Bill Polian, a highly revered and decorated character in NFL circles, was asked what he thought about Lamar Jackson, a 21-year-old young quarterback who has been blitzing college defences for the past two seasons.
I think [he should play] wide receiver. Exceptional athlete, exceptional ability to make you miss, exceptional acceleration, exceptional instinct with the ball in his hand, and that’s rare for wide receivers.
For those of you unfamiliar with Lamar Jackson, he plays at quarterback for his university in Louisville and at this position he won the Heisman Trophy award in 2016 – college football’s equivalent to a player of the year award. He’s not a wide receiver.
These comments have triggered a lot of debate in US sport, mostly from those beyond the periphery of mainstream sports coverage, on how the NFL and the media judge black quarterbacks compared to their white counterparts.
At the recent NFL Combine, where players are subjected to various tests of athleticism like rats in a lab, it was reported that a number of teams had asked Jackson to try out at wide receiver. This has been rebuffed by some people in the league, but it’s not entirely surprising that a player of Jackson’s ability be put into question, especially for his profile.
Bill Polian is a 75-year-old white man. Most of the NFL’s decision makers and people in power are old, white men. Most of the individuals speaking about and analyzing the likes of Lamar Jackson are white men. The rising racial tensions in America have been well documented and I don’t think there’s a need to expand beyond the spectrum of sport, but the tensions that have been slowly brewing over the past years could well be attributed to how more acceptable it is to for white folk to speak before they think.
What Polian and others have done is assumed racial bias – just because Jackson is quick, strong, extremely hard to catch, and just a freakish athletic specimen in general, he doesn’t have the mental capacity to play the quarterback position as well as some of the white players also available in the draft come the 26th of April, so he should play a position that better fits his profile.
How come you don’t hear anyone asking Sam Darnold to play a different position, the USC quarterback many regard as a potential NFL star and first overall pick in the upcoming draft? He was more haphazard and unconventional with the ball than Jackson during his college career. Nor Josh Allen of Wyoming, a tremendously talented player but one who was playing against teams much worse than Jackson was throughout his stint in college.
Neither do you hear Josh Rosen, the quarterback from UCLA, being asked to pipe down with some of his rather outspoken opinions on issues in and around American football. And you would think that Baker Mayfield, the fifth quarterback in contention for some of the top draft picks, would have his arrests and previous conduct much more amplified was he of a different ethnicity.
All of these guys are white and if you show ten NFL fans their film, including Jackson’s, all ten are likely to come up with different ranking from best to worst – that’s how close these guys are in currently ability and potential. But only one of them has had their ability to just play the actual position into question.
In fact, you’d have to go back as far as Tim Tebow to find a quarterback who was openly asked to play a different position. Not because of his skin colour, but because he was an absolutely brutal quarterback but had athletic gifts to make up for his faults. Since then, players like Deshaun Watson, Jameis Winston and Dak Prescott have all had fuzzy question marks raised over their abilities, and thankfully all have gone on to prove their doubters wrong with their NFL performances.
Take a look back at last year’s draft when Deshaun Watson was selected by the Houston Texans with the 12th pick. He was subjected to a lot of negativity coming out of college, criticizing everything from his passing to his ability to read defenses. He was projected by some analysts to be a late pick in the first round, while others saw him as a second round talent.
Until an injury mid-way through last season, he was on course for a Rookie of the Year caliber season with 19 touchdown passes and 1,700 yards in only six starts and during that period was the most exciting quarterback in the NFL.
Lamar Jackson is an NFL star in the making - at quarterback. Michael Vick, for all his issues in the past, was a sublime athlete, quicker than anybody on the field and could throw the ball like a laserbeam. He was never asked to play a different position. Recently, he came out in support of Jackson, saying he’s the closest Vick-replica to emerge since the man himself.
So what’s changed? It’s hard to determine exactly why Jackson has been subjected to such negative opinion, to be so blatantly disrespected that he be asked to change position just because he’s fast and looks like more like a wide receiver than a conventional quarterback, whereas when Vick was coming out of Virginia Tech University he was seen as the stand-alone first round pick.
Adam Lefkoe, on the excellent Simms & Lefkoe podcast, noted that even the language that has been used to describe Jackson is different compared to that of his draft counterparts.
On a series of NFL Youtube videos showing highlight packages of their combines, everybody had a positive spin on their reel bar Jackson, who had his “best and worst” throws on film. The NFL went back and changed the wording on the video. Sure, this is nitpicking, but that’s what Jackson is dealing with – finding his faults rather than highlighting his best moments.
NFL stay trying to push a narrative. Just look at the titles to these videos
— Nemo 🇵🇸 (@Itznem0123) March 4, 2018
Todd McShay, a draft analyst with ESPN, cites Jackson as a “project” quarterback – despite playing in a range of professional-style offenses at Louisville against some fantastic defences. As Lefkoe points out, Jackson is actually more likely to face easier defences in the NFL than most stereotypical step-back-and-throw quarterbacks – because teams can’t afford to let him get free space and run at them. He’ll either hurt you with his powerful, accurate throwing or his exceptional speed.
In fact, under his coach Bobby Petrino at Louisville, Jackson played in the Erhardt system. Another quarterback who plays this system is Tom Brady and here’s a great piece highlighting the comparisons between systems and how suited Jackson is to the Patriots offence. Far from a wide receiver convert that shouldn’t play the position - he could step in as the heir to Tom Brady.
The draft in April is going to tell a lot about where the media and NFL teams themselves sit on Jackson. He’s very likely to be a first round pick, and go to a team that truly values him like the Texans did with Watson. He’s been projected to be picked late on in the first round, whereas his four friends at the position are rather unanimous top ten and fifteen selections.
Jackson – who is being represented by his mother and not an agent – is going quietly about his business. He’s not an outspoken, flashy guy. He’s not as brazen and bold as Baker Mayfield. He’s not as outspoken as Josh Rosen. He has arguably a better body of work than both Josh Allen and Sam Darnold. But he’s not white. And for some reason, that makes a difference to some people in the NFL.
Let’s hope Jackson can go out and prove everybody wrong – at quarterback – next season.