JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – If you can’t take the feeling of stomach drops, of your fists clenching, of your heart beating right out of your ribs, get off the ride right now.
Lamar Jackson is not for you.
But if you can take it, if you can grit your teeth, watching the Ravens’ quarterback navigate choppy waters might just be the most thrilling ride you ever take — and the kind of thrill that makes the Ravens (11-3) the AFC’s best team.
When it comes to Jackson, the 26-year-old who is circling a second MVP award, there is no glory without danger, no heroics without the fire chasing at his heels. Having Jackson under center, there’s a very good chance he’ll win you the game — but you’ll also be bewildered how exactly he pulled it out.
Jogging off the field after the 23-7 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday night, Jackson was received by a sizable purple crowd of Baltimore fans who chanted “M-V-P!” in EverBank Stadium, because if you saw the performance, you were awed by it in a way that 171 yards through the air and 97 yards on the ground fail to capture.
It was wrapped in the third-quarter completion he threw to Isaiah Likely, a 26-yard bomb that may not have been thrown if Jaguars linebacker Dawuane Smoot had wrapped his arms around a normal quarterback. But it was Jackson, who ducked under and slipped out for more time – more than 7 seconds – to hit Likely for a jump ball 5 yards out from the end zone.
Likely didn’t know Jackson had teleported out of a sack before the throw, but he knows, with Jackson, it’s best to assume a play is never, ever truly dead until the whistle. “That’s just Lamar.”
When a reporter asked if Jackson felt calm as a 275-pound pass rusher whizzed by his head, his eyes bulged in disbelief. “Do I look calm? Do I be looking calm?”
He looks calmer than the rest of us, biting our lips watching him.
I can’t count the number of conversations I’ve had with fans, friends and family members that revolve around the same topic: the anxiety that Jackson is going to get hurt. Unfortunately, we’ve seen those fears manifest, cutting his 2021 and 2022 seasons short. With very tough games in December, that crawling sense of dread is building. Can Jackson keep up the Houdini act as the competition ramps up?
Here’s the thing: It’s a total package. You don’t get one without the other. The biggest thrills come from not totally knowing everything is going to work out … until Jackson finds a way to make it work.
“We could give Lamar Jackson a game ball every single game, but he wouldn’t take them,” coach John Harbaugh said. “He wouldn’t have anywhere to put ’em in his house.”
Given the injury history, you can understand the impulse: secure him in bubble wrap, set up quicker throws, don’t let him run without sliding.
Please, you want to beg, just keep him out of harm’s way.
But the best-laid plans have to be adjusted against playoff-caliber teams like Jacksonville. His offensive line was under siege Sunday night, allowing the Jags to pile up nine hurries and three sacks. A banged-up secondary was looking impressive against the Ravens receivers: Zay Flowers (one catch, 7 yards) didn’t even get a target until the second half.
When Plan A doesn’t work, there might be no quarterback you’d rather have than Jackson, who conjures Plan B out of thin air.
When the Ravens were moved 15 yards back from the goal line in the second quarter, no one was sicker than guard John Simpson, who drew the dead-ball penalty by getting in the face of a Jaguars player who shoved him in a dogpile.
Congratulations, John. Lamar Jackson is your quarterback. He wiped the mistake off the board with a 16-yard touchdown pass to Likely on the very next snap.
“He’s a dog. He should win MVP this year,” Simpson said, laughing. “The way he can make plays, make something out of nothing sometimes, it’s amazing. It’s amazing to be a part of. He’s just magic, damn near.”
Jackson also worked his magic on the run game, helping push back the Jaguars with option handoff plays and fooling them more than once. Especially after Keaton Mitchell went down with injury, Jackson was a huge key in the Ravens rolling up 204 rushing yards in the second half alone.
Even though seasoned Baltimore fans might feel their throats tighten as they watch Jackson dash toward defenders, the would-be tacklers feel that same panic tenfold when Jackson’s in the open field. Jackson’s blockers aren’t always sure where he’s running, Simpson said. “We usually hear the crowd go like, “Ooooh!” When they go crazy, that’s when we know we gotta be on our toes and move.”
It’s his willingness to hurtle into danger, his willingness to give his receivers just a few more seconds to get open that make him brilliant — and make the Ravens the best version of what they can be. Between making its own adjustments, Baltimore’s defense often marvels from the sideline at just how slippery and tough Jackson is to handle.
“Some of the things the guy does, he’s the only one that’s doing it,” linebacker Roquan Smith said, shaking his head. “Some of the things he gets himself out of or get the team out of, that just goes to show he put it on his back, put the city on his back, the team on his back, and [said], ‘Let’s go.’”
The Ravens will need Jackson to shoulder even more of the load in the coming weeks. They lost a home run threat in Mitchell, one of the few ball carriers Baltimore has who is faster than Jackson. They’re still without Mark Andrews, his favorite target, though Jackson seems to have found a suitable stand-in in Likely.
To reach their peak, the Ravens need more Lamar Jackson, not less.
It’s not a ride for the faint of heart. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a bigger thrill.