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Is the black quarterback revolution going to last?

The NFL’s longtime leading men — the ones with the pizza commercials and the Super Bowl rings, whose names adorn the league’s most-sold jerseys — showed their mortality this season in ways that were uncomfortable to watch.

Tom Brady and Drew Brees didn’t make it through the first round of the playoffs. Aaron Rodgers missed the Super Bowl, too, by losing in a later round. Eli Manning retired, usurped as the New York Giants’ leader after 16 years. Ben Roethlisberger played like he should be considering it, too.

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Together they helmed 12 of the last 18 Super Bowl-winning teams. And all are pushing 40 years old or past it.

Yet their aging out of the game leaves no void, as these playoffs have highlighted the rise of quarterbacks whose savvy and daring have stolen our attention: Russell Wilson’s scramble to survive the Philadelphia Eagles, Patrick Mahomes’ bionic touchdown run for the Kansas City Chiefs against the Tennessee Titans, Deshaun Watson’s magical escape from a sack to help the Houston Texans beat the Buffalo Bills. Everything that Lamar Jackson did.

These quarterbacks are creating our new collective football memories. They are the ones from whom we dare not look away — and they are each black, leading at a position that historically has been off-limits to any man who was not white.

The smattering of black men who have risen to and excelled at the quarterback position were subject to stereotypes, slurs and targeting on the field. Those opportunities seemed to be parceled by a “one at a time” approach that heaped the burden of progress on whichever black quarterback broke through in a given era. Doug Williams. Warren Moon. Randall Cunningham. Steve McNair. Donovan McNabb. Michael Vick. Colin Kaepernick.

Jackson was expected to win the league’s Most Valuable Player Award this weekend — only the third time a black quarterback would have done so outright. The win, following last year’s winner, Mahomes, would make this the first time in the league’s 100-year history that black quarterbacks had won in back-to-back years.

“I mean, it shows you how the game has evolved and how no matter where you come from, you can go out there and play the position you want to play and have success doing it, and you don’t have to do it in a certain way,” Mahomes said in an interview Thursday, just days before his Chiefs were to take on the San Francisco 49ers in the Super Bowl.

This time around, there is enough of a plurality to point to a pervasive change at the position, and not just among the game’s elite. In 2019, 12 black quarterbacks started NFL games, one shy of the watermark reached in five seasons in the early 2000s. But this season’s quarterbacks started a record 138 games, continuing an upward trend of black quarterbacks who sustain rather than spot-fill the role for franchises.

Reversing a long history of being denied the chance to play, black quarterbacks are the most vital change agents of this era of football. But for as much as they may be celebrated, their arrival has stirred a lot of questions not easily answered. The most pressing: If this is a watershed moment in NFL history, what can we expect on the other side of change?

The league, and football in general, has a long history of stacking — funneling players to positions based on racial stereotypes — that kept black talent away from “thinking” positions like middle linebacker and center. Essential to the game itself and to its lore, the quarterback position has been the last role unlocked for black players, who make up 70% of the NFL’s labor force, for much the same reason that the other positions finally were: The game had to embrace elite players who are black or face stagnation.

That welcoming has upended stereotypes about black quarterbacks being naturally superior athletes preferable only for their call-carrying ability and not intellectually strategic game managers.

“This idea that someone doesn’t have the intellectual wherewithal to play the position because of their race has fallen by the wayside, and that’s a positive thing,” said Charles Ross, professor of African American studies at the University of Mississippi and author of “Outside the Lines: African Americans and the Integration of the National Football League.”

Each member of this current generational wave has proved himself a pocket passer. But many also run, a lot, and the success of such run-pass offenses means that quarterbacks of this era are often running by design, even if the result of those runs seems serendipitous.

“The teams are looking for the drop-pass passer, quick out of their hands,” said James Harris, the first black quarterback to start in and win an NFL playoff game. “The rule changes to protect the quarterback more from hits; that philosophy has changed to allow more quarterbacks with mobility.”

Harris — like his protégé, Williams, the former Washington Redskins player who was the first black quarterback to win a Super Bowl — is one of the predecessors who emerged without the benefit of a rising tide, facing loaded questions about whether he would be better suited for another position. Like Williams and Harris before him, Jackson, too, faced pressure to switch positions before he went pro, which he hinted at in September when, after throwing five touchdowns, he quipped, “Not bad for a running back.”

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Whether this generation compels other franchises to copy this new quarterback design will be seen soon enough — in the NFL draft in April.

The trajectories of two elder statesmen — Wilson and Cam Newton, who led their teams to Super Bowls with thrilling displays of accuracy and contact-busting runs — force us, however, to reckon with the limits of this sea change.

After the 2014 season, Wilson became only the second black quarterback to win a Super Bowl, 27 years after Williams’ landmark win. Wilson, at 31, is now the undisputed leader of the Seattle Seahawks whose authority derived at least in part from his game-defining runs when there were no passing options left.

But Newton, 30, the first black quarterback to outright win the league’s Most Valuable Player Award — when he led the league in touchdown percentage and game-winning drives in the 2015 season — faces a rebuild in Carolina, an uncertain rehab for his injured left foot and a contract that expires this year. After nine seasons, some pundits have questioned whether Newton’s team wouldn’t be in better hands with its second-year undrafted quarterback, Kyle Allen.

Still, the true indication of whether this is an era-defining shift won’t just be determined by their fates or whether the new generation gives rise to copycats.

It will hinge on if this cohort retains the halo effect of having been elite quarterbacks, the most iconic position in all of American sports; if they will forge a different path from the one Williams faced in Washington. Two years after his Super Bowl win, he was replaced by a middling backup and, with no offers from another team, retired after the 1989 season.

It will presumably take many years to learn if there will be golden opportunities on and off the field like a broadcast booth spot instantly yielded to Dak Prescott of the Dallas Cowboys the moment he retires, as happened to his brethren Don Meredith, Troy Aikman and Tony Romo. In less time, we’ll see if, at a career crossroads, Newton will be compared to, say, Alex Smith, who received second and third shots at being a franchise leader after being pushed out in San Francisco.

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In a copycat league, where assistants are interviewed for head coaching slots based on mere proximity to trendsetters, we are learning that coaching a phenomenally successful black quarterback is not a guarantee of the career boost that white coordinators have traditionally received.

For as much as Mahomes has come to define the quarterback position and stands at the vanguard of the new era, his offensive coordinator, Eric Bieniemy, who is black, was passed over for a head coaching position after being interviewed by three different teams during this playoff run. Despite guiding the league’s MVP and being the latest plum from the Andy Reid coaching tree, Bieniemy, with his record of résumé-builders, did not get a head coaching opportunity as similarly and less qualified white men regularly do.

If this generation’s brilliance is more than just a moment of exceptionalism, the ripple effect should extend to the rank and file this offseason. Indianapolis Colts leadership is shopping the contract of Jacoby Brissett, who replaced Andrew Luck after his shocking retirement. Teddy Bridgewater, who won five consecutive games in New Orleans as Brees’ fill-in and previously was a Pro Bowl selection in Minnesota, is unsigned.

By definition it is only a watershed moment if the effect is widespread and persistent — systemic, one might say. That generational progress, tenuous and subject to retrenching, is best viewed from distance.

c.2020 The New York Times Company

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