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Year of the Black QB

How lucky are we? Jackson, Mahomes shine in a battle of young franchise QBs

In an era when this league can be more exasperating than exuberant, watching Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson try — and get away with — impossible things was a true joy

KANSAS CITY — Eventually, Patrick Mahomes will just make you laugh. His pregame warm-up routine starts with a little ladder drill in which he toes the end zone line and tosses the ball 10 yards, then 20, then 30, until he drops back and steps lightly into a throw that travels a little over 60 yards. Cool, just like that. Then, as he trots toward the 50-yard line for more drills, he playfully zips some sidearm throws across his body as he’s running in the opposite direction … as if it was the most natural maneuver he could imagine. It’s almost offensive.

I have never seen a football become any kind of metaphysical proposition except on the pages of writers desperate to make more of their sport than it is, steering them recklessly into a car accident of cliché. But not here. What Mahomes provokes is the urge to blurt simple things: Did you see that? No way.

On Sunday, the Kansas City Chiefs signal-caller met another young quarterback with improvisational genius of his own in the Baltimore RavensLamar Jackson. The early-season showdown between these two franchise quarterbacks and their 2-0 teams was much hyped. Ravens defensive coordinator Don Martindale said Sept. 19 before the game that it might be “the next Brady-Manning matchup, Ali-Frazier, Magic-Bird.” Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu, only slightly more circumspect, told ESPN on Sept. 20 that Mahomes and Jackson were “generational talents” who “would be a matchup to watch for the next 15 years, hopefully.”

After a morning rain that threatened to play spoiler dissipated, the 24-year-old Mahomes and 22-year-old Jackson delivered on all the expectations in a thrilling 33-28 home win for Mahomes’ Chiefs. There’s something of the dazzling schoolboy in both of them; their play is defined by exuberance. They do things other people can’t do — and they do it casually.

Mahomes, whose near predecessors are probably Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers, is the most talented and reliable multiplatform passer the league has seen. It doesn’t seem to matter what his feet or hips are doing while he is throwing. He throws away from his own momentum, he throws while hopping in the air, he threw an 18-yard touchdown pass on the money to Demarcus Robinson while backpedaling and turning away from his target to avoid a hit. At its heart, disrupting a quarterback is about upsetting his mechanics, making him hurry, not allowing him to set his feet and so on. How do you defend against a quarterback with enough kinesthetic sense to maintain his precision no matter what position his body is in?

Add to that the fact that Chiefs head coach Andy Reid’s offense allows Mahomes and his teammates to slip into a metronomic consistency and you have a nearly unplayable offense. Mahomes went 27-for-37 for 374 yards on Sunday — ridiculously, his 13th straight game with at least 300 passing yards — including a devastating eight-play, 80-yard drive at the end of the third quarter that nearly put the game out of reach.

Nearly. Enter Jackson — a different model from Mahomes, born from the lineage of Randall Cunningham and Michael Vick. The Chiefs’ coaches and defenders gushed last week about how much more proficient Jackson has looked within the Baltimore offense this season compared with his seven starts last year. But then as now, it’s his running that sets him apart. On his first drive alone, Jackson scrambled on consecutive plays for 8 yards and 7 yards on third-and-10 and fourth-and-2. The Chiefs’ defense didn’t know what to do. Jackson himself, on the first scramble, seemed to change his mind a half-dozen times in two seconds, in one moment doing a full pirouette in his own backfield with no tackler in sight.

Jackson attempts, and gets away with, impossible plays. In the second quarter, he juked defensive end Alex Okafor so badly, it felt like the whole of Arrowhead Stadium looked away in vicarious embarrassment. His stat line was respectable if less remarkable than his previous two games: 267 yards passing and a rushing touchdown. But in this game, he will be remembered for his magic in the fourth quarter, when he recorded 148 of his 267 yards passing, including two 20-plus-yard heaves. The first went to Seth Roberts on fourth down, with the Ravens down 17 — while Jackson was falling down with a defender wrapped around his ankles. The second was a cross-body heave downfield to Willie Snead on third-and-17 during a drive that took the Ravens within a score. Acts of pure, desperate, joyous speculation. By the time he scored the Ravens’ last touchdown of the day by scrambling to his right, sidestepping one defender and spinning off another into the end zone as if he found the idea of being tackled mildly insulting, people could be heard laughing in disbelief. Are you kidding? How?

“That’s why he’s special,” Mathieu told USA Today after the game. “Guys like Lamar, Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson, they can make those types of plays where none of us can ever figure out, ‘How did that happen?’ ”

In the end, it wasn’t either quarterback’s ad hoc brilliance that proved decisive — instead, it was a meticulously planned screen pass that Mahomes said the Chiefs had set up last week. The veteran Ravens defense, jumping on a formation they recognized, were sent the wrong way on third-and-9, and the pass out the back door resulted in a 16-yard gain with less than two minutes to go, foreclosing any chance of a Baltimore comeback.

“Lamar’s a special athlete, but luckily we got one too,” Chiefs middle linebacker Anthony Hitchens said after the game. “It’s amazing to watch this. Those guys competed, and that’s what everyone wanted to see.”

It’s impossible to say whether Mahomes and Jackson have 15 years of this in them. (It is hard to imagine Jackson’s Houdini act surviving until he is 37.) But for the sake of this too-often exasperating, tedious league, let’s hope the NFL’s near future is defined by their daring and joy.