BALTIMORE—There was one play that will stand out to Lamar Jackson and his teammates for as long as they allow themselves to think about Sunday's 34-17 home win over the Oakland Raiders, and it didn't even show up in the box score.
It wasn't the five-yard touchdown scamper to cap off the drive he led after halftime, on the heels of two interceptions on consecutive drives. And it wasn't the 8-yard quick slant tossed to Michael Crabtree for another touchdown later in the second half. It was a play that was called back for holding, on a drive that ended in a fourth-quarter punt. On third-and-7, Jackson faked a handoff to Ty Montgomery and flicked a rainbow to a sprinting John Brown—one of the fastest men on any NFL field—and hit his tightly covered receiver in the bread basket some 45 yards down the right sideline.
After passing for just 150 yards and rushing for 119 in his first start in place of the injured Joe Flacco—a Week 11 win over the Bengals—Jackson, the rookie first-rounder, gave in to the temptation to listen to the media reviews, and they weren't good. The league would quickly figure Jackson out, they said, if all he could do was make dink-and-dunk throws and run like the wind. "He wanted to be able to show he can throw the deep ball too," Brown said. "We talk about that a lot, and other teams talk about it. I think he wanted to prove his point, and he proved it. And he's going to keep proving it."
The throw validated what players on the 6-5 Ravens already knew about Jackson from practice; the arm talent is there, and it's underrated. "That penalty cost us that play, but it just shows you his potential," said veteran Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith. "To put that throw on a guy that runs like that [Brown]... that's really good."
Said Ravens wide receiver Michael Crabtree: "It gave you a glimpse of what he can be. We need to enjoy the process and just watch."
Crabtree and the rest of the roster will be watching the coaching staff this week as it ponders what Jackson has made a difficult decision. Flacco saw a hip specialist Monday to determine if he will return to practice this week for the first time since injuring his hip Nov. 4 against the Steelers. He'd been effective enough in nine games to complete 61% of his passes with 12 touchdowns and six interceptions, but there was a reason the Ravens drafted Jackson, and it wasn't because the 33-year-old Flacco had inspired a great degree of confidence in recent years.
Said Harbaugh Monday, of his upcoming decision: "I feel very, very confident that I have a good handle on it, understand the team and what we need to do."
For now, teammates aren't picking sides publicly, but there's been a rallying around Jackson, the former Heisman winner whose humility and play has inspired passionate defenses of his skillset from around the locker room. "It's kind of hard to listen to the TV when they question his ability to throw the ball, because he can throw the ball," Montgomery said. “His running ability overshadows his arm for whatever reason, but you saw today he was putting throws on the money and trusting his instincts. They're always going to second guess him."
"Any black quarterback, especially with that type of speed, will get labeled that he can’t throw," Smith says, "but he can throw."
Said Crabtree: "That man won a Heisman. Ain't too many things he can’t do. People forget that."
Thank the draft process for that. While 2017 Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield was drafted No. 1 overall, the 2016 winner of the prestigious award waited until the 32nd pick to hear his name called. There were the questions about his accuracy, but the biggest thing that spooked teams was his interview performance. Louisville's offense with Jackson consisted of one-word playcalls, and of the five quarterbacks drafted in the first round, Jackson struggled the most in the X's and O's portion of the pre-draft meetings, according to sources with two separate teams in the market for quarterbacks in last year's draft. The Ravens have so far had their investment validated by a player who not only comprehends the playbook, but has taken on responsibilities in the direction of pass protection as well.
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Getting the words out is a different story. Jackson's Broward County (Fla.) twang combined with a propensity to mumble can have teammates struggling to decipher calls, something Jackson has worked to fix. "Even when he's struggling saying something, we all eventually understand what he's trying to say," Montgomery says. "And sometimes we laugh about it but we go out and get the job done."
It's working, so far.
Jackson’s two interceptions against the Raiders’ 30th-ranked defense might have cost the Ravens a higher price against a better team. And he's yet to master the art of sliding safely in the face of contact, something critical media voices aren't likely to ignore. Even his teammates get worried. "When we've got a talent like that, you don't want to see him go down," Smith says. "As a defensive player, when we see a guy with that build, we're gonna put a hat on you. As many hats on you as we can."
But as for the question of whether he can throw the deep ball, and for that matter, any other criticism that comes from the outside, Baltimore's most veteran players have stressed to the rookie the importance of ignoring the noise. "Who cares what the outside thinks? Just be you," says safety Eric Weddle. "We want you to be Lamar Jackson. The quicker players learn not to care what the outside thinks, usually the sooner guys stop caring what the outside thinks, they usually have good long careers."
Jackson, though, isn't quite done caring.
"Of course it felt good," he said of the throw to Brown, "because now they know."
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