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Year of the Black QB

Jacoby Brissett’s skills, patience are impressive as Colts starter

Given the opportunity, QB ‘played really, really well’ for Indianapolis

CARSON, Calif. — A new NFL season unfolded Sunday, and two of the hottest stories to begin a fresh season were Arizona’s Kyler Murray, the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s draft, and Jacoby Brissett, who is replacing Andrew Luck, who retired from football last month. They were stellar, but neither of their teams won.

Arizona was tied by Detroit, despite a valiant comeback effort led by Murray. And despite a similarly valiant effort by Brissett, the Indianapolis Colts lost on the road to Los Angeles. Brissett received high marks.

“I thought Jacoby played really, really well,” Colts head coach Frank Reich said after Sunday’s game. “I can’t remember too many mistakes he made. I can’t remember that many incompletions.”

Brissett completed 21 of 27 passes for 190 yards and two touchdowns. “Even more than that,’’ Reich said, “he was in complete control. He was poised. He knew what he wanted when there was a discussion on the sideline and he made it work. That was a good start for Jacoby.”

The nervousness had been building inside Brissett since late August, when Luck retired and the Colts handed Brissett the team. Much of the media and some fans responded hysterically, compiling a list of quarterbacks to bring in. But what you began to hear from inside the Colts’ locker room was that Brissett was more of a natural leader, a more effusive leader, than the cerebral, somewhat aloof Luck. Luck led more by preparation — spending hours in the film room, studying game plans — than in conversation.

By game time Sunday and even during the course of the game, Brissett said, he felt every imaginable sensation. “You experience every emotion,” he said. But except for one bobbled snap, nerves didn’t show up in the quarterback’s performance.

Down 24-9 at one point in the third quarter, Brissett led a 15-point Colts rally and did so with the ease of a quarterback who’d been a starter for seasons, not days. He threw mostly short, controlled passes. After Sunday’s game, Brissett said completing those short passes took every ounce of discipline he could muster. Receivers were open deep, but the game plan called for patience. On one play, Brissett threw a short pass to T.Y. Hilton that Hilton turned into a touchdown.

“It was great for me to see that because I saw Eric [Ebron] in the back and it’s hard to pass that up. But, the discipline,’’ he said. “Trust in coaching, trust in technique and things will happen.’’

Indianapolis Colts quarterback Jacoby Brissett (center) runs the ball against the Los Angeles Chargers on Sept. 8 at Dignity Health Sports Park in Los Angeles.

Photo by Chris Williams/Icon Sportswire

Brissett then threw a touchdown pass to pull Indianapolis to within two points and fired a pass to Hilton for a two-point conversion to send the game into overtime.

At the end of the day, winning, not coming close, is all that matters in sports. But Brissett’s performance on Sunday was uplifting and heartening for Colts fans who had their hearts broken by Luck’s sudden retirement.

There’s nothing like winning — or, at least, going toe-to-toe with a giant and nearly winning — to stoke hope.

What Colts fans, all fans, should embrace about Brissett, provided he keeps playing well, is that he exemplifies the bedrock of the American dream: taking advantage of an opportunity.

The most poignant line of the afternoon came from Lamar Jackson, the Baltimore Ravens’ quarterback. Jackson threw for five touchdowns and 324 yards in a 59-10 rout of the Miami Dolphins. After the game, Jackson, taking a shot at those in the media who said he was one-dimensional, could not pass, could only run, said, “Not bad for a running back.”

I have observed and covered the evolution of the African American quarterback for five decades. The most consistent narrative in the evolution has been the pursuit of the level playing field, the quest for opportunity. Joe Gilliam once put it crudely, but poignantly, to me when he said, “There’s a chance and there’s a n—–‘s chance” for black quarterbacks.

The latter, for black quarterbacks of the late 1950s through the ’80s, meant having to deal with prejudice, stereotypes, short leashes and quick hooks. In 1968, Marlin Briscoe became the first black quarterback to start a game in a modern pro football league. Briscoe started five games and was released after the season.

James Harris became the first black quarterback to start a regular-season game when he opened the season for Buffalo in 1969. That was his last start of the season and as a Bills player. Gilliam won the starting job from Terry Bradshaw in Pittsburgh but eventually lost the job.

Harris told me a number of years ago that he and Gilliam talked quite a bit. ”Joe and I used to always talk when we were playing,” Harris told me. ”We were in the same position, but we saw things a little differently. He felt that the best player should play. My coach had warned me that things weren’t going to be fair and that I had to be better, not just as good. I think Joe was a little surprised, where I sort of expected it.’’

Gilliam fought a ferocious battle with drugs, although he had been clean for three years when he died at age 49.

Warren Moon was undrafted out of the University of Washington, spent years in the Canadian Football League and finally came to Houston in the NFL, where he proved himself and earned his way into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

In 1987, Doug Williams became the first black quarterback to start in and win a Super Bowl. In 2001, Michael Vick was taken first overall in the NFL draft by the Atlanta Falcons.

On Sunday, Jacoby Brissett, making his Colts debut, did everything he could to win the ballgame. Two passes were dropped in the end zone, and one of the NFL’s most reliable kickers missed a pair of field goals and an extra point.

Then in overtime, Brissett had to watch helplessly as San Diego won the coin flip and drove for the winning score. The Colts offense never took the field.

“Unfortunately, we didn’t get that opportunity,” he said.

Brissett now has the opportunity of a lifetime, an opportunity generations of black quarterbacks would have died for. Some probably did.

He did well on Sunday with phase one of the opportunity.

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of “Forty Million Dollar Slaves,” is a writer-at-large for The Undefeated. Contact him at william.rhoden@espn.com.