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Year of the Black QB

Why Lamar Jackson vs. Kyler Murray is a matchup for the ages

The two youngest black starting quarterbacks are a glimpse into NFL’s future

When the Baltimore Ravens play host to the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday, the game will mark the matchup of the youngest black starting quarterbacks in the Super Bowl era: Lamar Jackson and Kyler Murray. But that’s only half the story.

Not only are Jackson and Murray both 22, they’re also off to fast starts during a season in which African American passers are at the height of their power in the NFL. The fact that this historic meeting will occur early this season is fitting, and former NFL quarterback Jason Campbell, who had a nine-year career with five NFL teams, said the showdown of these Heisman Trophy winners has been a long time in the making.

“Ever since Mike Vick was drafted [first overall in 2001], teams have been giving us more chances,” said Campbell, a first-round draft pick in 2005 after quarterbacking Auburn to a 13-0 record as a senior. “So, when you have more guys who get chances, and they prove they can play in this league, it just figures that you’ll start to see younger guys in there.

“It’s a copycat league. When teams see guys like [Seattle’s] Russell Wilson, [Carolina’s] Cam Newton, [Kansas City’s] Patrick Mahomes and other guys [succeeding] right when they come in the league, then they’re going to start looking for the same thing. And teams have to win. There’s no patience. So with guys as talented as them [Jackson and Murray], why not put them in there when they’re young and give them a chance to help you?”

Sports activist Harry Edwards, a longtime adviser to the San Francisco 49ers, said Jackson vs. Murray is a sign of the times.

“Teams are now [regularly] drafting [black quarterbacks] in high rounds and then throwing them into the fire,” said Edwards, a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. “They’re getting the keys earlier … because the defensive players are getting more proficient at getting to the quarterback.

“Teams know the requirements of this era. You have to win and you have to have a quarterback. And with the money these teams are paying them, they need to have not just mobility but also escapability. They have to be able to stay on the field and play at a high level.”

In Week 1, Jackson and Murray both excelled.

Jackson built on his impressive run as a rookie in 2018, in which he went 6-1 as a starter and directed a late-season turnaround that resulted in a Ravens playoff berth. Last week, he delivered a smashing performance during Baltimore’s 59-10 dismantling of the Miami Dolphins. He completed 17 of 20 passes (85%) for 324 yards with five touchdowns and no interceptions, becoming the youngest player in NFL history with a perfect passer rating of 158.3 (minimum of 20 pass attempts). Jackson had only six touchdown passes last season.

The second-year signal-caller made tough throws, going 3 for 4 for 84 yards and two touchdowns into tight windows (fewer than 1 yard of separation) against the Dolphins, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. In such situations as a rookie, Jackson misfired on 22 of 30 attempts and had no touchdowns. And on Sunday he was spectacular on deep balls too, going 3 for 4 with an air distance of 40 yards or more, marking the highest rate of efficiency in that category for a passer in the league’s kickoff week. Last season, Jackson failed to complete a pass in five attempts on those deep balls.

Granted, the Dolphins are horrendous by design. However, Jackson clearly has made strides in the dropback passing game.

Murray, meanwhile, showed during his NFL debut why the Cardinals and their fans are excited about him.

Undeterred by Arizona’s brutal performance on offense for most of the game, Murray led a fourth-quarter charge that erased an 18-point deficit and extended the game into overtime, enabling the team to finish in a 27-27 tie with the Detroit Lions. In the fourth quarter, the first overall pick in the 2019 NFL draft completed 15 of 19 passes for 154 yards and two touchdowns.

Directing the Cardinals’ version of the pass-heavy, up-tempo Air Raid offense, Murray, especially in the first half, appeared overwhelmed. Consider, though, that the Cardinals averaged only 22.4 seconds between plays and used at least four wide receivers on 58 plays against the Lions, which was more four-wide sets than the rest of the league combined used last week. With all that was on his shoulders, Murray acquitted himself quite well overall in his first game.

Murray’s teammates were definitely pumped.

“He has already shown us a lot,” said wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who’s beginning his 16th season with the Cardinals. “He knows what he’s doing and he wants to be [great]. That’s just his mindset. We’ve seen it from his first day. You see the confidence. You see the type of quarterback he’s going to be.”

Coming from a future Hall of Famer, that’s high praise. Of course, one week does not a great NFL career make.

Nevertheless, both Murray and Jackson have already displayed the smarts, leadership skills, physical ability and work ethic needed to thrive in professional sports’ most competitive workplace. The two will be 44 years and 290 days old combined on game day. The youngest starting quarterback matchup in the Super Bowl era is Jameis Winston vs. Marcus Mariota in 2015, with a combined age of 43 years and 203 days.

“As a fan, this is something people want to see,” said Shawn Leigh Alexander, a professor of African and African American studies and director of the Langston Hughes Center at the University of Kansas.

“They want to see two young players, no matter what race they are, and see a matchup like this. The fact that we can look at this and say these are the youngest black quarterbacks ever to [face each other] in the NFL, we can add that to that discussion,” Alexander said. “But at the same time, we can just be happy that we have two young, talented quarterbacks leading their teams.”

The discussion about where they’re headed will be an ongoing one. This much, though, is certain: On Sunday in Baltimore, youth will be served.

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.