Why Left-Handed Quarterbacks Are So Rare

Tua Tagovailoa looks to pass against the Los Angeles Rams during a game.
This photograph has not been altered in any way. Mark Brown/Getty Images

There’s a weirdly unsettling scene in the 1953 Western Shane in which the dastardly gunfighter Jack Wilson, played by Jack Palance, dismounts his horse. The character’s movements look unnatural and creepy, but the story behind the shot is hardly sinister. Palance was terrible around horses and didn’t know how to safely climb off of one. The director managed to catch him successfully mounting his horse just one time during shooting, and so he played that clip in reverse when it came time to show Palance getting off the steed.

That scene came to mind on Sunday during the Miami Dolphins’ surprising 28–17 victory over the Los Angeles Rams. Rookie quarterback Tua Tagovailoa made his debut as a starter for Miami, throwing his first NFL touchdown pass at the end of the first quarter. It looked odd—not unlike Palance’s dismount in Shane. Had the Fox camera crew flipped the image by mistake? The man was throwing with the wrong hand!

(Speaking of lefties and special effects: There’s a famous story that they had to flip the film stock in 1942’s The Pride of the Yankees to make the right-handed Gary Cooper appear to throw and bat like the left-handed Lou Gehrig. That tale might not be entirely true, though, so we’re sticking with Shane here.)

Before Sunday, a lefty quarterback hadn’t started an NFL game since 2015, when Kellen Moore lined up under center for the Dallas Cowboys. It’s been so long that Moore is now in his second season as the Cowboys’ offensive coordinator.

Since Moore, only three people in the league have thrown left-handed touchdowns: Dez Bryant (Dec. 26, 2016), Kevin Byard (Sept. 16, 2018), and Jarvis Landry (Oct. 4, 2020). Byard is a safety, while Bryant and Landry are wide receivers, though you couldn’t tell with Landry given how beautiful the pass was.

This paucity of left-handed quarterbacks is truly bizarre. Lefties make up around 10 percent of the population, but, according to ESPN’s stats department, there have been just 33 lefty QBs in the NFL since 1950. Of those, only the Oakland Raiders’ Ken Stabler and the San Francisco 49ers’ Steve Young have made the Hall of Fame, though Young’s left-handedness almost cost him his career before it even started. When he was a freshman at Brigham Young University, the school’s offensive coordinator, Doug Scovil, told him, “You’re not going to play quarterback here. I don’t coach lefties. It ain’t happening.” Young was moved to safety for a year until Scovil left the school. When the coordinator’s replacement noticed Young tossing spirals in practice, he asked him to line up under center.

You’ll hear a few common explanations for the lack of lefty QBs. Closed-minded coaches are one, and it’s no surprise that Young subscribes to this particular theory. “You see that kind of bias everywhere,” he told Press Democrat writer Grant Cohn. “Luckily, [San Francisco head coach] Bill Walsh loved lefties, I think because he was a lefty.”

There is an element of mirroring to how lefties play the position. They tend to prefer to roll out to the left, for example, and throws to the right side of the field are more difficult for them. Cohn, who wrote a lengthy piece on the scarcity of lefty QBs, found a few examples of coaches who didn’t want to restructure their playbooks to cater to southpaws. “Jon Gruden hated flipping plays,” he writes. “In 2004, the Buccaneers drafted Chris Simms to back up Brian Griese and Brad Johnson. … Gruden bluntly told Simms, ‘You’re a lefty; you’re a pain in the ass. I have to call the formation the other way for you so you can roll to your left.’ ”

All the plays are drawn right-handed. It’s kind of funky,” former Houston Texan David Carr told FiveThirtyEight in 2017. “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.”

I should note that Carr is a righty speaking for lefties here. Ask Steve Young, and he’ll say that his left-handedness gave him an edge. “I think there’s a slight advantage because no one else shows up with a left-handed quarterback and such comfort coming out left, rolling left, left-to-right formations,” he told the Chattanooga Times Free Press. “And so for a defense, it was just different.”

Not every coach is daunted by the thought of flipping their playbook. In an NFL Films video about left-handed quarterbacks, Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid says that he’s never had a lefty on any of his teams. A few moments go by before Reid remembers that he coached Michael Vick, one of the most successful southpaw QBs in history, during his Philadelphia Eagles tenure. The process of drawing plays for the lefty clearly wasn’t daunting enough to leave a mark on Reid’s psyche.

And then there’s the matter of spin. When a receiver gets the ball from a right-handed quarterback, he’s catching a spiral that rotates counterclockwise; for lefties, it’s clockwise. This may not seem like a big deal, but wide receivers tend to be a fussy bunch. “Regardless of where I run on the field, unless I run an out to the right, the ball is always going to be spinning away from me,” Hall of Fame wideout Cris Carter told NFL Films. It’s a legitimate adjustment, but Carter notes there are ways to make it work. When the 49ers transitioned from Joe Montana to Young, they taught the team’s equipment guy to throw with his left hand. That way, when he warmed Jerry Rice up on the sidelines, Rice could get used to the subtleties of a clockwise spiral. (He handled the change just fine.)

There are other things to be cognizant of, like the way centers snap the ball (“Every center is right-handed,” Young told Cohn. “The angle at which it comes from with your left hand on top, you get the short end of the ball”) and prioritizing the position of right tackle to protect a lefty’s blind side. But as former NFL lefty Mark Brunell told the Chattanooga Times Free Press, pass rushes have gotten so good that “you’ve got to have two elite tackles anyway.”

You’d think that a league that fancies itself as a venue for tactical genius would figure out how to incorporate more than 33 left-handed quarterbacks in seven decades of play, but for now Tua Tagovailoa stands alone. The Dolphins’ young star has his own explanation for why he’s so short on left-handed company, and it’s one that is shared by a lot of folks. “I think lefties are so rare in football because all of them are in baseball,” he said. Left-handed pitchers are harder for right-handed batters to hit, which makes them valuable commodities on the diamond. The theory goes that southpaws who can throw hard are drawn to the sport where workaday middle relievers make millions of dollars per year. As Kellen Moore told FiveThirtyEight, “I think all the smart lefties went and played baseball.”

Tua himself is a special case because … he’s not actually a lefty, at least not off the field. “I do everything right,” he said. “I eat with my right. Swing the bat with my right, golf with my right—do all that.” He throws with his left because of his father’s loneliness. Really. “My dad was the only lefty in our family, and he wanted me to be a lefty as well, so he switched the way I threw.” His younger brother, Maryland quarterback Taulia, throws with his right. I guess one lefty was enough for the Tagovailoa family.

We’ll never know whether Tua would have been as good of a quarterback—or better—had he learned to throw like most everyone else, but the league is a little more interesting because he didn’t. For one thing, I wouldn’t have gone looking for Shane clips if he were a righty.

Listen to an episode of Slate’s sports podcast Hang Up and Listen below, or subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcasts.