NFL MVP Battle: Front-runners show league’s changing face

Lamar Jackson's inched ahead of Russell Wilson in the MVP stakes, but there's a lot more at play than individual awards

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Russell Wilson (6/4), Lamar Jackson (7/5) and Deshaun Watson (14/1) are all receiving accolades for their brilliant performances this season, and if running backs were ever given the recognition again, Christian McCaffrey would be a serious contender for the MVP award too.

However, those three quarterbacks will likely lead voting and one will follow on from Kansas City Chiefs star Patrick Mahomes in 2018 as the league’s best player. All four play-making QBs are the faces of their respective franchises, and the current MVP is arguably the face of the league, with the front cover of Madden 20 on his resume now.

It may seem odd given the diversity of player backgrounds in the league, but it still feels like a massive step forward that three black QBs lead the race for this most prestigious individual gong. In a week when Colin Kapernick has dominated the headlines once again, maybe it’s a sign of just how long it has taken the NFL to catch up.

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While other positions have been traditionally filled with African-American athletes, quarterback remained the preserve of white players for decades due to a prejudiced belief within the sport that black players did not have the right “mentality” for the position.

Back in 1951, Bernie Custis was the first black quarterback to start professionally, playing for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the Canadian Football League. Martin Briscoe and James Harris were the first in America, but the AFL was considered more tolerant than the NFL in those times.

In 1971, a report showed that only 3% of QBs who threw at least 100 passes were black. It wasn’t until the 80s when the NFL decided to catch up. Warren Moon had starred for the Edmonton Eskimos before his nine-year spell at the Houston Oilers.

Now, in 2019, nine of the 32 teams started the season with a quarterback who isn’t white.

MINNEAPOLIS, UNITED STATES: Minesota Viking Warren Moon is sacked by Chicago Bears John Thierry in the 2nd quarter 28 October at the Metrodome in Minneapolis, MN. Moon had to leave the game in 4th quarter due to an ankle injury. AFP PHOTO Craig LASSIG (Photo credit should read CRAIG LASSIG/AFP via Getty Images)

Still, too often these quarterbacks are seen as and described with basic stereotypes. “Athletic specimens”. “Runners”. The implication is they use their speed and physical traits, rather than their brain, to read the game and outwit opponents.

Lamar Jackson had to fight these kind of assumptions throughout the draft process and still does today.

Before he was drafted with the last pick of the first round in 2018, it was recommended by some pundits that he should give up his dreams as an NFL QB and become a wide receiver instead. He fought this storyline by refusing to run the 40-yard dash at the combine, only taking part in the passing-based tests. This was a player who won the Heisman trophy as the best player in college football in 2016 and was a finalist in 2017!

Anyone who watched his team’s Week 9 win over the New England Patriots saw everything Jackson brings to an offence. Looking at just the numbers, you could easily continue the running back narrative, but there was so much more to his game. Taking on Bill Belichick, Jackson ran a lot of RPO plays where he read the linebackers and any blitz signs before deciding whether to run himself, to hand the ball off, or let it fly.

This is not something you can do just with your athleticism. This shows game knowledge, that you know how to read the D and make the right calls. And he can make those throws too.

His chief rival for the player of the season award, Russell Wilson, is more of a scrambler but Wilson is still definitely a pass-first quarterback. He is playing the best football of his career this season and he’s doing it throwing the ball. He’s thrown 23 touchdowns, two more than he managed in 16 games in 2016, and has just two interception. If the Seahawks can win a place in the postseason, plenty will find it hard not to vote for Russ as MVP.

His feats this season mean more people are not talking about Deshaun Watson as a potential MVP. The NFL is all about narrative and can you imagine the press reaction if Mahomes avoided a sack, scrambled, got kicked in the eye and then threw a crucial touchdown pass, all in the same play? Watson did it when completing to Jordan Fells to lead the Texans to a 27-24 win over the Oakland Raiders. Though he struggled last week against Jackson and Baltimore’s improved defence, the Texans are legit contenders for the AFC title because of Watson’s play.

It’s amazing what your QB can do when you have an OL who can protect him.

The NFL has a long, long way to go. Virtually no white QBs have ever been called a dual-threat. Josh Allen at the Buffalo Bills and Jacksonville’s Gardner Minshew have over 200+ rushing yards this season. Allen is 40 yards ahead of Watson with 19 more attempts, but he’s not pigeon-holed the same as the Texans QB.

Nov 4, 2018; Seattle, WA, USA; Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson (3) passes against the Los Angeles Chargers during the first quarter at CenturyLink Field. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

What the Baltimore Ravens have done extremely well with Jackson is to lean on the attributes of their quarterback. Despite being RB10 in terms of yards this season, Lamar Jackson is not a running back, but he is very skilled at reading the defence and knowing when he will have the opportunity to rush with the ball rather than throw.

When you can do that better than any other quarterback in the league, why would you not let him use his skills? One day, quarterbacks will just be quarterbacks, rather than being linked with the colour of their skin and articles like this will only focus on an exciting MVP race.

This is not about quarterbacks and their ethnicity, this is about a new generation of quarterbacks and how they are taking the game to another level.

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