After the Ravens’ final game of the 2018 season, coach John Harbaugh talked about how the team was going to spend the offseason doubling down on the type of fundamental minutiae that would strengthen the core of Baltimore’s downhill running game piloted by Lamar Jackson (mostly ball security).
The team had just lost to the Chargers in the playoffs, and more of the discussion centered around the brilliant defensive game plan by Gus Bradley to stop Jackson, holding him to 14-of-29 passing for 194 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, plus nine carries for 54 yards. There was also that whole deal about Harbaugh admitting that the team considered replacing Jackson with Joe Flacco at the most critical point in the season. Jackson was roundly booed by Baltimore’s fans for a majority of the game.
That game felt like an ending because the NFL machine tends to operate in a very particular way when it comes to players like Jackson, who represent an outlier to the painfully conventional thinkers that lead most NFL personnel departments or analyze the game as a supposed professional. Couldn’t you just see any other milquetoast coaching staff in the league throwing their hands up after that Chargers game? Well, we tried. It was so easy to predict a future where Jackson was replaced in Week 8 of the 2019 season by some journeyman backup avatar (think Jimmy Clausen) because he gives the team the best chance to win.
Instead—thank the Lord—Harbaugh was making the undersell of the century on the podium that day. He later corrected himself in training camp by suggesting that Jackson and this offense might reset the way the league thinks about football, similar to the way Bill Walsh and Joe Montana made the league rethink football in the 1980s. Baltimore wasn’t just doubling down in fundamental minutiae—they were busy understanding their most talented player at his core, clearing the stage for Jackson to become one of the most devastating players in football.
On Sunday against the Bengals, Jackson was able to sit for most of the fourth quarter (whilst wearing an appropriately suave pair of terminator shades) after running up a 49–10 score through 45 minutes of play and posting his second perfect quarterback rating of the season. He is one of only two players in NFL history (Ben Roethlisberger the other) to do that twice in one season, and it’s only halfway over.
He continued to involve his 5' 9" rookie wide receiver with beautiful deep-ball touch passes.
He continued to thread coverages with the kind of seam throws into populated areas that almost no other young quarterbacks are making with regularity.
He continued, just for fun, to gut a defense that was simply picking QB run or RB run on every down and praying they’re correct.
Harbaugh is holding true to his promise, and Jackson is on pace for an MVP season. There will be a time in the near future when teams look at what Baltimore is building and realize that looking for a quarterback who vaguely reminds you of other successful quarterbacks in the past is a complete waste of time and resources. Instead, why not select the player who is most talented… full stop. The kind of player who, at least for now, is still undervalued by league standards because of dated, conventional thought.
The Ravens and Jackson are changing the way we think about a lot of core concepts in the NFL, leaving us to use banal and sometimes transparently vague terms like option-style to define something that is perforating some of the best defenses in the NFL. Jackson is threading balls to his fourth-best option on a given play. He’s slipping standard containment packages without breaking a sweat. And all the while, the Ravens are re-thinking what it means to create play-action and open up the field for a quarterback.
We should all be paying attention, because this is where the rest of the NFL is heading. Sometimes, it takes performances like Jackson's to push everyone else in the right direction.
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