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Year of the Black QB

Entering NFL playoffs, black quarterbacks have already won

Lamar Jackson, Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson and Russell Wilson to take center stage in already historic season

The Year of the Black Quarterback has been as groundbreaking as expected, leading to several historic achievements. After thriving in every salient metric during the regular season, these elite passers figure to play an outsize role in defining the discussion during the postseason, too. Across the board, their statistical accomplishments set a new bar.

Of the top seven signal-callers in Total QBR, five are African American. Lamar Jackson, the Baltimore Ravens’ second-year phenom, led the league with a mark of 81.7. Jackson was followed by Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs at 76.4. Dak Prescott of the Dallas Cowboys (70.6, fourth), Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks (69.8, sixth) and Deshaun Watson of the Houston Texans (68.9, seventh) complete the group.

In the regular season, five quarterbacks had games in which they finished with a perfect passer rating of 158.3. Black signal-callers accounted for four of them. Entering the season, black quarterbacks totaled only seven perfect passer ratings, including four in the previous 23 seasons combined.

What’s more, this season Jackson, Mahomes, Prescott, Watson and Wilson, combined for a higher collective yards per attempt (8), touchdowns-to-interceptions ratio (3.8), completion percentage (66%) and passer rating (104) than the career rates of Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. That’s called being in great company.

Warren Moon, the only African American passer enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, is impressed but not surprised. He said this season for black quarterbacks has been in the works for a long time.

“It’s really a product of the fact that we’ve been getting more and more opportunities to play the quarterback position over the years, and you see what happened this year from those opportunities,” Moon said. “The talent has always been there, but you can’t display it if you don’t have the opportunity. It has all come together this year … and they’ll just continue to keep improving because they’re all young quarterbacks. Except for Russell being in his eighth year, the rest of these guys are early in their careers.”

They’re also winners.

Jackson, the overwhelming favorite to win the 2019 Associated Press NFL MVP award, guided the Ravens to their best regular season in franchise history. The team set all-time marks with both a 14-2 record – the league’s best this season – and a 12-game winning streak. Despite missing two games because of a knee injury, Mahomes, the 2018 AP MVP, led the Chiefs to their fourth straight AFC West title. Watson guided the Texans to their second AFC South crown in his three seasons atop the depth chart. For the seventh time in his eight seasons as a starter in Seattle, Wilson, one of two black quarterbacks to win a Super Bowl, led the Seahawks to the playoffs. With 80 victories this season, black quarterbacks broke the previous mark for wins, which was 77, established in 2000.

Black QBs This Season Previous NFL Record
Starts 138 131 (2000)
Wins 80 77 (2000)
Pass Yards 35,423 27,200 (2017)
Pass TD 238 188 (2018)

For Donovan McNabb, watching the quarterbacks at work is a blast. When they’re playing, McNabb, a six-time Pro Bowler who led the Philadelphia Eagles to seven postseason appearances, is in front of a television.

“All of them are great in certain situations of their game,” McNabb said. “Lamar Jackson, a creator, can play from the pocket, can play outside the pocket, but he’s a winner. Deshaun Watson … what he’s able to do with a football team, his leadership, his personality and his production are staying strong. Patrick Mahomes … he’s lightning in a bottle. And at any play, anytime in a game, will be a bomb that could kill you.

Russell Wilson … bona fide winner, can do it all. [He has] proven that he can take you to a Super Bowl. Proven he can take you back to the NFC championship, proven he can take you back to a Super Bowl. And not only that, [he] can win games for you with a two-minute drill. Dak Prescott … underappreciated. He’s proven that he can throw from the pocket and be accurate, can create with his legs. And not only that, he’s intelligent, a smart guy.”

This season, Jackson has been second to none. His long list of accomplishments is downright stunning:

  • Broke Michael Vick’s single-season rushing record for quarterbacks (1,206 yards);
  • First player in NFL history with at least 30 touchdown passes and at least 1,000 yards rushing;
  • First player to lead the NFL in touchdown passes (36) and rush for at least 1,000 yards;
  • Threw a touchdown pass on 9% of his attempts, the second-highest rate in NFL history. In 2004, Manning had a rate of 9.9;
  • Jackson had three games with a 99.5-plus Total QBR, matching the rest of the NFL’s total over the last decade.

If Jackson is selected the AP MVP as expected, he would follow Mahomes, who won last season’s award. Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton won after the 2015 season, meaning three black passers would have earned the honor in the last five seasons. Steve McNair was the first black passer to win, sharing the honor with Manning in 2003. The AP has presented the award since 1957.

At 22 years and 356 days old on the final day of the regular season, Jackson will likely join Jim Brown as the only players selected MVP before turning 23 (Brown won in both 1957 and 1958 before turning 23). And Jackson is on track to become the youngest quarterback to win the award, breaking the mark Dan Marino set in 1984 at 23 years and 93 days old. When you’re in a group that includes Brown and Marino, you’re doing something right in a big way.

Randall Cunningham, a four-time Pro Bowler who was nicknamed “The Ultimate Weapon,” believes we haven’t even seen Jackson’s best yet.

“The thing that I love about him, that really reminds me of myself, is his demeanor,” said Cunningham, who finished second in the 1990 AP NFL MVP voting to Joe Montana.

“When he goes and plays, he’s having fun. And he doesn’t care. He’s going to do what he has to do to win. And he’s disappointed [in] himself when he doesn’t achieve his own goals or satisfaction. … That was my mentality. I just didn’t want people telling me that I had limitations. And he has no limitations.”

With the regular season behind them, Jackson, Mahomes, Watson and Wilson start anew. They’re now in a short race for the game’s ultimate prize. Regardless of how the postseason plays out, they’ve already won.

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

Doug Clawson is a senior researcher in the ESPN Stats & Info group. He loves playing and watching sports, crunching numbers and telling unique stories.