With a simple stride across a stage, Lamar Jackson walked into immortality Thursday night.
Only 10 men had won Most Valuable Player more than once, and they were the most hallowed names in football. Brown. Unitas. Montana. Young. Favre. Warner. Manning. Brady. Rodgers. Mahomes.
And, now, Jackson. If you’re feeling chills, don’t worry. You should.
Yet the higher you climb in football, just like an actual mountain, the harder it is to push on. The air is rarer and harder to draw in a fresh breath. Every misstep, every miscalculation is more consequential. That’s the territory Jackson has entered — no longer measured against his peers but against the greatest players in the sport’s history.
That’s the tricky, bittersweet nature of Jackson’s acceptance of his latest award at NFL Honors, the second MVP trophy of his career. He’s become an elite quarterback when many NFL decision-makers questioned early on if he could play the position at the highest level. His award was absolutely deserved in a regular season that he dominated.
But whether it’s “Rings Culture,” coexisting with a rival quarterback who is blazing his own immortal legacy, or the draft night vow of Jackson himself, Super Bowl glory is the missing piece of Jackson’s legacy, the biggest way he doesn’t stack up next to the other men he will one day stand alongside in the Hall of Fame. (Brown retired before the Super Bowl was established, but he won an NFL title in 1964).
And, yes, it’s practically set in stone that Jackson’s bust will one day be cast in bronze.
Of the 10 men who have won MVP at least twice, seven are in the Hall of Fame, and Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes will all be in Canton, too. Jackson will eventually hit some of the statistical marks associated with Hall of Fame quarterbacks, but already this much is true: He is arguably the best dual-threat quarterback of all time, and he’s twice led the Ravens to the best regular-season record in the league.
One day soon, he’ll lead all NFL quarterbacks in rushing (he’s fourth all time with 5,258 yards, fewer than 900 off the record), while being a much more efficient passer than the likes of Michael Vick and Cam Newton.
Steve Young had a lower touchdown pass rate and a higher interception rate. If you project Jackson’s career to last a similar length, he could have more passing touchdowns and fewer interceptions than Young while doubling his career rushing yards.
You cannot tell the story of football without Jackson, who has been, at his best, impossible to defend.
Then why does this moment not feel triumphant? Why does a second MVP award, literally the sport’s highest honor, feel more like an indictment for Jackson than an achievement?
Last week, coach John Harbaugh rightly pointed out that Jackson has been “a phenomenal success” for the Ravens and the NFL. He defended Jackson, who has gone 58-19 as a regular-season starter, and pointed out that if the only “success” is winning a Super Bowl, then almost everyone’s season ends in failure.
Jackson’s success should not only be measured by his playoff record, of course. Did his 357-yard, three-touchdown performance against Detroit not matter? His dazzling, play-extending throws against the Jaguars and 49ers? His five passing touchdowns against the Dolphins? Or even including the playoffs, was he not incredible as he dissected the Texans in the second half?
Of course all of those moments were meaningful. Of course they add to Jackson’s greatness, which the Ravens appreciate more than anyone.
“I just texted him and told him how proud I was of what he was able to accomplish this year,” general manager Eric DeCosta said last week. “Just watching him play was pretty amazing for me.”
None of that changes that Jackson needs to win a Super Bowl, however. At the heights he’s reached, there is only one way to keep climbing. The sands in Jackson’s hourglass have been running since he first won MVP four seasons ago, which in the spin cycle of NFL punditry feels like an eternity.
In the elite company he now rubs shoulders with, Jackson, at 27, is hardly behind schedule for championship success. It took Peyton Manning until age 30 to win his first Super Bowl, and former Colts center Jeff Saturday recently drew parallels between the scrutiny Manning faced and Jackson.
Young was the backup on two Super Bowl teams before winning his first as a starter at 33. “Would someone take the monkey off my back, please?” Young shouted from the sideline as the 49ers closed in on victory, an acknowledgement of the burden the league’s best players face until they win.
It takes time. But Jackson and the Ravens will need to maintain the upward trajectory.
Jackson will have to work on himself this offseason, asking difficult questions about how his postseason exits have gone. His 98.0 passer rating drops to 75.7 in the playoffs. He’s thrown as many interceptions (6) as touchdowns in the postseason. In the loss to Kansas City, he seemed to eschew the running lanes up the middle that he has so often taken advantage of in favor of buying time to pass. He’ll have to curb his impulses in playoff games to reach the same heights we have seen in the regular season.
It’s not wholly up to Jackson, of course. Football is a team game, and 2023 might have been the first season in which the Ravens outfitted Jackson with a coordinator, receiving weapons and the control of the offense that he probably needs to reach his upside. The front office will have to continue to give him a chance to win.
In reality, winning MVP and the Super Bowl in the same year is incredibly rare in the modern era. Neither Brady nor Rodgers has done it. Manning and Drew Brees never did it. Only Mahomes has done it in this century, in 2022.
It may seem an unfair standard to expect this exceptionalism from Jackson, but that unreasonable expectation is what’s required to achieve the highest level of greatness in the NFL.
He’s soared past every other expectation so far.