“Not bad for a running back.” That’s what Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson said after he threw five touchdown passes against the Miami Dolphins in the first week of the 2019–2020 NFL season. Those words were a slight jab at his critics (the “experts”) who believed the 6-foot 1-inch, 210-pound black quarterback was better suited as a running back or wide receiver than a quarterback.
Those same critics will be bathing in their predictions about Jackson after the heavily favored Ravens shockingly lost at home in the playoffs against the Tennessee Titans 12–28 in the Divisional Round. But to take away from what Jackson accomplished this season, against the odds of conventionalism at the quarterback position, would be a disservice to the city of Baltimore and a detriment to what the sport of football can be in terms of the quarterback position moving forward. Furthermore, placing the loss by Lamar and the Ravens against the backdrop of a magnificent season is a genuine reminder for us what we can achieve when we set our goals beyond what the world expects of us.
Baltimore, a city widely known for its gritty crime drama series The Wire, which highlights the explicit inequities and hard-living of life in the city, had a promising light shone on it this season in the form of Lamar Jackson. He spoiled fans, exceeding even their expectations, making jaw-dropping passes and lightning-fast runs look incredibly easy week after week.
Jackson’s exceptional awareness, vision, speed, and throwing ability is something never before seen in the NFL at the quarterback position. The closest athlete we can compare Jackson to is former quarterback phenom Michael Vick. But even that isn’t a fair comparison. Jackson broke Vick’s single season rushing record for a quarterback in only his second season in the league. Time will tell how much more the young Jackson can improve on his already impressive skills.
But what makes Jackson’s play all the more extraordinary is the damage he is doing to the stereotypes that accompany black quarterbacks. Since football’s inception, black quarterbacks have not been considered cerebral nor as intuitive as their white counterparts. Gatekeepers of the game have historically believed African American quarterbacks can run around because of their athleticism, but believe they aren’t smart enough to sit in the pocket and dissect defensive coverages and throw the ball with accuracy.If we are spiritually conscious people, we can use this moment, this season by the Baltimore Ravens team led by MVP front-runner Lamar Jackson, to remember what our focus is as believers.
NFL executive Bill Polian represents a prime example of this lingering belief. Before the 2018 draft, he described Jackson as a remarkable athlete with “exceptional ability to make you miss, exceptional acceleration, exceptional instinct with the ball in his hand and that’s rare for wide receivers.” But when it came to throwing the football, Polian said Jackson was “clearly… not the thrower that the other (top quarterback prospects) are. The accuracy isn’t there.” He said all this about Jackson despite his 9,000+ yards passing, 69 passing touchdowns, and an additional 4,000 yards rushing and 50 rushing touchdowns while at Louisville University. Oh, and he won college football’s top award—the Heisman—his sophomore year.
But whatever one may think about Jackson then or now, his stats this season contradicted the naysayers who adhere to the black quarterback stereotype. Jackson was clearly a top-rated quarterback this season. He finished the 2019 regular season completing 66% of his passes for 3,127 yards and 36 touchdowns with only 6 interceptions, touting a 113.3 QB rating, which was second in the league. Additionally, he rushed for 1,206 yards and 7 touchdowns. As if these numbers aren’t impressive enough, Jackson accomplished it all despite sitting out the last game of the season to rest for the playoffs.
To put Jackson’s numbers in perspective, the next best quarterback in terms of touchdown passes-to-interceptions ratio was Tampa Buccaneers Jameis Winston. Winston finished the season throwing 33 touchdowns and 30 interceptions. And for rushing totals by a quarterback? The next best is Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray who rushed for 544 yards.
Even in the midst of his unprecedented season, analysts tried explaining away Jackson’s success. San Francisco 49ers radio analyst Tim Ryan said the reason for LJ’s success could be attributed to his skin color—literally. “He’s really good at that fake, Lamar Jackson, but when you consider his dark skin color with a dark football with a dark uniform, you could not see that thing. I mean you literally could not see when he was in and out of the mesh point.” Ryan was temporarily suspended after he and the team apologized for the remarks.
The next game against the Buffalo Bills, Jackson wore a white sleeve and white glove to match the team’s white away jerseys. He led his team to a 24–17 victory, throwing three touchdowns and rushing for 40 yards.
It’s not like Lamar is blissfully unaware of his talent nor what people continue to think about him. He knows he’s the best player on the field. But perhaps Jackson’s early success can be attributed to his humility and self-awareness. He knows he can’t be as good as he is without a defense who can get opposing offenses off the field quickly; an offensive coordinator who knows how to optimize his talents; a running back who’s a terror to any defender trying to tackle him one-on-one; premier tight ends and wide receivers who unselfishly block downfield and make amazing catches; an offensive line that is responsible for the single-season team all-time rushing record; and a head coach who unashamedly believes in him. Knowing his success rests on his teammates’ support fueled the sophomore quarterback’s ability to think less of himself and more about the success of the team. That attitude permeated and was reflected throughout the team all season long during pre-game warm-ups, sideline smiles and laughter, and post-game interviews.
But even with all the praise, smiles, and fun had on the Ravens sideline, the focus was on something larger: a Super Bowl. That goal was violently ripped away from the Ravens when the Tennessee Titans marched into M&T Bank Stadium and took command of the game early in the Divisional Round of the playoffs. The Titans game plan was to build a lead and force the Ravens to play from behind. When that happened, we saw the Ravens game plan falter and eventually crumble. The Titans forced Jackson and the Ravens to drop back and pass over 60 times, something he hasn’t done all season. (Some fans debate if the Ravens coaches panicked too quickly before abandoning the original game plan of establishing a run-game first.)
When the Ravens clinched the AFC North Division title, they sported shirts provided by the NFL that read “The North Is Not Enough.” After their loss to the Titans, it certainly feels that way. Winning streaks, divisional titles, records, and playoff appearances are simply byproducts of the primary goal of winning a Super Bowl. Losses like the Ravens suffered can seem like finality, but they aren’t. Life (and games) go on. And if we are spiritually conscious people, we can use this moment, this season by the Baltimore Ravens team led by MVP front-runner Lamar Jackson, to remember what our focus is as believers.
Similar to Jackson, we too ought to be aware of the ways in which we are uniquely gifted. Jesus knew He was doing magnificent things when He healed paralytics, lepers, and demon-possessed individuals. He knew those acts would draw attention to Himself. But that’s why He came. Jesus knew He was the source of life for all who came to Him and humbled themselves.
So shying away from or downplaying what we’re good at doesn’t do anyone any good. Jackson’s on-field and locker room humility and leadership exhibits how Christians can unashamedly use our gifts to reshape a pessimistic and critical culture. If we are gifted at fixing vehicles, teaching, counseling, managing accounts, or throwing a football, a false humility can sometimes stifle the good God may be calling us to do for others. It’s okay if others see your giftedness. Our ultimate hope is that they see the Light and glory of God in us as a byproduct of what God does through us.Jackson’s on-field and locker room humility and leadership exhibits how Christians can unashamedly use our gifts to reshape a pessimistic and critical culture.
Also, when we keep our eyes on the final goal—eternity in the presence of God—the wins and losses will be largely circumstantial in light of the primary goal. For Jesus, it was the joy that was set before Him that helped Him not focus on the cheers and praise of onlookers when He performed miracles. It was also the joy that was set before Him that strengthened Him to push through the darkest moment in human history—His crucifixion. When all seemed like a loss to Jesus’ disciples—when all His works seemed purposeless—three days would reveal it wasn’t all for naught. There was purpose in the healing, wisdom, leadership, and death of Jesus: our salvation and God’s glory.
So for us, we don’t have to intoxicate ourselves on the praise that comes from men when we perform or bring joy to others through our giftedness, because we have the Father of Heaven smiling on us as His beloved sons and daughters. Nor do we have to bury ourselves in despair when we lose or are running low on recognition. To know that we can put a smile on God’s face just by abiding in Christ and His word and working for His glory should embolden us to push for excellence and a permanent position of Godly contentment.
Lamar Jackson isn’t content with his record breaking season, though—and he shouldn’t be. He, his teammates, and the city of Baltimore maintain bigger goals for the organization beyond great stats: a Super Bowl. As a result of this larger aspiration—though that goal wasn’t reached this year—Jackson was able to transcend the title of what it means to be a quarterback phenom in the NFL. He’s going to continue redefining perceptions of what a black quarterback can be as well. Yet the skeptics continue swirling, waiting for Lamar to fall. And now that the Ravens are out of the playoffs, they’re already pouncing on Jackson’s miscues.
But that’s not stifling Jackson’s focus. “I don’t care about what they say,” he said in the post-game interview following the playoff loss, already looking ahead. “This is my second year in the league.” He’s ready to learn from the loss and not allow what others think about his quarterbacking abilities change his outlook on the possibilities of the future. Unmoved, Jackson owned up to his mistakes and accepted the loss quickly, knowing it’s the best path to move forward. “We just beat ourselves,” Lamar said. “I had a lot of mistakes on my behalf. Three turnovers. That shouldn’t happen.” Such focus and composure in the face of failure by a twenty-three-year-old player in his second year is exemplary.
Perhaps the greatest secret to Jackson’s level-headed leadership and boyish glee playing the game is no secret at all. It’s most likely rooted in where he finds his source of accomplishment. When asked what or who keeps him humble, Jackson quickly replied, “The Lord… I give Him all His praise, the glory, the honor, you know, because without Him I could be doing anything… because you feel like you bigger than the Lord, that’s when all that success die, it go away.”
Lamar sees all that he has around him as a gift from the Father of Lights. “I got my family around me, my teammates… a great coaching staff, and we just gotta keep going and let the Lord know He the number one.” This type of energy, focus, humility, and perspective might just be what will keep fans talking about Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens for a long time as he revolutionizes the culture of football at the quarterback position.