For a few minutes, the booth never felt further away from the field. Todd Monken couldn’t talk to his quarterback.
On the first drive against the Jacksonville Jaguars, the radio in Lamar Jackson’s helmet was on the fritz. The only way Monken, the Ravens’ offensive coordinator, could transmit a play to Jackson was by calling down to quarterbacks coach Tee Martin, who used hand signals to transmit plays.
For many NFL teams, this communications impasse would be a nightmare scenario. For the Ravens, it wound up being an 11-play drive ending in a field goal. Monken wondered later if “radio issues” might come up again in future games.
“I think, one of the plays, he used as an excuse because I think he just wanted to throw it,” Monken quipped on Thursday. “He called his own number. I said, well, that’s going to work out from now on. You can just say, ‘I didn’t hear you, so I just called whatever the heck I wanted.’”
Jackson certainly reflected fondly on the sequence.
“I think I was calling my own plays, pretty much, because I was calling the wrong numbers off the wristband,” he said. “And we were just moving the ball, so it worked in our favor. To be honest, it was cool. I managed it well.”
This ability for Jackson to be an offense unto himself comes to the fore this week as the Ravens face the San Francisco 49ers and their quarterback, Brock Purdy, who recently overtook Jackson as the Vegas favorite to win MVP.
On the one hand, Purdy is a smooth operator who leads the NFL in key metrics such as yards per attempt (9.9) and passer rating (119.0). On the other, his unlikely rise from the NFL’s Mr. Irrelevant to the second coming of Joe Montana has drawn skepticism. Is it really Purdy’s doing, or is he merely the benefactor of coach Kyle Shanahan’s lauded schemes and the elite playmakers around him such as Christian McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel, George Kittle and Brandon Aiyuk?
Those who huff at Purdy’s MVP-level production have hit him with the less-than-flattering title of “game manager,” suggesting Purdy is merely a caretaker of an offense rather than someone who elevates it. Ravens corner Marlon Humphrey, however, quibbled with that perception after studying film of the 23-year-old.
“I think that kind of surprised me just [because] I’ve been hearing so much chatter about the guys surrounding him [that] make him good and the coaches. But, when you look at the film, he’s putting throws right where they need to be,” Humphrey said. “He’s reading coverages. He does a lot of good things.”
There’s a middle ground here. Purdy appears to be the perfect man for the perfect situation. He makes the throws he needs to make, even if he has fewer downfield bombs than other elite quarterbacks. He doesn’t make many mistakes. Great receivers, like the ones he enjoys, are limited without someone to get them the ball (see: the Jets’ Garrett Wilson or the Steelers’ George Pickens). Purdy checks the boxes.
But, when it comes to the NFL’s Most Valuable Player, it’s worth pointing out: No one questions if Jackson’s brilliance is attributable to anyone other than himself.
Jackson has struggled at times, and his performance against Jacksonville wasn’t his best. Even so, Jackson showcased the highs of his improvisation, the quality that separates him from other great quarterbacks in the league.
Monken has certainly achieved some goals to make the offense more pass heavy during the Ravens’ 11-3 campaign. Jackson is on track for career highs in passing yards and completion percentage. He has more completions (266) than he did in his MVP season, despite having played one fewer game.
In other ways, the veteran play-caller has learned to adjust. Trusting Jackson to make the best of the worst is standard practice in Baltimore, often producing a better result than the scripted play itself. Monken said he thought an expletive as he saw Jackson high-point a throw to Isaiah Likely in double coverage on Sunday — but of course it worked out.
It’s not a great week for Baltimore to have to play a prime-time game in San Francisco. The Ravens just lost speedster Keaton Mitchell in the run game, and their wideouts are coming off of one of their least effective games. One thing you can count on week to week is that Jackson will give the Ravens a chance.
Is that true of Purdy? Between the Niners’ big win streaks this season, they had a three-game losing streak that coincided with an injury to Samuel. Purdy had struggles on late drives, throwing five interceptions in those three games.
It’s too early to say Purdy is incapable of handling adversity, but he hasn’t proven it to the degree Jackson has. If the MVP award is about who piles up statistically flattering numbers, Purdy might be the guy. But, if it’s about who creates and elevates his teammates — the guy you’d pick first on the playground — it’s hard to vote against Jackson.
Whoever comes out a winner on Christmas will leave a huge impression on the MVP race, making the game almost as impactful as what Jackson and Purdy have each done to this point.
For the Niners, the best-case scenario with Purdy under center is for the sun to be shining, for the plays to be run exactly as they’re drawn up and for every playmaker to stay healthy.
For the Ravens, the backup plan Jackson draws up on the fly can be just as good.