Why Are Lefty Quarterbacks Like Michael Penix Jr. Still So Rare?

Why Are Lefty Quarterbacks Like Michael Penix Jr. Still So Rare?

Throughout the New Year’s game, Michel Penix Jr., quarterback for the University of Washington Huskies, sliced wounds wide open, deep in the hearts of Texas. Penix cut up the Texas Longhorns defense in the semifinals of the College Football Playoff, to the tune of 430 passing yards, two touchdown throws, and zero interceptions, while leading the Huskies to a 37-31 win in the Sugar Bowl. He launched darts off his back foot, deep in the pocket or on the move, with an arm motion that can look a bit unusual to the untrained eye. That’s because Penix Jr. accumulated such impressive big-game statistics while doing something that’s become a rare feat: throwing a football with his left hand.  

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While left-handed arms populate the pitching mounds of Major League Baseball—and earn players, even one-inning relief specialists, millions upon millions—they can feel almost extinct on the football field. Some 10% of the population is left-handed (full disclosure, this writer among them), but of the 75 NFL quarterbacks who’ve thrown at least one pass this 2023 season, Tua Tagovailoa, of the Miami Dolphins, is the lone lefty. That’s a southpaw population of a mere 1.3%. 

“By definition, by obvious scientific truth,” says Hall of Fame left-handed quarterback Steve Young, “football is biased against lefties.”

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There have been some fantastic left-handed quarterbacks over the years: Young, Ken Stabler, and Michael Vick among them. A couple—Tagovailoa, at Alabama, and Tim Tebow of Florida—have even won national titles in college this century. But of the 34 quarterbacks inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, just two—Young and Stabler—are lefties. Of the 38 quarterbacks to win the Heisman trophy, just three—Oregon State’s Terry Baker in 1962, Matt Leinart of USC in 2004, and Tebow in 2007—are southpaws. The last NFL left-hander to start a game before Tagovailoa’s NFL debut in 2020 was Kellen Moore, in 2015, for the Dallas Cowboys. 

If he puts in another stellar performance—this time against Michigan in the national championship game in Houston Monday night—Penix Jr. will up his odds of joining Tagovailoa in the NFL’s lonely lefty signal-callers club, and maybe break down any barriers keeping southpaws from calling cadence. In his two years at Washington, Penix Jr.—who came in second, to LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels, in his year’s Heisman race—has finished 25-2 as the starter. “He’s got huge hands and incredible accuracy that you very rarely see,” says Boomer Esiason, who won an NFL MVP award in 1988 as lefty QB for the Cincinnati Bengals. “It just comes so natural to him.”

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Before arriving in Seattle, Penix Jr., who grew up in the Tampa area, spent four injury-plagued seasons at Indiana. In 2018 and 2020 he sustained season-ending ACL-injuries. A sternoclavicular-joint injury and a dislocated shoulder joint cut short his 2019 and 2021 campaigns. He transferred to Washington to play for coach Kalen DeBoer, who was his offensive coordinator for the Hoosiers.

Penix Jr. says he’s “blessed” to be a lefty. In a podcast interview this season, he noted that his grandmother is the only other lefty in his family, and he’s a big fan of hers. “At a young age, it wasn’t like I chose what hand I wanted to throw with,” Penix Jr. says. His offensive coordinator at Washington, Ryan Grubb, sometimes calls plays for Penix Jr. to roll to the left, his natural side. “I’m like, Coach, I can throw it anywhere,” says Penix Jr. “It don’t matter. Just call anything.” 

It’s difficult to pinpoint why more lefties haven’t thrived at football. Maybe they see pitching as an easier road to riches. There are more big-league mound gigs available than quarterbacking jobs, and you don’t have to worry about 320-pound linemen crushing your anatomy. 

Some receivers have trouble getting used to the different spin a lefty puts on the football. But it’s their job to adjust on the fly. “I used to tell my wide receivers, dude, God gave you hands to catch a football,” says Esiason. “He didn’t say it had to be from a right-hander.” 

It might be an eye-test thing. Since we’re not used to seeing left-handers doing certain tasks, like throwing a football, we subconsciously assume they’re ill-fitted for them. Even Scott Mitchell, the former NFL quarterback who threw for more than 4,300 yards, left-handed, for the Detroit Lions back in 1995, admits his brethren look weird. “When I first watched Michael Penix throw the football, it was just cringey to me,” says Mitchell, now a color commentator for University of Utah radio broadcasts. “He just looks so unnatural, he looks so weird. I feel that way about all left-handed quarterbacks. Boomer Esiason, Steve Young, they looked so weird. I’m prejudiced against my own kind.”

Mitchell, however, has come around on Penix Jr. “The dude grew on me,” says Mitchell. “Now I’m like, ‘This guy can throw the freaking football.’ That semifinal game, some of those throws he made, there are a lot of pros who can’t make some of those throws.” 

But on the youth and high school levels, there could be coaches who share Mitchell’s prejudices, and funnel potential young lefty quarterbacks into other positions or even sports. Or force them to change their ways. “Growing up, they tried everything in the world to change me from being left-handed to right-handed,” says Mitchell. “I was just so natural at being left-handed. I’m just brutally left-handed.” 

During Mitchell’s first meeting at his first mini-camp with the Miami Dolphins—the team that drafted him in the fourth round out of Utah in 1990—he said the team’s offensive coordinator “freaked out” because Mitchell is lefty. “It was almost like he didn’t know how to coach me,” Mitchell says. Mitchell says it took about 10 minutes for the coach to realize that left-handed football is still, well, football. “Instead of putting your right hand under the center’s butt, you put your left hand,” says Mitchell. “It comes out the same way.”

“I have tremendous emotion about this,” says Young. He’s just read a media report painting Penix Jr.’s left-handedness as a potential hindrance to his draft position. His voice is rising. “I’m like, what the freakin’ hell is that?” 

For Young, the issue is indeed personal. In the middle of his freshman season at BYU, Young says, his offensive coordinator told him “by the way, I don’t coach lefties.” So he was moved to defense in practice. Lucky for Young, that offensive coordinator left, and a new one came in the following season and gave him a shot to throw. The rest is Hall of Fame history. “Barring a lucky stroke of a coaching switch, being lefty would have cost me my career,” says Young. 

And while he’s joked about a conspiracy to keep lefties out of the NFL, Young can’t believe the lack of southpaws in the league is mere coincidence. Some bias, even unconscious, must be at play, he says, which feels counterproductive. 

“Since football is so right-handed, being lefty is an advantage,” says Young. That split second of a defensive thinking “oh, that’s different” can make all the difference. “Everything’s run right-handed,” says Young. “Every practice is run right-handed. Eighty percent of every formation is right-handed. People install offense right-handed. It’s just how they do it. Michael Penix coming out as a lefty, that should heighten his draft status.” 

So it should come as no surprise that Young is pulling for Penix Jr. in Monday’s championship game. On behalf of southpaws everywhere. “Lefties unite, bro!” he says. “Lefties unite. I’m all for him.”

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