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Year of the Black QB

Lamar Jackson delivers more proof the future of NFL quarterbacks is black

His comment — ‘Not bad for a running back’ — reflects how his excellence is often dismissed

Before he stepped into the postgame interview room on Sunday, Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh announced that he wanted to deliver a message from Lamar Jackson, the Ravens’ young star quarterback.

“Just for the record, he told me to say, ‘Not bad for a quarterback.’ ”

On Sunday, Jackson became the only player in NFL history to throw for at least 270 yards and rush for at least 120 yards in the Ravens’ 23-17 victory over Arizona. Last week against Miami, Jackson threw five touchdown passes and made franchise history with its highest passer rating in a 59-10 victory.

After that game, Jackson entered the postgame news conference and said: “Not bad for a running back.”

I often wonder how Jackson would be appraised if he were white and had the same attributes: blazing speed and elusiveness plus a strong arm. He’d likely be embraced, praised and elevated like Baker Mayfield, Cleveland’s impetuous second-year quarterback.

Harbaugh and Jackson are having fun with a sensitive issue, one that seems more vexing for an overwhelmingly white sports media than it is for NFL coaches and executives: What should a quarterback look like?

The emerging answer is that the new generation of NFL quarterbacks is young, mobile, skilled and most likely African American. The old model is giving way to the new, just as the single-wing was replaced by the T formation and innovations such as the floating pocket, the shotgun and now the run-pass option became the rule of the day.

Last season, Jackson rescued the Ravens’ season and electrified crowds when he took over for the ineffective Joe Flacco and led Baltimore to a 6-1 finish to the regular season and a playoff berth. Yet, he was marginalized by some local and national media as a quarterback who could only run, that he was a running back/receiver lining up behind center.

“Running quarterback” is a label, one of many, that generations of black quarterbacks had to overcome in a battle to establish their value. There were lingering assumptions: Black people lacked the intelligence, leadership ability, accuracy and pocket presence to play the position.

Year after year, game after game, every pass became a referendum on the black quarterback’s ability to play a position previously dominated by white men.

Shortly after Harbaugh made the change to Jackson last season, he told me that he was tired of the subtle and not-so-subtle digs at Jackson, digs that ignored his obvious gifts, focused on his so-called limitations and totally ignored his youth.

Jackson is not a member of the old guard. He is part of a dynamic new fraternity that is forcing us to rethink how we look at the quarterback position and those who play it. Yet, the inane questions persist. After Sunday’s game, Harbaugh was asked if he was surprised by Jackson’s speed.

‘’I don’t know. I don’t think about it,” he said. ‘’Am I surprised? No. He’s really fast.’’

After another question about Jackson’s physical attributes, Harbaugh lost patience. “Here’s the thing,” he said. “You make too much out of all of that. Players are football players. Lamar is a football player. He has talents. He has abilities. He’s out there playing the game. He’s applying his gifts. He’s applying his football IQ.”

When it was his turn to answer questions, Jackson was asked if he derived more satisfaction from throwing touchdowns, as he did against Miami, or running, as he did against Arizona.

Jackson said he preferred winning most of all.

“Here’s the thing. You make too much out of all of that. Players are football players. Lamar is a football player. He has talents. He has abilities. He’s out there playing.” – Ravens coach John Harbaugh

Sunday’s game featured a matchup between the youngest black starting quarterbacks in the Super Bowl era. Jackson and Arizona’s Kyler Murray are 22. After Sunday’s game, Murray acknowledged that he and Jackson were part of a new day.

“I think everybody saw what he could do today,” said Murray, who threw for 349 yards. “When you’re versatile back there and you can do multiple things, it makes you dangerous. Being able to throw the ball and run, it helps you out.”

I often wonder how Jackson would be appraised if he were white and had the same attributes: blazing speed and elusiveness plus a strong arm. He’d likely be embraced, praised and elevated like Baker Mayfield, Cleveland’s impetuous second-year quarterback.

Imagine the reaction had Mayfield thrown five touchdowns to open the season and Jackson had thrown the three interceptions and taken a safety. Mayfield would likely be a candidate for governor, while Jackson would face a campaign to have him run out of town.

This speaks to a persistent cultural double standard that places higher value on white achievement and rationalizes black success.

On Sunday, Jackson sealed the game for the Ravens with a perfectly thrown 41-yard pass along the sideline in the fourth quarter. Jackson was asked how he felt that the coaching staff had shown confidence in his ability as a passer to call such a play. Jackson responded: “Coaches had confidence in me last year.”

This is how it will be with Jackson, Dak Prescott, Deshaun Watson and Jacoby Brissett. Until they lead their teams to the Super Bowl — or, at the very least, a conference championship — there will be doubts, second-guessing and pronouncements that their style of quarterbacking, exciting as it is, cannot win titles.

Quarterback Kyler Murray of the Arizona Cardinals attempts a pass against the Baltimore Ravens during the first half at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore on Sept. 15. Murray passed for 349 yards in a 23-17 loss.

Photo by Todd Olszewski/Getty Images

As the league celebrates its 100th birthday, the game’s most important position is undergoing yet another major and permanent transition, one that puts the cerebral and the physical on equal footing. This is a transition that puts African American players at the cutting edge of evolution.

And yet, there is still a steep learning curve for this new breed, no matter how gifted. After Sunday’s game, I asked former Baltimore linebacker Terrell Suggs if Jackson’s and Murray’s skill sets made it easier for them to learn because they could outrun mistakes.

“I don’t think it makes anything easier,” said Suggs, who now plays for Arizona. “This is the NFL. There’s nothing easy about what we do. That is the misconception we take because they can make it look easy, but there’s nothing easy about what we do.”

Harbaugh added: “The NFL has a lot of smart people and a lot of great players. From week to week, they’ll be chasing our scheme.”

Next week, the Ravens play a Kansas City Chiefs team that reached the AFC Championship Game last season behind quarterback Patrick Mahomes. In what will surely be a season of challenges, Harbaugh said next Sunday’s game in Kansas City will be a huge test for Jackson. “The stadium will be rocking. It’ll be deafening, and we’re going to have to be a much better football team next week than we have been last week or this week. That’s just the way the league works.”

Jackson and Murray are hardly finished products. Not even close. Like all young people, they need elbow room, room to grow. Too bad it can’t be a room free from double standards.

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.