Year of the Black QB

Lamar Jackson was a ‘vessel for joy’ in 2019

As the Year of the Black Quarterback draws to an end, we celebrate the soon to be MVP at the center of it

Before we debate anything about the future of Lamar Jackson, before we hand a microphone to his haters or his supporters, before we ponder the career arc of the game’s most polarizing player, let’s begin with this: In 2019, Lamar Jackson was a vessel for joy.

When we talk about football, we tend to focus on strategy and strength, tactics and their execution. But none of that is what makes the sport fun. Excitement and emotion and joy are the reasons we’re addicted to this sport. And no player in the NFL this year gave us more of that than Jackson.

Take Week 15, when the Baltimore Ravens took on the New York Jets on a Thursday night. Both teams look sluggish as they square off on short rest, but M&T Bank Stadium is humming with energy. Earlier in the game, Jackson broke the single-season rushing record for a quarterback. But at this moment, it’s the magic of his right arm, not his legs, that has a hold of us.

Woody: Ravens need another piece on the outside to help Jackson.

You can say a lot about the way Jackson throws a football — that it’s unorthodox, that his mechanics are inconsistent, that we still have questions about his arm strength, especially on deep throws outside the numbers. But what isn’t debatable is how much fun it is to watch. Jackson is an artist, not a machine, and even when it goes awry there is something beautiful about watching him attempt to paint a canvas, changing the angle of his release from play to play, finding creases and windows in defenses that only he can anticipate.

Early in the second quarter, with the Ravens on the Jets’ 1-yard line, Jackson tosses a touchdown to tight end Mark Andrews. On the surface, there isn’t a lot remarkable about the throw; Jackson fakes a handoff, rolls to his left and flicks his wrist, zipping the ball over the outstretched arm of a defender. Andrews bobbles it briefly before cradling the ball in his large hands as he tumbles to the turf. But both players are miked up, courtesy of NFL Films. And what happens next, heard in that audio, is a good summary of why 2019 felt so special in Baltimore.

Andrews, who with that catch set a team mark for touchdown receptions by a tight end, jumps to his feet to celebrate as Jackson lets out a euphoric yell. Andrews starts bouncing toward the sideline, leaving the football behind, only to be met by Jackson, who shoves the ball back into his tight end’s chest.

“Hey!” Jackson yells. “You keep that! It’s a damn record, baby!”

“I love you, brother,” Andrews says.

The NFL is a business, we’re so often told. It’s also a sport of gladiators. It’s rare for the men who play it to shower one another with love, with open declarations of affection. But it was not rare in Baltimore this season. All year, you could hear snippets of the phrase, in the Ravens locker room and in the huddle: Lamar Jackson was such fun to play with, he made everyone a little emotional.

“I love you, dawg,” running back Mark Ingram calls out to Jackson in the same game, right after the quarterback breaks Michael Vick’s rushing record.

“I love you too!” Jackson replies.

You might view this love fest as corny, or a pointless anecdote to a season that ended without a Super Bowl. But you’d be wrong, according to numerous people within the organization. Jackson’s magnetism made the love in the locker room infectious, and that magnetism is going to set the Ravens up for success for years to come. And if you had to attribute Jackson’s positive effect on this locker room to one thing, it would be his willingness to celebrate everyone else’s successes ahead of his own.

Baltimore Ravens tight end Mark Andrews catches a touchdown while being defended by New York Jets linebacker Neville Hewitt.

Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

“He preaches all the time, all he cares about is winning games,” Andrews said. “He doesn’t care about the MVP. People say that, but he truly means it. He’s really special. He does so much for us. We’re all just grateful to play with him, to learn from him and grow with him.”

There are so many different ways to discuss Jackson’s 2019 season — it is why he’s the perfect coda to the issues raised this year in The Undefeated’s Year of the Black Quarterback series.

He made everyone who insisted he couldn’t throw the ball look foolish by leading the NFL this season in touchdown passes (36) and QBR (81.9). He handed those same critics new ammunition by throwing two wobbly interceptions in the playoffs. He led the Ravens to their best record in franchise history (14-2), becoming the only player in NFL history to rush for 1,000 yards and pass for 3,000. He played, arguably, his worst game of the season in the Ravens’ 28-12 loss to the Tennessee Titans in the AFC divisional playoff game.

He’s 23 years old and will almost certainly become the youngest MVP since Jim Brown after the NFL Honors ceremony on Saturday. It feels like, in the past 12 months, everything has changed about the way we view Jackson, and also that for some people, nothing has changed. When Dan Marino won the MVP award in his second season, it was a coronation — an acknowledgement of the fact that this quarterback would be atop the NFL for years to come. With Jackson, we’ll go into next season still debating whether he is the future of the sport, or whether he’s one hit away from becoming the next Robert Griffin III.

That is the burden he is likely to face for the rest of his career. OK, Lamar, you were brilliant? You proved you were a quarterback, not just an athlete? Let’s see if you can do it again. In the playoffs. In the Super Bowl. In your 30s. When your quickness fades and your breakaway speed disappears.

For the record: It’s OK to criticize him. You’re allowed to believe Lamar Jackson will not succeed long term as an NFL quarterback. That in and of itself does not have to be about race, despite what some of the more performative hot-take artists claim on social media. When the Titans upset the Ravens in the divisional playoffs, those who had been quietly rooting for Jackson to fail burst from hibernation with gusto and vigor, hungry to remind us they knew all along he was not a real quarterback.

In many ways, this is not uncommon. The duality of stardom, particularly at the quarterback position, is such that considerable praise is often trailed by thunderous criticism. This was true of Peyton Manning, Steve Young, Brett Favre, Vick and a dozen other quarterbacks who experienced playoff disappointment early in their careers. And Jackson, more than most, seems to grasp this. He does not want anyone’s sympathy. He broadcast this sentiment on his chest during countless news conferences this year, wearing a T-shirt intending to send a message meant for anyone who might praise him, or make excuses for him. It became, over time, an anthem for the Ravens.

Nobody Cares. Work Harder.

“I’m not the best, I’m not the greatest,” Jackson said this week before he won an award for being the best offensive player at a showcase of the NFL’s best players. “I’m going into my third year, and I’m trying to get somewhere. I’m trying to get to the Super Bowl. So I gotta work on everything.”

There is commentary, however, that has accompanied Jackson’s rise that remains frustrating to many of his teammates, particularly his African American teammates. Black quarterbacks carry the burden of previous disappointments who played their position and share their skin tone in ways white quarterbacks never will. If you are skeptical of that fact, ask yourself this: When is the last time you heard someone suggest Mitchell Trubisky is certain to be a bust because Jake Locker or Blaine Gabbert was a bust? Yet invoke Jackson’s name and comparisons to Vince Young, Robert Griffin III and Vick — particularly their shortcomings — are inevitable.

“There is always a stigma about black quarterbacks and how they’re treated and viewed in the media and by front-office personnel,” said Ingram, one of Jackson’s closest friends. “That’s why [Jackson] is here, when you think about it. That’s why he lasted to the 32nd pick in the draft. People looked at him and assumed he wouldn’t pan out as a quarterback. Black quarterbacks fight that all the time, with people trying to change them to receivers. At the end of the day, you don’t cry about it, all you do is go to work. And you surround yourself with people who will support you.”

Lamar Jackson (left) hands the ball off to Baltimore Ravens running back Mark Ingram.

Michael Workman/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

For Ingram, putting in the work meant more than just mentoring Jackson behind the scenes. It meant going on the offensive, becoming the hype man for an MVP campaign that produced one of the year’s best moments: Ingram standing at the podium after a victory over the Texans in November, challenging anyone who didn’t believe Jackson was the front-runner to “come see me.”

“He represents a lot of people who were counted out, people who were doubted,” Ingram said, when asked why he felt compelled to advocate so strongly for Jackson. “His story ought to be encouraging to the whole population, the whole country.”

Ingram is right about the stigma, but equally true is this: If you don’t want to view him through the prism of race, you don’t have to. You can enjoy him — or be critical of him — purely as a football player. You have the freedom to choose how you want to be a fan, what you want to prioritize, and that can mean that Lamar Jackson can represent an escape for some at the same time that he does a cultural movement for others.

There is an element of privilege to this, of course; it’s easier to see race as a nonissue if you have the luxury of viewing it as a nonissue. Jackson doesn’t have that privilege, and I was reminded of that fact late in the year while reading a letter to the editor that The Baltimore Sun ran, written by a woman named Karen.

Karen, you see, was disappointed in Jackson. She’d read a story detailing how he’d purchased expensive Rolex watches for his offensive line as a thank-you gift for his historic season, and it made her question his judgment.

“So disappointing that in an age where professional athletes are making an insane amount of money, he couldn’t have donated to charities — and done it in the name of his offensive line — then treated his teammates to dinner,” Karen wrote. “Those players can all afford their own Rolexes, so it is very discouraging that someone didn’t give him a little guidance. It just flaunts the amount of money they make and don’t know what to do with. Sorry, Lamar, I am not such a big fan now.”

For several days, the letter was the buzz of Baltimore. The Sun penned multiple stories about it, attempting to clarify for outraged readers that it was a letter to the editor, not a column written by a staff writer. The paper reminded readers that Joe Flacco bought his offensive line ATVs and slushie machines when he was the Ravens quarterback and no one complained he was “flaunting the amount of money” he made.

It was a reminder that there will always be Karens out there. There will always be people whom Jackson makes uncomfortable simply because he upends their expectations of how a quarterback should play, of how he should look or carry himself.

But one thing that has become abundantly clear in his time as a starting quarterback: Jackson couldn’t care less. Even at just 23, he is completely comfortable being exactly who he is. He’s not here to conform. He’s here to recalibrate expectations.

Most NFL quarterbacks take their sweet time getting dressed after a game; it’s a rarely discussed perk of playing the position. A quarterback’s news conference? It isn’t starting until he’s good and ready. The team plane, or team bus, definitely isn’t departing unless the quarterback is ready to board. When you’re a brand, the face of a franchise that’s worth billions, time tends to stand still for you. That’s one reason you see so many quarterbacks dressed in sharply tailored designer suits after games, usually accented by an expensive tie with the perfect Windsor knot. Most quarterbacks are grateful to milk their extra few minutes, eager to look the part.

Jackson isn’t one of those quarterbacks. After the loss to the Titans, he popped into his postgame news conference with sweat from the game still dripping from his forehead. “I don’t really care what people say,” Jackson said. “This is my second year in the league. Many people aren’t able to make it to the playoffs. I got a great team with me. We ain’t really worried about what other people say, we just got to keep going, get ready for next year.”

He answered some hard questions, blamed himself for the defeat, then thanked everyone before retreating to the locker room. Even after losses, Jackson typically takes his time peeling off his pads, slowly stripping away the armor you pray will protect him every time he darts into open space. As he prepares to reenter the real world, he loves chatter and banter, going over plays that went awry, cursing himself for mistakes he made, long after the game has ended and he’s putting on his everyday clothes.

His jeans he wears low on his hips, and around his neck he drapes two gold chains, the diamond-encrusted face of an African wild dog dangling from one of them. When he puts on a hat, which he often does, he’ll usually spin it sideways, the brim pointed anywhere other than the direction he’s going. Jackson’s hair — usually woven tightly into a dozen tiny braids — sticks out in multiple directions from underneath his flat bill.

What occurred to me, watching Jackson as he suited up after the Tennessee game, is not that his fashion choices are abnormal. Having lived in Baltimore for nearly 20 years, I know this look well. Instead, what dawned on me is how refreshing it is that this look never evolved into a thing in our national sports dialogue. The army of Karens out there, watching closely, didn’t bring it up the way they did with Colin Kaepernick in 2012, when a Sporting News columnist wrote that Kaepernick’s tattoos would “make the guys in San Quentin [prison] happy” and that “you don’t want your CEO looking like he just got paroled.”

One day, there may be Armani or Tom Ford suits in Jackson’s future, and if so, it’s easy to picture him embracing high fashion, looking as dapper as Cam Newton or as sharp as Tom Brady. (At his Heisman ceremony, and on draft night, Jackson showed he is more than capable of this look.) But for now, Jackson is clearly most comfortable in T-shirts, a detail that is relevant only in the sense that it’s a window into how young he is, and how comfortable he is with himself.

As the year went on, it became clear that Jackson’s rare blend of talent and humility was resonating with people across the country. When the Ravens played the Rams in Los Angeles this season, Harbaugh estimated there were close to 20,000 purple jerseys in the stands. It was quite the mental adjustment for a team that’s spent most of its existence playing the villain. “Those people probably aren’t Ravens fans,” the coach thought. “Those are Lamar Jackson fans.”

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson is cheered by fans as he exits the field.

Brynn Anderson/AP Photo

Back in Baltimore, Jackson took on even more resonance.

It would be difficult to fully explain the complexities of Baltimore in a series of books, much less a few paragraphs. It is a city that has become easy for opportunists and outsiders to dump on, to dismiss for an unsolvable heroin problem, a problematic police force, corrupt politicians and the nation’s highest murder rate. But doing so dehumanizes a huge percentage of its population in ways that rarely get explored once the cable news segment ends.

There are thousands of kids in Baltimore who look, dress and speak like Jackson, and for the first time in their lives, they are seeing someone play quarterback who feels like a genuine reflection of themselves. He looks like he could have graduated — just a few years ago — from one of the local high schools. Days before the Ravens playoff game against the Titans, Jackson showed up at Miss Carter’s Kitchen, a soul food and seafood takeout restaurant in West Baltimore, looking for banana pudding. He took pictures with the owner and chef, Cia Carter, turned her into a social media celebrity for a day. It was a welcome but subtle rebuke to the thousands of suburbanites who regularly dismiss parts of Baltimore as too dangerous to ever step foot in.

It would be naive to suggest that Jackson playing for the Ravens is going to fix a city that has racial and economic divisions that date back more than a century, but it is not irrelevant either. The lasting impact of representation may be difficult to quantify, but it matters.

“His swagger and demeanor is very relatable to a lot of people,” said Ravens offensive lineman Orlando Brown Jr., who grew up in Baltimore. “It’s a lot like LeBron James for kids who came out of Cleveland or Akron. A lot of kids don’t have their lights on. A lot of kids live in apartments where the only meals they’re eating are the free meals at school. I think Lamar’s story is hopeful to them. His dad didn’t play in the NFL. His mom isn’t the mayor. That doesn’t make him any less of a person. I think that’s why it’s such an important story, for both black culture and American culture.”

When they happen on sports talk radio or in the dark recesses of social media, debates about Jackson’s clothes — or his arm, or his family history — are never really about his play or his fashion. They’re the coded language we use, so often, to talk about race and class in America, the ammo frequently deployed to chip away at the collective joy that accompanies the arrival of a transcendent athlete. There will always be pressure on quarterbacks to assimilate and conform in the world of professional football. (There is a reason the NFL aligns itself so closely with the military.) And there is something satisfying about watching Jackson subtly reject it, both on the field and off.

Whether or not he is the next evolution of the game is hard to say. We won’t know for years, maybe a decade. For the moment, though, it doesn’t matter. He was the game’s most valuable player in 2019. Future skepticism, whatever it’s rooted in, can’t quash the joy of the present.

Kevin Van Valkenburg is a senior writer with ESPN who lives in Baltimore.