Jackson followed up his Week 1 performance by throwing for two more touchdowns and running for 120 yards in a win over the Arizona Cardinals last Sunday. His torrid start reflects both the standard growth of a promising young player and an offensive scheme tailored to his talents. His comments, though, show an awareness of the tropes still circulated about black quarterbacks. If Jackson is one of the many avatars of football futurism currently reshaping the sport—a player who can pick apart and dart through a defense to equally devastating effect—much of the criticism surrounding him illustrates one of the ugliest ways in which the NFL remains stuck in the past.
In the buildup to the 2018 draft, the former general manager and then-ESPN analyst Bill Polian offered his perspective on Jackson. “I think wide receiver,” Polian said. “Exceptional athlete, exceptional ability to make you miss, exceptional acceleration, exceptional instinct with the ball in his hand.” The subtext could have filled a stadium. The coded phrases employed for black and white football players are familiar to anyone who follows the sport; this rhetoric has been a plot point in Friday Night Lights and fodder for parody in Key and Peele. In 2010, a study published in the Howard Journal of Communications analyzed the language used over a decade of Sports Illustrated’s pre-draft quarterback descriptions. “The data show that Black quarterback prospects are overwhelmingly portrayed as being very athletic,” researchers found, “but lacking mental abilities.”
Jackson’s young career can be read as a testament to the tedious work of overcoming those preconceptions. Even after the Ravens coach John Harbaugh said “He’s a quarterback through and through” upon drafting him at the end of the first round, Jackson practiced early on in gimmick roles complementing Flacco. Once Jackson stepped into the starting job over the second half of his rookie season, his coaches leaned on the running game to an uncommon degree; the predictable offense got bogged down in a playoff loss to the Los Angeles Chargers. Despite the unhappy ending, Jackson’s introduction was one of the NFL calendar’s most exciting storylines: a first-year quarterback thrust into a makeshift system piloting a sub-.500 team all the way to the playoffs. A contingent of Ravens fans, though, spent long stretches of that final game booing as Jackson struggled to complete passes.
This season, with Flacco gone to Denver and Jackson entrenched as the franchise cornerstone, the Ravens have reshaped their offense to make use of Jackson’s do-it-all skill set. “It’s not that there is anything new in there, concept-wise, that has never been done in football before,” Harbaugh told ESPN before the season. “But the way we put it together, to me, is unique and different.” Jackson’s 37 passing attempts last week—out-routes, deep shots, screens, the full gamut of textbook quarterbacking—were a career high, as was his rushing total. He high-stepped past a linebacker for one fourth-quarter first down and arced a tight 41-yard throw to Marquise Brown down the sideline for another. The Cardinals first-year coach Kliff Kingsbury voiced the dilemma Jackson presents opponents, saying, “He can stand there and throw it and beat you that way, and he can beat you with his legs.” Jackson himself was more straightforward: “I just had to move the sticks.”