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Year of the Black QB

Forget running quarterback, Lamar Jackson is a winning QB

The Ravens’ young star shows there is more than one way to play the game’s top position

BALTIMORE — One of the most irksome questions coach John Harbaugh has had to answer the last two years is whether his Baltimore Ravens can win a championship with Lamar Jackson’s outside-the-box-style of play.

Obviously, we’ll know that when the Ravens win a title with Jackson at quarterback — and that looks increasingly within the realm of possibility with each week.

Two weeks ago in Seattle, Jackson was dazzling in a victory over Russell Wilson and the Seahawks. On Sunday, in an important midterm exam, Jackson was again the maestro, leading Baltimore to a convincing 37-20 victory over the defending Super Bowl champions and unbeaten New England Patriots. This was a major midterm exam that Jackson and the Ravens aced.

Facing Bill Belichick, a defensive grand master who routinely reduces young quarterbacks to putty, Jackson ran the Ravens’ multifaceted offense to near perfection. He ran for two touchdowns — prancing around left end for one, being dragged on his back into the end zone for a second — and peppered the Patriots defense with a short passing game, completing 17 of 23 passes for 163 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. The numbers that matter are that the Ravens won their fourth straight game and improved to 6-2.

As we watch the highly touted but overhyped Baker Mayfield turn into a dumpster fire, Jackson, 22, continues to exhibit the poise, good humor and humility rare for a young player. “I don’t see him as young,” Harbaugh said after Sunday’s game. “I’ve told you guys: He’s wise beyond his years in a lot of ways. He gets it.”

For Harbaugh, the Lamar Jackson era — experiment, as some media members have called it — goes beyond the numbers. The real experiment has to do with whether an overwhelmingly white sports media can go beyond limiting labels. Can it accept a player like Jackson as a brilliant, multifaceted quarterback who thinks the game as well as he plays it, who beats you with his arm, his legs, and his mind?

Too many in this media put black quarterbacks in an inescapable box, perhaps because they are trapped in their own. The traditional thinking is that a quarterback is either one thing or the other — unless he’s white. To some, a quarterback cannot be cerebral and physically gifted, athletic and intellectual — unless he’s white.

Last week, in the lead-up to Sunday’s game, Belichick was asked during his weekly radio spot about his experiences with quarterbacks like Jackson. Belichick said he had seen many “running quarterbacks” like Jackson and mentioned Tyrod Taylor as an example.

Taylor is no Lamar Jackson, but it was as if any black quarterback potentially was just another face in the crowd — a “natural athlete” who could run all over the place but one who typically lacked the skill and discipline to stay in the pocket and “read” defenses.

As Robert Griffin III told me last week after a Ravens practice: “There is a certain perception that comes with being a dual-threat black quarterback and it starts with not being smart enough,” he said. “How do you dispel that? How do Lamar, Deshaun Watson, Kyler Murray dispel that? You just go out and play ball. But to say that perception of African American duel-threat quarterbacks does not exist is false.”

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (left) talks with New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (right) before the game Nov. 3 in Baltimore. Julio Cortez/AP Photo

AP Photo/Julio Cortez

Jackson has turned the concept of “reading defenses” on its ear. Once meant as the highest form of praise, “reading” was the booby trap for black quarterbacks. The ability to “stand tall” in the pocket, like a cowboy, read and analyze defenses from the pocket was what separated the Tom Bradys, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers and any other talented white quarterback who came along from the “athletic” quarterbacks who ran because they couldn’t read.

Harbaugh has made a point beginning last season to point out Jackson’s intellectual grasp of the nuances of playing quarterback.

After Sunday’s game Harbaugh said of Jackson: “He has a very high football IQ. He also understands the moment. He has poise. He has an amazing ability to take a lot of factors: play clock, play call, personnel, formation, defense that presents, whatever changes that have to be made and just process all of that in that kind of a moment, which is what makes the position at quarterback so difficult.”

Jackson is the NFL’s harbinger of things to come at quarterback: a passer, an elusive sometimes hard-nosed runner, an electrifying playmaker.

Vick and Cunningham showed us the way

Like Michael Vick before him and Randall Cunningham before that, Jackson continues the dramatic transformation at quarterback, one driven in large part by young African American quarterbacks injecting the position with flair, dexterity and style.

There was no road map for Cunningham, who played from 1985- 2001. He was seen as a runner at quarterback, a carnival act, an acrobat playing quarterback. Vick in his prime and before his fall was an electrifying revelation at quarterback, but, he too, was cast as an athlete, a running back with an arm playing quarterback.

In 2002, I had a haunting and as it turned out, prescient, exchange with Vick after he had played an extraordinary game in New Orleans against the Saints.

Watching Vick at the time was like watching Venus and Serena Williams playing tennis and Tiger Woods play golf. They were transforming their sports. He was changing the position of quarterback.

As we walked across a now-empty stadium toward the Atlanta Falcons team bus, Vick said: “I’ve been blessed to do almost whatever I want to do when I’m out on the football field. I’m faster than everybody. I can make almost any type of play. I got the arm to do it. I can throw wherever I want, and I’ve been blessed with a brain and a sense of confidence and will to win like crazy. It’s unbelievable, just unbelievable.”

Then, looking into the future, Vick predicted where he might be in 10 years.

Ultimately, the only numbers that matter are how many championships the Ravens win during the Lamar Jackson era. Sunday’s loss not withstanding, the Patriots under Belichick and Brady’s conventional in-the-pocket quarterbacking have won six Super Bowl titles.

”I won’t be the same kind of player when I get older; I just won’t be. As long as I can do what I can do, I’m going to do it. But when I turn 28 or 30 years old, I’m going to be a pure pocket passer, like Randall Cunningham.”

We know now that Vick’s career did not unfold as he had thought. His star came crashing down five years after our conversation when, at the age of 27, he pleaded guilty to involvement in a dogfighting ring. Vick spent 21 months in federal prison. He resurfaced in 2009 with the Philadelphia Eagles and, as he predicted in 2002, was a different player.

Who knows where Lamar Jackson will be in 10 years?

Ultimately, the only numbers that matter are how many championships the Ravens win during the Lamar Jackson era.

Sunday’s loss not withstanding, the Patriots under Belichick and Brady’s conventional in-the-pocket quarterbacking have won six Super Bowl titles.

What also matters is what Jackson does to change the perception of young African Americans who step into high-profile positions of power and authority, in this case, being a star NFL quarterback.

If Harbaugh and Jackson accomplish nothing else in the next few years, their tenure will be deemed a success if they can force a change in nomenclature surrounding the play of black quarterbacks. Get rid of distinctions, stereotypes and labels that limit, marginalize and underestimate.

Lamar Jackson is a quarterback — not a running quarterback, or an athletic quarterback or a dual-threat quarterback.

He is a winning quarterback. That’s the only distinction that matters.

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer-at-large for Andscape.