On Thursday night, Lamar Jackson is expected to win his second NFL Most Valuable Player Award, a historic honor culminating a season of necessary reinvention for the Ravens’ superstar quarterback.
Four years after powering one of the game’s greatest-ever rushing attacks, Jackson set career highs in completion percentage (67.2), passing yards (3,678) and yards per attempt (8.0), the brightest star on a stellar team. Until the playoffs, no one was better than the Ravens, whose point differential against winning teams (plus-178) was the best in league history. In Baltimore, no one was more important than Jackson, who at age 27 is poised to become only the 11th NFL player to win multiple MVPs and the second youngest to win his second, behind only Jim Brown.
But if Jackson’s 2023 revealed how far he can take a modern, pass-first offense, it also pointed toward how much further he can go. That was the pain of the Ravens’ AFC championship game loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. That’s also the promise of 2024 and beyond for Jackson.
Few players in NFL history have his alchemical qualities, that prodigious ability to turn nothing into something, and make it something special. Jackson not only led the NFL in scramble yards (448) but also in passing efficiency on extended plays; on drop-backs of at least five seconds, according to TruMedia, he went 17-for-29 (58.6%) for 285 yards and three touchdowns.
The challenge for Ravens officials this offseason, as it has been for every offseason since Jackson’s arrival, is stoking development without disruption. Jackson thrived in coordinator Greg Roman’s run-first offense, but he needed Todd Monken’s more nuanced system. Jackson set passing records with tight end-heavy personnel groupings, but he needed upgrades at wide receiver. Jackson was always a promising field general, but he needed presnap empowerment.
Now, if the Ravens are finally to overcome their playoff shortcomings, they’ll need Jackson to soar again without having to clip his wings. They need as much of the good and as little of the bad as possible.
Jackson’s 2023 was extraordinary because of how much of both it offered. Jackson’s sack rate (7.5%) and scramble rate (12.1%) would be the highest for any MVP-winning quarterback since 2001, according to TruMedia. His fumble rate (1.6%) would be tied for the second highest. His negative-play rate on drop-backs (9.8%) — interceptions, sacks and fumbles — would be the second highest. And yet the Ravens finished fourth overall this season in offensive efficiency, according to FTN.
Whatever his deficiencies, Jackson’s talents typically mitigated them. He lost nearly 100 combined “expected” points in 2023 because of sacks (67.9 points, seventh most in the NFL) and fumbles (29.5 points, sixth most), and still the Ravens ranked sixth in points per drive.
At his season-ending news conference last week, coach John Harbaugh said there’s “nobody better in this league” than Jackson. A second MVP is the only argument he needs this season, but there is still room for growth and there are models for his next evolution as a player. Two play in the AFC: The Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes and Buffalo Bills’ Josh Allen bedevil opponents with the same freewheeling creativity, but they’ve learned to harness it in different ways.
Mahomes stays out of trouble in the playoffs; he has thrown no interceptions and lost just one fumble over Kansas City’s back-to-back runs to the Super Bowl. Allen offsets his interceptions (an NFL-leading 47 since 2021) with masterful pocket presence; he was sacked just 24 times this season, his 4.0% sack rate ranking first among regular starters. Jackson typically bristles at comparisons, but from his peers he can see what is possible with his own exceptional skill set.
“I’m excited about the future,” Harbaugh said last week. “I’m excited about taking this offense to the next level next year. An opportunity to pick up where we are and dig deeper with what we can give [Jackson]. …. This year, every day was a new day in the offense, right on through the last part of the season. Next year, it won’t be a new day every single day, and that’s pretty easy to figure out, and it makes sense, right? But it’s real, and I’m looking forward to that process.”
It’s already underway. After the loss to Kansas City, Jackson lamented that, if not for the Ravens’ three turnovers, “we definitely would have had a shot.” Harbaugh said last week that, in a recent meeting, Jackson had brought up a range of schematic considerations, from pass protection to route distributions against certain defenses, both issues against the Chiefs. “Those are things that he’s going to be involved with the staff talking about,” Harbaugh said.
Thursday’s NFL Honors event in Las Vegas, then, will serve as a bittersweet reminder to Jackson of all he accomplished during a season cut unexpectedly short. The Ravens entered the playoffs as the league’s best team because, it seemed, they also had the league’s best player. Only when Jackson was stopped did the magnitude of his season come into focus. He’d done so much for the Ravens. He can still do so much more.
“Heavy is the head that wears the crown,” safety Kyle Hamilton said last week. “There are a lot of people out there hoping for people like Lamar to fail, but we all know that he’s the best player in this league, and I’m glad to have him on our team.”