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Year of the Black QB

Lamar Jackson vs. Deshaun Watson showed duality of the black QB narrative

On Nov. 17, two top MVP candidates had different results in the same game

BALTIMORE — With just under 10 minutes remaining in the third quarter of the Baltimore Ravens’ home game against the Houston Texans on Sunday, quarterback Lamar Jackson took a snap from the shotgun, faked a handoff to running back Mark Ingram and took off toward the left side of the field. But before Jackson could make it to the edge of his offensive line, Texans linebacker Whitney Mercilus closed in, looking like he had the second-year passer dead to rights.

In a matter of milliseconds, however, a sure sack that would have set up a long third down quickly turned into a freeze-frame, you’re-probably-wondering-how-I-got-here moment. Jackson came to a screeching halt, cut up field, and left Mercilus tumbling at the quarterback’s ankles. Thirty-nine yards and four missed tackles later, Jackson had provided the proverbial nail in the coffin for the visiting Texans.

“It should have been a loss [of yards], and he made one guy miss, cuts back on another, trucks another,” Ingram said at the postgame news conference before introducing Jackson as the “MVP front-runner” (and jovially threatening no one in particular that if they had a problem with that designation to “come see me. I’m right here in B-more, outside The Bank”).

On a day that was advertised as a battle of two of the top-tier quarterbacks in the league — two legit MVP candidates who both also happen to be African American — Jackson outplayed his counterpart, the Texans’ Deshaun Watson, and continued to cement his standing as one-of-one in the NFL. But the game also showed the duality of the black quarterback narrative: that quarterbacks can play at an MVP level and that they can also sometimes have bad outings.

The thinking has often been that black quarterbacks have had to be good all the time to warrant their spot, that they had to avoid bad games or risk justifying stereotypes about them. But in actuality they can have bad games, too, and it shouldn’t be an indictment on their ability to play the position, much like white quarterbacks.

On Nov. 17, Jackson was great (222 passing yards, four touchdowns, 86 rushing yards), inching closer to an MVP award. He used both his arm and legs to march the Ravens’ offense up and down the field at will, showing the command of a grizzled veteran. While Jackson might still not be the best passer in the league, he for sure has a claim on being the best quarterback.

“He’s locked in. He’s so focused on the details,” Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said of Jackson’s improvements as a passer this season. “He has a great mind for it. He sees the field really well. He understands these concepts that we’re putting in, and he just continues to improve.”

Watson, on the other hand, was inaccurate, indecisive and constantly under pressure from the Ravens’ pass rush. As has been an issue since he was drafted 12th overall in the 2017 draft, Watson held onto the ball too long. The seven sacks he took were the seventh time since 2018 that he’s been sacked six-plus times in a game, the most of any quarterback by four games, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That said, his final stat line (18-of-29 passes for 169 yards, zero touchdowns, one interception and one fumble) is on par with bad performances from great quarterbacks, including Tom Brady, Troy Aikman and John Elway.

Watson said one bad performance doesn’t define him.

“You can look at the stats and watch the games,” he said after the game. “I’ve had a lot of success and I’ve had a lot of failures. Every great quarterback has — Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers. … I can go out there Thursday [when the Texans play the Indianapolis Colts] and light it up and everyone’s back talking highly about me.”

Of course, Sunday’s game was always about more than what happened in those 60 minutes on the field. Since coming out of college — like Warren Moon, Donovan McNabb and Cam Newton before them — Jackson and Watson have had to battle the stereotypes that are placed on nearly all black quarterbacks vying to play in the NFL.

Black quarterbacks, as years of research and having functional ear canals both show, are considered to be less intelligent and composed, yet more naturally athletic than their white counterparts. When a black quarterback, such as, say, Michael Vick, succeeds, it’s because he is naturally gifted, but white quarterbacks are intelligent or born hard workers.

Watson, who in college completed more than 67% of his passes and threw for 90 touchdowns while leading Clemson to a national championship title in 2016, was labeled “polarizing” by scouts ahead of the draft because the type of offensive system he ran in college didn’t require him “to make full-field reads,” according to one scouting report. Following a close Texans loss last October, a white Texas high school superintendent wrote on Facebook that “when you need precision decision making you can’t count on a black quarterback.”

Jackson, the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner and 2017 second runner-up, supposedly struggled with his progression reads in college and would have difficulties mastering an NFL offense despite running a pro-style offense at Louisville. Ahead of the 2018 draft, Hall of Fame executive Bill Polian infamously said Jackson didn’t have the accuracy or size to be an NFL quarterback and should instead switch to wide receiver.

The pair were told their unique skill sets would not translate to the NFL. But despite that apprehension, Jackson and Watson have both adapted to and succeeded in the NFL game.

Quarterbacks Lamar Jackson of the Baltimore Ravens and Deshaun Watson of the Houston Texans embrace following the Ravens’ win at M&T Bank Stadium on Nov. 17 in Baltimore.

Rob Carr/Getty Images

There’s an assumption that mobile black quarterbacks such as Jackson and Watson (too gimmicky and easy to devise a game plan against, the thinking goes) don’t and/or can’t throw from the pocket. Yet through Week 10, Watson and Jackson were completing 73% and 67% of the passes they threw from the pocket, respectively, with 13 touchdowns apiece, according to data website Sports Info Solutions. (The pair also trail “speedsters” Rodgers and Kirk Cousins for number of throws outside of the pocket.)

During his rookie season in 2017, Watson threw an NFL-record 19 touchdowns in his first seven starts. This year, Jackson became just the second quarterback in league history to post a perfect passer rating in multiple games in the same season and the first Ravens quarterback to have multiple four-touchdown games in a single season. Watson and Jackson lead two of the most prolific offenses in the league: their offenses ranked third (Baltimore) and 10th (Houston) in Football Outsiders’ DVOA ratings through Week 10. They ranked fourth (Jackson) and fifth (Watson) in QBR, ESPN’s rating system that takes into account all of a quarterback’s contributions in a game. (For what it’s worth, all of the top five leaders in QBR through Week 10 are black: Jackson, Watson, Dak Prescott, Russell Wilson and Patrick Mahomes.)

On Nov. 17, Jackson showed how responsible he is for the Ravens’ division-leading 8-2 record. After starting the game 1-of-6 for 12 yards in the first quarter, Jackson locked in the rest of the way, going 16-of-18 for 210 yards and four touchdowns in the last 2½ quarters he played. He was stoic even when the pocket would collapse, throwing laser after laser to his receivers. He threw sidearm like Mahomes and had exceptional touch on a back shoulder pass that his receiver dropped. He led touchdown drives of 90, 70, 78 and 71 yards, mostly with his arm. Jackson only used his legs when he had to: Of his 86 yards on the ground, 57 came on just two rushes, including the 39-yarder in the third quarter, which was a run-pass option.

When asked after the game if performances like Sunday’s would mean he would have to defend his ability to play in the NFL less and less in the future, Jackson was succinct on past criticism.

“I never tried to defend myself before. I really don’t care what they say,” he said. “My guys know, week in, week out. We’re practicing [and] we see it. …

“I really don’t care what the doubters say.”

After the game, still reeling from one of the worst performances and losses of his career, Watson met Jackson near midfield for a celebratory jersey swap. Two of the NFL’s brightest stars had completely different afternoons at M&T Bank Stadium, but there was a sense they recognized how special it is for them to be at this stage together.

Watson could’ve been angry about the beatdown Jackson had just given his team or how Jackson has surpassed him this season in terms of production and critical acclaim. Instead, he wrote a simple message on the jersey he gave to his opponent:

“Keep going fam! Always Love! MVP.”

Martenzie Johnson is a senior writer for Andscape. His favorite cinematic moment is when Django said, "Y'all want to see somethin?"