On the eve of his sixth season, there is so much for Lamar Jackson to be excited about.
A huge new contract, putting him on the path to stay in Baltimore long-term. A new offensive coordinator who is entrusting him with more control at the line. A pricey new receiving corps with the most talent he’s ever had at his disposal.
What should excite Jackson the most? The chance to buck old labels — to be seen as the quarterback he always has believed he should be.
As cagey as the Ravens have been about their new offensive attack under Todd Monken, the ever-guarded John Harbaugh allowed Wednesday, “It’s a pretty fair assumption that we’re going to throw the ball more.” That means the Ravens will be looking for Jackson, their $260 million man, to make more plays with his arm — a skill set that continues to be questioned in spite of the 2019 MVP’s success so far.
Jackson has never been one of the league’s most prolific passers. While his 36 passing touchdowns in his MVP season led the NFL, he still finished out of the top 20 in yards (3,127) and passing attempts (401) despite career highs in both. Jackson has never been top 20 in passing attempts in any season as the league has shifted to more pass-reliant schemes (five quarterbacks had at least 600 attempts last season). His electric speed and slipperiness on the ground has typically been the top fear of defenses who wait for him to bolt into the open field.
Buffalo’s Josh Allen, another 2018 draftee who is also a dual-threat QB, has more than 6,000 more yards and more than 900 more attempts than Jackson. But Jackson has a higher completion percentage, more yards per completion, and other positive per-attempt metrics that paint a flattering picture of his efficiency.
While Greg Roman’s offense put the run game first and relied on Jackson’s ability to take off into space, it is believed that Monken’s system will be more pass-heavy, with spread elements similar to Jackson’s high-octane college offenses at Louisville. No one seems more ready to bet big on his arm than Jackson, who might have been exaggerating when he forecast a 6,000-yard passing season, but certainly feels up to the challenge.
“I can’t speak for him, but I’m sure he’s tired of hearing he can’t throw, can’t do this and that,” said Devin Duvernay, entering his fourth season as Jackson’s teammate. “But I think he loves this offense, and I think it’s just gonna be more opportunity to show more.”
As a child who idolized Michael Vick, Jackson has always seen a quarterback as someone who can excel as both a passer and a rusher. But as conventional football thinking has attempted to pigeonhole and stereotype him, he’s pushed back — complicating his relationship with his running ability, his most unique gift.
He’s said for years that he “hates” to run, even as he’s been one of the NFL’s best runners. Jackson famously declined to run the 40-yard dash at the scouting combine after a scout told him teams were interested in seeing the former Heisman winner, who was groomed under quarterback guru Bobby Petrino, convert to receiver.
“Just me trying to prove my point,” he once told NBC Sports. “I’m a quarterback. That’s all.”
Being a “running quarterback” is, as it long has been for Black players, loaded language for Jackson. Limiting. Now he’ll have the chance to bust up the narrative that he’s one-dimensional — even though if you’ve been paying attention, he’s been doing it since he came into the league.
He’s a much more accurate passer, for example, than Vick was (63.7% completion to Vick’s 56.2%), has a higher touchdown rate, a lower interception rate, and nearly twice as many touchdowns as Vick had through his Year 5 season.
If Vick was once the prototype for what a dual-threat QB could be, Jackson has more than surpassed it. But labels stubbornly persist.
Jackson’s confidence aside, what his role in a new offense actually looks like is one of the season’s most eagerly anticipated stories. While Roman helped construct one of the most dynamic rushing attacks in the NFL during his Ravens tenure, several of Jackson’s key passing metrics declined or stalled as the seasons went on. While the blame could be shared between Roman’s clustered, “medieval” schemes, Jackson’s inconsistent timing and accuracy and an underwhelming receiving room, what became apparent was the offense needed change.
Amazon analyst and former QB Ryan Fitzpatrick thinks simply stirring things up could provide new life for Jackson.
“Sometimes just changing the faces a little bit — a fresh start,” he said. “You’ve got a new coordinator. You’ve got to learn a new offense. You’ve got a guy that’s giving you a say in what’s being called. You can take some ownership in what’s going on with that offense. I think this fresh start for Lamar and bringing in Todd is going to be really good for him.”
ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky doesn’t think Jackson’s running game is going away, but he might run more on scrambles (Roman plugged in plenty of designed runs for Jackson). He believes defenses will try to limit explosive plays and force Jackson to show he can throw shorter, accurate passes for steady, repetitive drives.
“Teams are going to sit there and say, ‘We are going to force you to be efficient offensively. We’ll tackle well in space. And you’ll hold the ball too long, or you’ll miss the throw when it should be outside shoulder and you’ll put it on inside shoulder, or we’ll win with our rush off of one of our players,’” Orlovsky said. “And I think the more that Lamar can excel with efficient, pinpoint accuracy — ‘We will drive the field 10 or 12 plays’ — the more unstoppable this offense will lean towards being.”
If dink and dunk doesn’t sound like Jackson, maybe it isn’t. Maybe he still has surprises left in store, gifts that are underappreciated. It’s a moment for Jackson to show that his game is as elusive to labels as it is to defenders. With a massive contract and improved weapons, there’s a lot of opportunity to show his arm in a way that he hasn’t had a chance to before — or face scrutiny if he can’t capitalize on a situation that many believe is much more favorable for throwing the ball.
When asked if the stage is set to be the kind of quarterback he’s always believed he could be, Jackson agreed — but didn’t run away with the idea. He’s trying to show more restraint with his running, after all.
“I believe so, but I also believe there’ll always be doubters, no matter what you’re showing people,” he said. “It’s all about proving yourself right, not everyone else. So, I’m just going to go out there and do what I do, and we’re going to see.”
Jonas Shaffer contributed to this story.