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Year of the Black QB

‘I want those moments’: Don’t forget about Russell Wilson in historic MVP race

In the Year of the Black Quarterback, Seattle’s superstar has never been better

RENTON, Wash. — We’re witnessing something new in the competition for the NFL’s top individual award, and it appears the smart move would be to bet on black.

Seattle Seahawks superstar Russell Wilson is closely pursuing Baltimore Ravens second-year phenom Lamar Jackson, with the race far from finished. The quarterbacks’ standing as the consensus front-runners for the Associated Press NFL Most Valuable Player Award — an honor bestowed on only three other African American passers in the game’s history — is the defining event throughout the Year of the Black Quarterback.

Now in his eighth season, Wilson has never been better during an outstanding run that, ultimately, will result in his enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Of course, the punctuation of Wilson’s career is a matter for another day. The five-time Pro Bowler is still adding to his ledger, and he gets another opportunity to strengthen his MVP candidacy against the Minnesota Vikings on Monday Night Football. Wilson always welcomes a high-profile showcase to potentially reinforce where he ranks among the game’s elite.

“Every player wants to be recognized as the best,” the Super Bowl winner told The Undefeated at Seattle’s team headquarters. “If it’s not my goal, what am I out here for?”

Ask NFL executives, coaches and players, and many will tell you that Wilson and, surprisingly, Jackson have set the standard at the game’s most important position. Through the first eight games, Wilson held the pole position for the MVP award, joining New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees as the only signal-callers since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger to have at least 17 touchdown passes with one or fewer interceptions to that point.

With five games left to play, Wilson already has had more signature moments this season than many quarterbacks have in their careers.

Seahawks fans are still buzzing about Wilson’s improbable touchdown pass to wide receiver Tyler Lockett in a 30-29 Week 5 victory over the Los Angeles Rams. During Week 9 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Wilson became the first Seahawks quarterback with 350 passing yards, five touchdown passes and no interceptions, capping a 40-34 win in overtime with a 10-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jacob Hollister. Then in a Week 10 showdown with the then-undefeated San Francisco 49ers, Seattle’s NFC West division rival, Wilson rebounded from throwing an interception on the first possession of overtime and led another game-winning drive. Amid a playoff atmosphere, Seattle completed a stirring 27-24 road win.

Wilson leads the league with five game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime, according to research by ESPN’s Stats & Information. For as long as he can remember, Wilson always wanted to be that guy.

“Some of my favorite athletes have always been great at the end of the game and in those moments,” Wilson said. “Not everything is always going to go perfect, it’s not always going to go the way you want, but more times than not it’s going to. I believe that. I remember watching certain players and thinking, ‘I want to be like that.’

“Guys like Derek Jeter, when he’d come up to the plate late in the game. Michael Jordan, with the ball in his hands and the shot clock winding down … just wanting to be clutch in certain moments. Throwing the game-winning pass, getting us into field-goal range or whatever it may be, I want those moments. That’s the reason why I play this game: to win.”

Wilson’s efforts have been the biggest single factor in Seattle contending for both the NFC West title and the best record in the conference. Seattle (9-2) trails San Francisco (10-2) both by a game in the standings and for the NFC’s top mark (New Orleans is 10-2). The Seahawks and 49ers close the regular season in Seattle. Barring an unforeseen collapse, the Seahawks will reach the postseason for the seventh time in Wilson’s eight seasons. With a .683 career winning percentage, Wilson ranks second among active quarterbacks to Tom Brady of the New England Patriots and seventh all-time in the Super Bowl era.

At this point, nothing Wilson does surprises Seattle head coach Pete Carroll, who had a major part in the decision to pick the supposedly undersized Wilson in the third round of the 2012 draft. Since then, Carroll has watched Wilson develop into a future Hall of Famer, steadily shouldering more each season while becoming the franchise’s foundation.

Earlier in his career, Wilson had a supporting role on a team that relied on its stellar defense and “Legion of Boom” secondary. These days, the Seahawks’ motto is, “In Russ We Trust.” For Seattle, Carroll said, things couldn’t have worked out better.

“His consistency has been marvelous. He’s just on the top of his game,” Carroll said. “Russell is in command of everything. He can run the whole show. He can call the protections, change the runs, change the formations … do anything. He’s on. And this is the best he has been at that. It’s a product of being in total command.”

The fact that Wilson has been so good yet isn’t even widely considered to still be leading the MVP race explains all you need to know about the season Jackson is having. Simply put, Jackson is the talk of the NFL.

Both dazzling as a runner and a much more effective passer than many league decision-makers envisioned, Jackson has emerged as the game’s top big-play threat. With 25 touchdown passes, Jackson leads Wilson by one for the league lead.

In Week 7 at Seattle, Jackson rushed for 116 yards and a touchdown and passed for 143 yards to lead Baltimore to a 30-16 win. Wilson would get a rematch this season only if the Ravens and Seahawks meet in the Super Bowl. Obviously, that would be fine with Wilson, who left the field in October highly impressed by his counterpart.

“It’s great when you see guys who you root for and you’ve watched in college, or guys who you’ve played against and guys who you’ve gotten to know, play great,” Wilson said. “I don’t look at it like I want other guys to [fail]. I don’t think that way. Now, when we’re playing each other … you want to be the one to win the game. And as the level of competition continues to rise, I don’t fear it. I look forward to it.”

In the Seahawks’ locker room, there’s no doubt about that.

“Nothing he does surprises me,” left tackle Duane Brown said. “He’s the ultimate professional. He’s the model of consistency. When I was with Houston, I always admired him from afar. Having the chance to play with him, you get to see why he’s so successful.

“He’s more prepared than everybody. He takes great care of himself. And he’s just the ultimate competitor. When he’s in the game, we always feel we have a chance, no matter what’s going on, and we’ve been in a lot of tight ballgames this year. We just never lose faith because we have him under center and he can make some things happen.”

If either Wilson or Jackson is selected as the AP MVP, it would mark the first time in the history of the award, which was first presented in 1957, that black quarterbacks have been chosen in consecutive seasons. Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes won last season. Steve McNair was the first African American to win, sharing the award with Peyton Manning in 2003. Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers won in 2015.

That’s a club Wilson is eager to join.

“I want to be one of the best quarterbacks to ever play this game, so it’s a good thing to be mentioned in that category,” he said. “Obviously, it means I’m doing something right.”

For a long time now, Wilson has shined. It’s just that this is a groundbreaking year for black quarterbacks, and Wilson is a big reason that they’re changing the game.

Jason Reid is the senior NFL writer at The Undefeated. He enjoys watching sports, especially any games involving his son and daughter.