Days before Ravens rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson made his first NFL start against the Cincinnati Bengals in 2018, he received a phone call from Washington Redskins great Doug Williams.
The former quarterback wanted to provide words of encouragement for Jackson, who was set to become the next in a line of black quarterbacks to start in the NFL.
“As a young, African-American quarterback, sometimes the road might be a little more slippery for him than for other people,” said Williams, senior vice president of player personnel for the Redskins who, in 1988, became the first black quarterback to play in and win a Super Bowl. “The call was basically to tell him, ‘Don’t look back. Just keep going forward.’ And I think that’s what he’s done.”
Jackson, starting for an injured Joe Flacco, led the Ravens to a 24-21 victory, beginning a stretch of six wins in the last seven games as the Ravens won the AFC North for the first time since 2012 and reached the playoffs for the first time since 2015.
After a disastrous performance in a wild-card round loss to the Los Angeles Chargers, he returned in his second season a vastly improved player, leading the Ravens to the league’s best record (14-2) and the AFC’s top seed while becoming the presumptive NFL Most Valuable Player.
Jackson headlines a list of young, black quarterbacks — many of whom are producing from inside and outside the pocket — who have had standout seasons as the NFL celebrates its 100th anniversary.
Their achievements this season merit praise, but also serve as a stark reminder of how far black quarterbacks have come and a time when they were overlooked as signal-callers.
Of the league’s leaders this season in QBR, ESPN’s all-encompassing metric of quarterback play, five of the top 10 are black. Four of the six quarterbacks named to the 2020 Pro Bowl are black: Jackson, Deshaun Watson, Patrick Mahomes and Russell Wilson. Jackson, Watson and Mahomes each led their teams to a division title.
Heading into the 2018 draft, Jackson was one of the more widely scrutinized prospects in recent memory. At Louisville, Jackson dazzled the college football world with his arm and legs, and in 2016 became the youngest player to win the Heisman Trophy.
But as he approached the NFL scouting combine and the draft, questions arose about his ability to transition to the pro level. Draft analysts and scouts questioned his mechanics, his style of play as a runner and whether he could be an accurate passer.
Some, most notably former NFL executive Bill Polian, suggested Jackson would be better suited switching to wide receiver, or another skill position that could make use of his rare athletic ability. Earlier this season, Polian acknowledged fault in his assessment of Jackson, telling USA Today Sports he “used the old, traditional quarterback standard with him.”
Still, the commentary was eerily similar to a time when biases and stereotypes prevented qualified black quarterbacks from getting a fair shot in the NFL. Marlin Briscoe, after starring as a quarterback at Nebraska-Omaha, was drafted in the 14th round of the 1968 AFL draft and forced to switch to cornerback with the Denver Broncos.
Briscoe, whose dual-threat capabilities Williams said most reminded him of Jackson, eventually got his opportunity at quarterback as a rookie after an injury, becoming the first black quarterback to start in the modern era of American professional football.
In the NFL, Baltimore Colts running back George Taliaferro, who starred at multiple positions, became the first black player to start at quarterback in 1953.
Although Briscoe set records in 1968, he wasn’t considered for the starting job at the beginning of the next season. After requesting his release from the team, Briscoe never played quarterback again but won two Super Bowls as a wide receiver for the Miami Dolphins.
Briscoe’s football journey was similar to many black players who had aspirations of playing quarterback. As the NFL demographics shifted and the league became predominantly black, African-American faces were missing at the game’s most important position.
Former NFL executive Louis Riddick said in his time as a pro scout and director of player personnel, these notions were never displayed outwardly, but “we’d be naive to think that some people don’t have those biases.”
“Lamar looks different than Tom Brady. We all can see that,” said Riddick, an ESPN analyst. “And some people will then go even further with that and say, ‘Well, he’s going to be different than Tom Brady in many different ways’ or any other white quarterback.
“His success, though, is showing those people who have those biases, hey, what’s more important to you? Your stale, narrow-minded ways of thinking … or winning football games and having the best players play and utilizing their strength and trying to minimize their weaknesses?”
This season, Jackson has replicated the type of success he saw in college, dismantling arguments that his style of play can’t translate to the highest level of football. Questions still remain about the sustainability of Jackson’s game, and whether a quarterback who runs as often as he does can withstand the bruising hits.
Dating back to his days at Louisville, Jackson has been compared with Michael Vick, who Jackson said he grew up idolizing. The two connected when Jackson was a sophomore at Louisville, and have maintained a relationship. In December, Jackson broke Vick’s record for most rushing yards by a quarterback in a single season.
“Those questions are going to come up naturally because of his style of play, and you don’t see quarterbacks getting hit or running the football the way he does, or the way I did,” said Vick, a Fox Sports analyst. “So those questions are going to come up: Can you protect yourself? Can you sustain? Can you be a more effective passer as opposed to runner?
“With Lamar, for him to continue to play his game, that’s what’s most important. I don’t think him coming in was any added pressure. He had somebody that he can model his game after, and that was me.”
Williams and Riddick lauded the Ravens’ front office, at the time led by former general manager Ozzie Newsome, for having the foresight to pick Jackson, and coach John Harbaugh for fully investing in an offensive system based on Jackson’s unique talents.
Williams said changing mentalities over the years have paved the way for quarterbacks like Jackson to receive an opportunity in the league today.
As Jackson attempts to lead the top-seeded Ravens to their third Super Bowl appearance in franchise history, Vick and Riddick said a championship run would further validate that a player of his mold can be successful in the league and change minds as to the way to build an offense and play the position.
“I think Lamar, along with the success of Russell Wilson, has opened people’s minds now — and even the success of [No. 1 overall draft pick] Kyler Murray so far this year — have opened people’s minds to what does the prototype quarterback look like,” Riddick said.
“He doesn’t have to be 6-4 and stand in the pocket and be that big, strong, statue-in-the-middle-of-your-front-lawn type of thrower. He can take on the shape of many different sizes, many different types of athletic abilities because it’s all proven to be successful so far. And if the Ravens win the Super Bowl this year, it’s really, I think, going to bode well for those who are willing to be open-minded.”
Though Jackson isn’t the first dual-threat quarterback in NFL history, he’s reaffirming that a different style can have success. Not only did he break Vick’s rushing record, but he also led the league with 36 touchdown passes.
According to ESPN’s The Undefeated, black quarterbacks have combined for more starts, wins, touchdown passes and yards in the 2019 regular season than in any other season in NFL history.
“It’s a big deal,” Williams said. “We’re going into the 100th year NFL anniversary. There was a time when people didn’t believe a black quarterback could be in that position because it came along with being able to think and figure out stuff. And we’re in America: Let’s be fair, some people didn’t think that could happen.
“Just because I won the Super Bowl 30-something years ago, or was part of a Super Bowl team, there were guys before me. The James Harrises of the world. Marlin Briscoe was the closest thing to Lamar Jackson there is back in the day. … There’s a lot of guys that today would be playing in the National Football League.”
As shown in his touching sideline conversation with Harbaugh in November — and throughout weekly podium sessions this season — Jackson doesn’t often sit back to ponder the impact his historic season will have on future generations of players.
But before a November matchup with the Texans and Watson, Jackson was asked if he takes pride in seeing the number of black quarterbacks excelling in the league.
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“Yes, that’s incredible. We just have to keep it going,” Jackson said. “We have others coming in, [the] next generation, and years on years coming. We just have to keep it going — keep doing great on the field, off the field, and help our other brothers out.”