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Tom Brady vs. Lamar Jackson: Snatching the torch from the GOAT

Jackson epitomizes the evolution of the NFL quarterback

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — When Tom Brady threw his first career NFL pass in 2000, Lamar Jackson was 3 years old. By the time Jackson turned 10, Brady had already won three Super Bowls.

On Sunday, Jackson, 22, and Brady, 42, will face off when Jackson’s Ravens face Brady’s 8-0 New England Patriots in Baltimore. And while Brady shares a similar history with a cadre of young NFL quarterbacks, Jackson epitomizes the change taking place at football’s most glamorous position.

The evolution at quarterback from 2000 when Brady entered the league to 2019 has demanded a more dynamic presence behind the center, where the ability to pass well and run effectively is not a luxury but a prerequisite for the job.

More than a one-game referendum, Sunday’s game between Jackson’s Ravens and Brady’s Patriots is the continuance of tradition’s last stand. Jackson respects the long tradition Brady represents, even as he represents the change that may make that tradition a thing of the past.

“He’s just so cool,” Jackson told reporters on Wednesday at the Ravens’ training facility. “In the pocket, when he drops back, he looks so smooth, like he’s not even dropping. It looks like he’s really just standing there just waiting on stuff to happen, and just pick the defense apart. A great quarterback, yes.”

Brady and Jackson began their respective NFL careers in a similar fashion. Well, not exactly. Brady famously was selected in the sixth round; Jackson was the Heisman Trophy winner and the Ravens’ first-round selection.

But Brady and Jackson received their opportunities in similar fashion.

Brady was pressed into action after Drew Bledsoe was knocked out of a game against the New York Jets. Bledsoe was traded to the Buffalo Bills the next year. The door opened for Jackson when Joe Flacco injured his hip. Flacco was traded during the offseason to Denver.

Jackson compares favorably with Brady when you look at their numbers through their first 14 career starts.

Consider their stat lines provided by ESPN Stats & Information:

  • Brady: 11-3, 64.3 completion percentage 18 touchdowns, 12 interceptions and an 87.0 NFL passer rating.
  • Jackson: 11-3, 61.1 completion percentage 16 touchdowns, eight interceptions and an 89.3 NFL passer rating.

When Brady entered the league in 2000, running by a quarterback was largely seen as a desperation measure to make the best of a bad situation. Either that or running was considered a novelty act. The rushing leader among quarterbacks after the 1999 season was Doug Flutie, who ran for 476 yards. Jackson already has more rushing yards this season, 576, than Flutie had in all of 1999.

Jackson is on pace to finish the season with more than 3,700 passing yards and 1,300 rushing yards — a feat that no NFL player has accomplished.

So far this season, Jackson represents more than 40% of the Ravens rushing yards. Brady, by contrast, represents 0.4% of the Patriots rushing yards this season. Brady’s most rushing yards in a game were 31, in 2006. Clearly, the pocket approach has worked marvelously for Brady and for generations of quarterbacks. But if Brady were entering today’s NFL and aspired to play quarterback, his approach and skill set would be different.

Over the years, I’ve predicted a revolution that would result in black quarterbacks — held at bay for so long — taking over and transforming the position. The catalysts for my optimism were Randall Cunningham, who played in the NFL from 1985-2001, and Michael Vick, who played from 2001-2006 and 2009 until 2015.

Their success fell short of a Super Bowl championship. Cunningham and Vick each reached the NFC title game and lost. Vick derailed his own chances when he was convicted on dogfighting charges and subsequently missed two crucial seasons of football in his prime while in prison. He resurfaced with the Philadelphia Eagles but was never the same electrifying player.

“I watched Vick. I know about Randall Cunningham,” Jackson said, “but I just want to be the best that I can be. I’m not trying to mirror anyone else’s image. I’m just trying to play ball, win the most games I can and win championships.”

White QBs who ran the ball

There is no silver bullet that will change the position overnight and it’s not like white quarterbacks of yesteryear never ran. Sammy Baugh, Bobby Layne, Fran Tarkenton, Billy Kilmer Joe Kapp all ran. But when they ran, it was called “scrambling.” They were described as swashbuckling and fearless.

When black quarterbacks “scampered,” critics said they ran because they couldn’t read defense. Over time, waves of black quarterbacks have continued to erode the prejudice that for years kept blacks from playing the position or playing it freely. That prejudice marginalized talents and defined what was and was not a quarterback.

“Now you have no choice,” said Ravens coach John Harbaugh. “It’s reality. It’s fact.”

Harbaugh has preached the Gospel of Jackson since 2018 when the Ravens drafted him and when Harbaugh made Jackson the Ravens starter.

While critics say the greatest improvement in Jackson’s game this season has been his passing accuracy, teammates say Jackson’s most significant advancement has been his self-confidence. Like Brady, like Aaron Rodgers and like Russell Wilson, Jackson is taking ownership of the position.

In the Ravens’ Week 7 victory over Seattle, Jackson challenged Harbaugh’s third-quarter decision to kick a field goal rather than go for the touchdown. The Ravens went for it and Jackson converted on an 8-yard run.

“I understand what it’s like to be a dual-threat quarterback in the NFL and I understand what it’s like to be a black quarterback in the NFL.” — Robert Griffin III

“I probably wouldn’t have done it last year,” Jackson said Wednesday. “There probably were moments we could have went for it last year, and I was just jogging off the field. I was like, ‘Dang, we’ll just get it next drive.’ I’m a lot more comfortable now than I was last year.”

Former NFL star and now backup Ravens quarterback Robert Griffin III said that Jackson is beginning to settle in. “I think it’s him coming in this year knowing that he’s the guy,” Griffin said. Last year, fan favorite Flacco was the incumbent. Even then the decision to bench Flacco was not universally embraced until Jackson went on a rampage and led the Ravens to the playoffs.

“At first last year, Lamar didn’t know how to act, how to lead or fit in,” said Griffin, who has become one of Jackson’s mentors. “When he came in this year and that guy [Flacco] is no longer here, the organization is letting you know that this is your team, we’re going to back you, we’re going to do things to make you feel good, and be the best player you can be. He was able to naturally come in and be himself.”

Griffin’s presence with the Ravens also reflects the evolution at quarterback where teams now are increasingly likely — at least they are more likely than before — to have quarterbacks on the roster with Jackson-like skills. Being mobile does not cure problems but allows young quarterbacks to outrun them.

“I understand what it’s like to be a dual-threat quarterback in the NFL and I understand what it’s like to be a black quarterback in the NFL,” Griffin said.

Jackson is on pace to finish the season with more than 3,700 passing yards and 1,300 rushing yards — a feat that no NFL player has accomplished.

But for Jackson, the only statistic that really matters is winning, and that is what distinguishes Brady from everyone else: six Super Bowl titles. “This is a winning league and that’s what it’s all about. If you’re not winning as a quarterback, you’re not doing your job,” Jackson said. “Tom Brady is definitely the one at the top.”

As Jackson took his seat for an interview with NBC’s Mike Tirico, I asked him whether he thought about playing for 20 seasons. I wondered how Jackson might feel at age 42 when some hotshot 22-year-old who had idolized him while growing up plays against him.

“That’d be dope,’’ Jackson said. He thought about it and laughed. “But to that youngster, I’m gonna try to beat him. I know that’s what Brady’s trying to do and I want to be him: OG, the GOAT.”

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.