Is the Black Quarterback Revolution Going to Last?

Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson scrambles against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 3, 2019, in Seattle. (AP Photo/John Froschauer)

The N.F.L.’s longtime leading men, the ones with the pizza commercials and the Super Bowl rings, whose names adorn the league’s most-sold jerseys, showed their mortality this season in ways that were uncomfortable to watch.

Tom Brady and Drew Brees didn’t make it through the first round of the playoffs. Aaron Rodgers missed the Super Bowl, too, by losing in a later round. Eli Manning retired, usurped as the Giants’ leader after 16 years. Ben Roethlisberger played like he should be considering it, too.

Together they helmed 12 of the last 18 Super Bowl-winning teams. And all are pushing 40 years old or past it.

Yet their aging out of the game leaves no void, as these playoffs have highlighted the rise of quarterbacks whose savvy and daring have stolen our attention. Russell Wilson’s third-down scramble to survive the Philadelphia Eagles, Patrick Mahomes’s bionic touchdown run for the Chiefs against the Tennessee Titans, Deshaun Watson of the Texans’ magical escape from a sack to beat the Buffalo Bills. Everything that Lamar Jackson did.

These quarterbacks are creating our new collective football memories. They are the ones from whom we dare not look away — and they are each black, leading at a position that historically has been off-limits to any man who was not white.

The smattering of black men who have risen to and excelled at the quarterback position were subject to stereotypes, slurs and targeting on the field when they did get the chance to play. And those opportunities seemed to be parceled by an unspoken “one-at-a-time” approach, which heaped the burden of progress on whichever black quarterback broke through in a given era. Doug Williams. Warren Moon. Randall Cunningham. Steve McNair. Donovan McNabb. Michael Vick. Colin Kaepernick.

Jackson won the league’s Most Valuable Player Award on Saturday — only the third time a black quarterback has done so outright. The win, following last year’s winner, Patrick Mahomes, makes this the first time in the league’s history that black quarterbacks won in back-to-back years.

“I mean, it shows you how the game has evolved and how no matter where you come from you can go out there and play the position you want to play and have success doing it and you don’t have to do it in a certain way,” Mahomes said in an interview on Thursday, just days before his Chiefs were to take on the San Francisco 49ers in the Super Bowl.

This time around, there is enough of a plurality to point to a pervasive change at the position, and not just among the game’s elite. In 2019, there were 12 black quarterbacks who started N.F.L. games, one shy of the watermark reached in five seasons in the early 2000s. But this season’s quarterbacks started a record 138 games, continuing an upward trend of black quarterbacks who sustain rather than spot-fill the role for franchises.

Reversing a long history of being denied the chance to play, black quarterbacks are the most vital change agents of this era of football. But for as much as they may be celebrated, their arrival has stirred a lot of questions not easily answered. The most pressing: If this is a watershed moment in N.F.L. history, what can we expect on the other side of change?

The league, and football in general, has a long history of stacking — funneling players to positions based on racial stereotypes — that kept black talent away from “thinking” positions like middle linebacker and center for decades. Essential to the game itself and to its lore, the quarterback position has been the last role unlocked for black players, who make up 70 percent of the N.F.L.’s labor force, for much the same reason that the other positions finally were: the game had to embrace elite players who are black or face stagnation.

That welcoming has upended stereotypes about black quarterbacks being naturally superior athletes preferable only for their ball-carrying ability and not intellectually strategic game managers.

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Source: The New York Times