There is a lot of hype surrounding Sunday’s Ravens-Texans matchup and little of it has to do with the two teams playing great football and leading their respective AFC divisions.
It’s about their young and supremely talented quarterbacks. There were tons of questions about both former ACC quarterbacks when they came out of school: Can they adapt to the NFL game? Can they make NFL throws? Is quarterback even the right position for them at the NFL level?
But the Texans’ Deshaun Watson and Raven’s Lamar Jackson have proven their critics wrong by becoming two of the most dynamic and smart quarterbacks in the league who are most importantly leading their teams to wins on the football field. So when their teams meet on Sunday in Baltimore the biggest buzz will be about two young and exciting quarterbacks who have a chance to give their respective teams a leg up in the AFC playoff race and better position one of them in the MVP conversation.
The white elephant in the room is this is also a prime battle between two African-American quarterbacks who are very much a part of the Black Quarterback Renaissance in the NFL. That much certainly isn’t lost on Watson, who long with Seattle’s Russell Wilson, Kansas City’s Partrick Mahomes (reigning MVP) and Jackson are changing the game at the NFL’s whitest position.
Soon it will be their names will be talked about as setting the standards for what greatness looks like at the NFL’s money position, replacing Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers.
“It’s good,” Watson said this week when asked what he thought about the growing number of African-American quarterbacks in the league. “Definitely not the norm, I guess you can say. It’s awesome to be a part of it and be one of those guys. It’s something that we take pride in and continue to change that narrative and just continue to do it the right way. It really doesn’t matter what race you are, what color you are. If you can go play football, you can play football. If you’re smart, you’re smart, and if you have the right coaching you can go out there and perform, especially playing quarterback. Not something I get caught up into, but it’s definitely that’s the elephant in the room, pretty much.”
When it’s time to play Sunday, the focus will be less about race and more about performance. The two clashed on the field in ACC as quarterbacks for the Clemson Tigers and Louisville Cardinals. They also competed for the 2016 Heisman Trophy, which Jackson ultimately won as a sophomore. This will be their first time meeting as pros.
The intrigue has been ramped up because Jackson has easily become the breakout star in just his second season with the Ravens. Jackson, who most figured was little more than a running quarterback best suited for niche Wildcat situations, is baffling opposing defenses with both his legs and his arm this season.
“I’m a proud quarterback, proud friend,” Watson said of Jackson. “All the criticism he was getting when he was coming out, he’s definitely a guy that I’ve always encouraged and talked to in the offseason. I’ve always been – since college days, when we played against each other, I’ve always been friends with him. He’s a guy that’s been doing everything that all the naysayers have said he couldn’t do, and even more. His career is very, very bright and he’s going to continue to do great things.”
What is interesting is that white coaches and front office people have always been reluctant to speak openly about how dynamic African-American quarterbacks like Watson and Jackson are changing the game, mostly out of the fear that what they say can be misconstrued. But the reality is that African-American quarterbacks are bringing all of the intangibles needed for the position from the intellect, leadership and arm talent perspective while bringing athletic ability into the mix as well.
Both Bill O’Brien and John Harbaugh danced around the question about how Watson and Jackson are changing the game.
“A lot of people have asked me that question over the last couple of days,” O’Brien said. “I think that in the end, quarterbacking comes down to some really important things. I think it’s leadership. When the lights go on, how do you perform? It’s one thing to perform well on the practice field, it’s a whole other thing to perform well, whatever your skillset is, in front of 80,000 people on the road, third-and-5 to win the game. How do you perform in that deal? Very few guys have it. Then it comes down to intelligence, your ability to process a look – I could be up here all day.”
Harbaugh had similarly happy feet when asked virtually the same question.
“Same questions, that are good questions, that we’re getting asked, but just all of the visionary questions along those lines, it’s just not something that I’m thinking about or that our players are thinking about,” he said. “They’re great things to write about and ponder, but really we’re just trying to figure out how to try to do the best we can against a great Houston Texans team. That’s all we’re doing right now. That’s where our minds are.”
Follow Terrance Harris on Twitter @terranceharris.