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The NFL Takeover: Year of the black quarterback

Russell Wilson #3 of the Seattle Seahawks and Lamar Jackson #8 of the Baltimore Ravens shake hands after the game

Alika Jenner via Getty Images

It is a seamless microaggression. Veiled insults hiding behind perceived compliments, stated by those who do not recognize that their rhetoric has negatively impacted generations of young football players, preventing many from seeking out the most glamorous position in all of team sports due to erroneously perceived flaws.

“Running quarterback.” “Athletic quarterback.” “A non-pocket passer.” 

A black quarterback.

Quarterback and center on a football field were always held by the smartest guys on the team. The ones who could think the game on the fly and execute its nuances with effortless precision. And over the years, those two positions were primarily occupied by white players. 

The success rate made it commonplace. The greats of the game continued to be manufactured from the spotlight that quarterbacks played under. But when it came to putting a black quarterback under center, the rhetoric shifted. The language used to describe their talents was syntactically unique to only them.

Bill Polian was quoted prior to Baltimore Ravens’ quarterback Lamar Jackson being drafted as saying that Jackson should switch his position to wide receiver. In response, ESPN First Take’s Max Kellerman stated: “Whenever you hear African-American quarterback, ‘Here are all the excuses why he shouldn’t be a quarterback.’ Wait, we’ve been hearing that a lot over the decades. (But) we’re hearing it less now so let’s not reflexively go there.”

Max was right — about the reflex. About how we have programmed ourselves to talk our way out of the black quarterback model despite so many examples of success with the model. But it isn’t truly about the successes that speak to the implicit bias toward black quarterbacks. It is how we react to the failures that this sports micro-issue gives us a lens into macro-societal problems.

And this 2019 season set out to close the mouths of those naysayers still frolicking in the midst of fallacies directed toward melanated athletes at the quarterback position. Jackson, Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes, Seattle Seahawks’ Russell Wilson, Houston Texans’ Deshaun Watson, and Dallas Cowboys’ Dak Prescott — among the five of them, they combined to lead their teams to a 53-23 record. Four of the five made the playoffs with three of them winning divisional titles. Prescott was the only one not in the top 11 in completion percentage. All were in the top eight in touchdowns and in the top seven in QBR. All were in the top 11 in passer rating.

Three of the AFC quarterbacks (Jackson, Mahomes, and Watson) selected to the Pro Bowl are black for the first time in league history, and Wilson is starting for the NFC. Meanwhile, Jackson finished sixth in the league in rushing on his way to a likely MVP award.

It was the year of the black quarterback. 

Jameis Winston #3 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers runs into the endzone to convert a two-point conversion

Michael Reaves via Getty Images

We didn’t even mention the league’s only 5,000-yard passer in the Tampa Bay Bucs’ Jameis Winston, who also finished second in passing touchdowns to Jackson. Or New Orleans Saints’ backup Teddy Bridgewater, who went 5-0 while Drew Brees was out with an injury. But Winston threw 30 interceptions, which sunk the rest of his analytics. He still put up crazy numbers on a Tampa Bay team that finished below .500, and Bridgewater will be a potential top free-agent signing this summer.

Nevertheless, the imprints of the black quarterback were felt all over the league. It was a long struggle to reach a point where so many are performing at a high level, at the same time, for multiple playoff teams. The likes of Doug Williams, Warren Moon, Steve McNair, and Randall Cunningham must be smiling witnessing this boon. The Michael Vicks, Donovan McNabbs, and Daunte Culpeppers of the world have something to say as well. But it is also the missed opportunities like JaMarcus Russell, Akili Smith, and Andre Ware that deserve light simply for getting the chance to do something from the quarterback position, despite those opportunities being few and far between. 

It is a proud moment when the most distinguished position in all of team sports is manned by someone who looks like the kids who are always told to play the skill positions. No one bats an eye when a black player lines up at wide receiver, defensive back, running back, or linebacker and uses their end-to-end speed to make plays all over the field. But when doing it from the place where the light truly shines, there was a level of disapproval associated with the athletic endeavors of a “running quarterback.” That somehow he wasn’t doing it the right way, that his skill set was alien.

This year’s success stories are finally giving proof in bulk that these men are simply quarterbacks. There is no need for a caveat, no need for an asterisk, no need for a microaggression-driven remark that downplays the ability for these men to play such an esteemed position in sports.

Hall of Famers Fran Tarkenton, John Elway, and Steve Young were white quarterbacks who also were solid running with the ball. But their running was out of necessity, out of needing to escape the men paid a mighty dollar to squash them at every turn. All three were successful in retaining their quarterback lens without losing marks simply for being able to run. Their ability to run was seen as just a part of their game and not the central piece of their success. 

This is the same respect the black quarterback has sought. 

It wasn’t until Cunningham was a pure pocket passer with Minnesota that he gained the recognition he deserved. Before then, he was simply a running quarterback. Successful, yes, but an anomaly. Williams won a title, McNair went to a Super Bowl, and Moon made his mark on the record books. These successes were spread apart. There were the short-lived reigns of guys like Aaron Brooks, Jeff Blake, and current quarterbacks like Cam Newton. But never has the NFL seen so many quarterbacks of the darker hue dominating at the same time for successful teams. 

Patrick Mahomes #15 of the Kansas City Chiefs scrambles to the sidelines

David Eulitt via Getty Images

Aside from Brees and Tom Brady, there is an argument that the best quarterbacks this season were all black. At no other point in the history of the league could that statement be uttered. And they are doing it by quarterbacking. Pure and simple. They are airing it out and making plays like all the other quarterbacks before them. Of course, guys like Jackson and Wilson will utilize their legs more. Jackson has taken the term “dual-threat quarterback” and made it his copyright. But he has been an efficient, accurate passer to go along with his world-class athletic ability. 

He is what video games have always wanted. 

Jackson was asked by a reporter before his draft if he would consider changing positions. He politely responded by telling the reporter that he is a quarterback and that is the position he is looking to play. His character allowed for the politeness. His competitiveness showed in a smile. It gave the impression he knew the question was coming but he still was tired of having to answer it. For he has always had to answer it. And this season, he has answered it emphatically.

And unlike his forefathers at the position, he has help answering. A fraternity of fellow black quarterbacks riding on the backs of Williams, Moon, Cunningham, McNair, Vick, and others. They continue to reshape the narrative around what it means to be black under center. A narrative that seemed to only admit a couple at a time. But this moment now is different. It is shared, it is monumental, it is leaguewide. 

And it looks like it is here to stay.