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Mahomes, Prescott, Wilson and now Jackson are not just ‘dual-threat’ QBs

Great NFL quarterbacks vary in style and approach, but it comes down to winning

From the beginning of the season, five black quarterbacks have started in the NFL: Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City, Dak Prescott in Dallas, Deshaun Watson in Houston, Cam Newton in North Carolina and Russell Wilson in Seattle.

They emerged from last weekend’s games having solid (Prescott) to spectacular (Mahomes) years. And each leads a team still in playoff contention, although after losing four games in a row, Newton’s Carolina Panthers maintain a hold on playoff contention by a claw.

Furthermore, they play NFL football with the swagger, a sepia-toned charisma that Barack Obama took to the White House, much to the dismay of some.

Still, there should be a calendar with them on it. After all, their time has come. And the NFL game has come to them too.

For decades, starting and star quarterbacks in the NFL presented an intoxicating hero in the American imagination: part Hollywood gunslinger and part fighter pilot. And, more recently, part actuary, assessing the risks and rewards of plays with 300-pound defensive linemen closing in on them. That was when the American culture refused to believe African-American men could or should embody that star power, just as much as America rejected the possibility of black leadership in other aspects of our society.

Consequently, for decades, the NFL didn’t allow black athletes to play quarterback. Indeed, black quarterbacks like Grambling’s James Harris (1969) and Doug Williams (1978) came into the league as a kind of experiment, the way Jackie Robinson had, when he broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1947. And, like Jackie’s success in baseball, the success of black NFL quarterbacks — Harris (Pro Bowl MVP in 1974), Williams (Super Bowl MVP in 1988) to Warren Moon, the first black quarterback in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2006 — would have significance beyond the games they played.

Even in recent years, the term “dual-threat” (running and passing) has been used as a barrier in the final goal-line stand between black athletes and equal access to the NFL quarterback position, its glory and all its risks and rewards. To some, running was evidence that quarterbacks, especially black quarterbacks, weren’t smart enough to decide when to pass. That’s an idea that undergirds some of the resistance to Lamar Jackson. The former Heisman Trophy winner at Louisville, Jackson is a brilliant runner who’s trying to prove how consistent a threat he can be as a passer. Injury to Joe Flacco has given Jackson a chance to start the last three games for the Baltimore Ravens, all victories.

Nevertheless, white quarterbacks, including Roger Staubach of the Cowboys, John Elway of the Denver Broncos and Steve Young of the San Francisco 49ers, have run and passed their teams to NFL championship seasons.

Still, for a time, “dual-threat,” “pro-style” and “dropback” were just another way of designating a quarterback as being black or white, less likely to succeed, more likely to succeed.

But that’s no longer true. Today, white dual-threat (or at least mobile) NFL quarterbacks abound, from Cleveland rookie Baker Mayfield to veterans such as Ryan Fitzpatrick, the Tampa-Bay Buccaneers’ backup to Jameis Winston. Winston has weathered poor play and being benched to regain his starting position. He’s led his team to victory in his last two starts.

Like their black counterparts, the white dual-threat quarterbacks, players who run and pass well, make their teams and their games more fun to watch. Because of dual-threat quarterbacks, more NFL teams can play the fast-break football that makes the Football Bowl Subdivision college game so entertaining.

Nevertheless, the NFL boasts dropback passers who are putting up all-time career passing stats, including Tom Brady of the New England Patriots, Philip Rivers of the Los Angeles Chargers and Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints. And, at 33, Matt Ryan of the Atlanta Falcons appears to be in his prime. The Falcons’ dropback passer came out of Sunday’s loss against the Baltimore Ravens third in the league in passing yards behind Ben Roethlisberger of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Mahomes. For the season, Ryan has run the ball 24 times, just seven more times than Jackson did for the Ravens on Sunday.

The time of the NFL dropback passer has not passed. Both the dual-threat quarterbacks and the dropback passers can play the high-scoring game the current NFL demands.

Indeed, when it comes to winning in today’s NFL, all kinds of quarterbacks, with all kinds of styles and backgrounds, can succeed. That is a lesson the NFL is learning, belatedly and sometimes reluctantly. It is a lesson for us all.

A graduate of Hampton University, Jeff Rivers worked for Ebony, HBO and three daily newspapers, winning multiple awards for his columns. Jeff and his wife live in New Jersey and have two children, a son Marc and a daughter Lauren.