harder of a catch, especially for guys who are not as used to seeing that.”

Moore has noticed the league’s bias against his handedness. “I was told that coming out for the draft by a lot of [NFL] teams, that I probably wasn’t going to be the best fit some places because the starter was a righty,” he said.

Perhaps it’s just an odd confluence of events: begin with a small segment of society — QBs gifted enough to play at a high level — and then weed them out even further. Some young lefties might be encouraged to be the next Kershaw instead of the next Vick. Some might have coaches who are not interested in further complicating a complicated game and will play a righty over a lefty. Some finicky receivers might favor the righty’s ball spin. Some lefties, like Bryant, might be too gifted athletically not to be used at other positions such as receiver.

There might not be one predominant reason for the waning role of southpaw quarterbacks, but if you’re a fan of lefties, you might want to watch Moore throw in the preseason. Who knows the next time you’ll see one in an actual game?

Eric Edholm is an NFL writer for Pro Football Weekly based in Chicago. He might accidentally have coined the term ‘Deflategate.’

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