The Tenessee Titans' preparation to stop Lamar Jackson in Sunday's AFC Wild Card matchup included using a quarterback, who ran a slower 40-yard dash than 49ers punter Mitch Wishnowsky, to emulate the reigning NFL MVP.
No wonder the Titans lost 20-13 to the Baltimore Ravens while allowing Jackson to rush 16 times for 136 yards and a touchdown.
ESPN's Dianna Russini reported Sunday that the Titans used third-string QB DeShone Kizer as a stand-in for Jackson's speed.
Kizer, at the 2017 NFL Scouting Combine, ran a 4.83 40-yard dash.
Wishnowsky, in 2019, ran a 4.63 40-yard dash.
And Jackson? He told reporters in 2018 (h/t ESPN) that he was timed running a 4.34 40-yard dash.
This is relevant, not as a knock on Kizer, who ran for 419 yards in 15 games as an overmatched rookie with the Cleveland Browns in 2017, nor to label Wishnowsky "sneaky athletic" and any number of problematic descriptors. Of course, the latter comes from the same reductive line of thinking that made the Titans think Kizer offered a suitable imitation of Jackson's unique skill set.
The biggest common denominator in Jackson and Kizer's games is the color of their skin. Both QBs are Black, and as such are often subject to stereotypes about their athleticism in a way that their white counterparts aren't.
Take the Titans' QB depth. Ryan Tannehill ran a 4.65 40-yard dash at the 2012 combine. Backup Logan Woodside ran a 4.58 40 at the 2018 combine. Tennessee never was going to use their first-time signal-caller to run the scout team, but Woodside wouldn't have sufficed?
This reasoning permeates every level of football. There are significant racial disparities across multiple positions in the NFL, as Jason Reid and Jane McManus noted for The Undefeated in 2017, in no small part because players are often sorted into roles -- usually subconsciously -- along racial lines as they climb up the pyramid in their journey to the NFL.
That continues in the lead-up to the draft. Christopher Boylan, Ryan McMahon and Burt Monroe, writing for The Washington Post that same year, found white quarterbacks were far more likely to be lauded for intangible attributes. Black QBs, by contrast, were "more likely to be discussed in terms of physical characteristics, to be judged erratic and unpredictable, and to have his successes and failures ascribed to outside forces."
Empirical evidence is important, and so is remembering that a QB with a 4.53 40-yard dash and a skill set far more similar to Jackson than Kizer has been waiting for an opportunity for almost four years. Colin Kaepernick's NFL exile is a topic worth delving deeper into another time, as Jackson's journey practically is a case study in the unconscious bias Black QBs face.
Despite winning the Heisman Trophy as a sophomore, he was the fifth QB off the board in 2018 and one pick away from falling into the second round. Some teams asked him to work out as a wide receiver, and Hall of Fame executive Bill Polian thought Jackson should switch positions.
Jackson continued to be labeled just a "running quarterback" from some corners well into his MVP season in 2019, and leading into this weekend he had to answer questions about his playoff record. A two-game sample size wasn't enough to dispel those questions, nor was the fact that Jackson is a full month younger than 2020 No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow, who Polian compared to Peyton Manning.
The Titans didn't lose to the Ravens on Sunday solely because they planned for Jackson with Kizer, but it speaks to a mindset stemming from the same backward status quo that tangibly cost them. Down 17-13 and facing fourth-and-2 from the Ravens' 40, the Titans punted, despite the abundance of evidence insisting they do the opposite.
"Just decided to punt," Vrabel said. "Thought we were playing well defensively, thought we would get a punt inside the 10 and you know, try to play the field position game. Had some time there that I felt like we could."
If a team's first instinct in a season-on-the-line situation is to pull off a practically unprecedented punt to "play the field position game," it's really no wonder they thought Kizer could prepare them to stop Jackson. After Sunday's season-ending loss, the Titans will have no choice but to learn that line of thinking isn't good enough for an NFL team in 2021.