Let’s start with the obvious: Lamar Jackson had NO business falling to the 32nd pick of the 2018 NFL Draft.
We’ve seen enough from the 22-year-old second-year quarterback of the Baltimore Ravens to know that he should have been selected ahead of Baker Mayfield (Cleveland Browns), Sam Darnold (New York Jets), Josh Allen (Buffalo Bills), and Josh Rosen (Arizona Cardinals, Miami Dolphins).
With that out of the way, let’s move on to the next truth: Though the draft fall hurt him financially, Jackson landed in the ideal situation when former Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome traded into the first round to select him that April night in 2018.
Ravens head coach John Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman locked in on building a system around Jackson’s strengths, instead of worrying about his perceived “flaws” — his height, his passing accuracy, his ability to read defensive coverages.
And there are many strengths to acknowledge.
Just ask Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots, who entered the game at Baltimore in Week 9 with an undefeated record and top-ranked defense, only to leave Charm City with a 37-20 loss and tough questions about how they might deal with Jackson should the teams meet in the AFC playoffs.
Attempting to make long-term projections is notoriously tricky in an NFL world where the competition never sleeps and injury is always lurking, but Jackson’s body of work thus far suggests that Ravens fans are in for a fun ride while their opponents are in for some serious trouble.
He is 12-4 as a starter (including one playoff loss), the first quarterback in the Super Bowl era to total more than 1,800 yards passing and 600 yards rushing in the first eight games of a season, and instead of NFL defensive coordinators “figuring him out,” it has been the other way around.
In their last two wins, Jackson and the Ravens went to Seattle and overcame one of the league’s toughest environments and a traditionally strong Seahawks defense to emerge with a 30-16 victory, and then Jackson became the youngest quarterback to beat Belichick in 15 seasons.
The Seattle and New England defenses looked startled by Jackson’s speed and the Ravens’ multifaceted attack, which mixes a blend of power running, spread option, the “pistol” formation, multi-tight end sets, and periodic deep throwing.
Jackson continues to work on his accuracy — 64.3% completion percentage ranks 17th among NFL quarterbacks (entering Week 10), just behind Tom Brady. He also has been perfectly in command of all of it while committing very few mistakes (five interceptions, zero lost fumbles in the season).
Harbaugh made a point of praising Jackson’s intelligence as much as his Michael Vick-like athleticism following the win over New England.
“He has a very high football IQ,” Harbaugh said. “He also understands the moment. He’s got poise. This goes to the way he thinks and the way his mind works. He has an amazing ability to take a lot of factors: play clock, play call personnel, formation, defense that presents, whatever changes that have to be made and just process all of that in that kind of moment, which is what makes the position at quarterback so difficult.”
Changing the narrative
The Ravens offense often looks like something football fans see on a Saturday. Reserved for college football, the spread and run-pass option systems have become staples.
This is by design.
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman guided the San Francisco 49ers offense when Colin Kaepernick was tearing up defenses. While using his arm and legs, Kaepernick led the 49ers to one Super Bowl and two NFC Championship game appearances.
Baltimore’s offensive scheme has unmistakable similarities to the one Kaepernick led in San Francisco.
Both put intense pressure on a defense to defend the inside running game. The defense also has to respect the speed of the quarterback to break contain on the outside.
Mixed into the run-heavy approach are timely passes to tight ends and receivers. This creates a pick-your-poison type of situation for a defense.
Darnold is now famous for saying he was “seeing ghosts” against the Patriots earlier this season while Jackson made the same defense look like it was chasing one.
Brady met Jackson on-field after the game and gave him a hug along with a compliment. During an interview on WEEI radio, he recently touched on the unique challenge Jackson presents.
“I thought he played very well,” Brady said. “He has a very unique style, and he does a really good job with his ball handling. You’re never really quite sure who’s got it and you hesitate for a little bit and then he pulls it and runs.”
This is noteworthy because, for many years, there was an assumption in NFL circles that a “running” quarterback could not consistently win. That playing from the pocket was the best way to go.
This, in turn, played into stereotypes about what a quarterback is supposed to look like. And THAT raises the often-tricky specter of race as it relates to the most prominent position in sports.
As a black quarterback, Jackson was always going to be viewed in some circles as not fitting the prototype.
At Louisville, while winning the Heisman Trophy, Jackson made spectacular plays with his arm AND legs. No matter as it was always his running that worked to define his future for some.
Leading up to the draft, highly respected Hall of Fame general manager Bill Polian questioned if Jackson could play quarterback in the NFL. Not only that, he went so far as to suggest he make a move to wide receiver. This was a notion that conjured up all kinds of old but familiar tropes used against black quarterbacks.
Polian recently admitted he was wrong with his pre-draft evaluation. He also complimented the Ravens for building an offense around his talents.
Mobile quarterbacks have enjoyed success for decades — Fran “the Scram” Tarkenton, Randall Cunningham, Steve Young, Daunte Culpepper, Vick, and Kaepernick. The question is: Why aren’t more NFL teams open to finding, developing, and building a system around someone like Jackson?
Will his MVP run change NFL dogma?
Shawn Moore, who was a 1990 finalist for the Heisman Trophy after a stellar career as a quarterback at Virginia, and then played four seasons in the NFL — including three as a backup to John Elway in Denver — thinks it is already happening.
“I am seeing a change even from my day,” Moore said. “There was a time when every team was looking for that 6-4, blonde-haired quarterback with the big arm. Now, it’s more about: Who can win? The more you see guys like Russell Wilson, Lamar, (Patrick) Mahomes, Deshaun (Watson), Dak Prescott … get their teams into the playoffs, the more we’ll see a move away from conventional thinking. At the end of the day, it’s a bottom-line business: Can you win me games? Or that GM or coach is out of a job. Lamar is showing that he can get it done and I think he’ll continue to improve. He’s smart. He seems to learn and adapts from every experience.”
The road ahead
Entering Week 10, the top-five rated quarterbacks by QBR — a metric that measures a quarterback’s overall efficiency — were Wilson, Prescott, Mahomes, Watson, and Jackson.
They all use their legs as well as their arms to attack defenses. Last spring’s No. 1 overall pick, Kyler Murray of the Cardinals, is off to a solid start as well.
The immediate future is filled with intriguing possibilities for Jackson.
The Ravens will be heavy favorites over the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 10. Next they face a fascinating test against Watson and the Houston Texans. A fun matchup in Los Angeles against the Rams before a home contest against the currently undefeated San Francisco 49ers.
Home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs could be had. The Ravens have a style of play that should travel well come January.
Blazing-fast rookie wide receiver Marquise Brown (24 receptions, 374 yards, three touchdowns) has yet to be fully unleashed. This will provide Jackson another toy to play with as the season rolls along. The defense has shown drastic improvement in the last four weeks.
According to Las Vegas sportsbooks, Baltimore’s odds of winning the Super Bowl are 6/1. The Ravens are just behind New England (5/2) and the New Orleans Saints (9/2).
So, is Lamar Jackson a “running” quarterback? Does it matter? How about just calling him a winning one?