Baltimore Ravens’ QB Lamar Jackson

The 2020 Pro Bowl on January 26 in Orlando will be an historic one for several reasons. First, it will be the latest celebration of the NFL’s centennial season, the topper to a host of other events that have been happening the entire year. Second, it’s the first time since 2008 that the New England Patriots’ Tom Brady wasn’t selected as either a starter or alternate, a reflection of the team’s struggling offense and his less than impressive (certainly be his past standards) offensive statistics.

But most importantly, it marks a historic occasion for Black NFL quarterbacks. All three of the QBs chosen for the AFC are Black for the first time, led by the consensus leader in the MVP race the Baltimore Ravens’ Lamar Jackson. He’s been at the helm of an offense that’s leading the league in points scored, has amassed a 12-2 record, and generally been unstoppable throughout the better part of the year. Among his many other exploits, Jackson has tied the Ravens’ team record for the most touchdown passes in a season, and established an NFL single season rushing record for QBs without sacrificing any effectiveness as a passer.

While there remain skeptics who question whether what he’s doing can either be repeated or sustained in future seasons, currently Jackson has led the Ravens to the top spot in the AFC with two games remaining. But right behind him are the Houston Texans’ Deshaun Watson and the Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes. Mahomes is the defending MVP, and has  nearly duplicated last year’s statistics.  Watson has also repeated his heroics from last season.

Both have their clubs in first place in their respective divisions, and all three represent the best examples of how the league has evolved offensively. All are effective either in the pocket or on the move, and can extend plays far longer due to their elusiveness. The Texans’ offensive line remains far from the league’s best, but Watson has helped overcome that in many instances. Questions remain regarding the the Texans and Chiefs defenses, but both are playoff bound. The Ravens set a Pro Bowl record with 12 team members selected, but there’s no doubt their effectiveness begins with Jackson, and his abilities are paramount to their overall team success.

Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks made the NFC Pro Bowl roster, bringing the number of Black QBs selected to four. There are a number of writers and broadcasters who maintain that the Dallas Cowboys Dak Prescott should also have been chosen, although the other two NFL starters, the New Orleans Saints Drew Brees and the Green Bay Packers Aaron Rodgers, are having fine seasons as well. But those who argue for the use of advanced statistics or analytics argue that Prescott’s overall season is better than that of Rodgers, and that he got this choice on reputation and career achievement.

Still, having four Black QBs picked out of six spots represents something that decades ago wouldn’t have been considered possible. Those who’ve only been following pro football for the past two or three decades weren’t around during the eras when any gifted Black QB with even a remote amount of athletic ability would be told to switch positions if they wanted to be drafted.

Warren Moon lost seven years off his career despite being an All-American QB at the University of Washington. He went to Canada, then later returned to America and eventually did well enough to make the Hall of Fame. One can only wonder what his career stats might have been with even three or four of those Canadian league years instead spent in the NFL. The Eldridge Dickey’s, Marlin Briscoe’s and Joe Gilliam Jr’s paid a hefty price in paving the way, as did James Harris, the first Black QB in the modern era to open an NFL season as a starter. Later came the Philadelphia Eagles’ Randall Cunningham and Donovan McNabb, as well as Doug Williams of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Washington Redskins, the first Black QB to be a Super Bowl winner.

Fortunately, those days are gone, even if there were still some observers who insisted Jackson needed to switch positions and become a wide receiver, despite playing in a pro-style offense at Louisville (in fairness, one of those, Bill Polian, has since publicly apologized for saying that). There will be more years down the line like this one in the NFL. Black quarterback are no longer unusual or strange: they are  a fixture and critical part of many successful teams’ offensive strategies and success.