At this point in the NFL offseason, the line between expectations and desires starts to blur, football’s realities eroded by a wave of “Why not?” proclamations. Take Lamar Jackson, for instance. What the Ravens’ star quarterback expects is to pass more in 2023. What he wants is to pass a lot more in 2023.
Jackson first hinted at his grand ambitions after signing his contract extension last month, recalling that he’d told someone he wants to “throw for, like, 6,000 yards with the weapons we have.” (The single-season NFL record for passing yards: 5,477 yards. Jackson’s single-season high: 3,127 yards.)
At organized team activities last week, Jackson downplayed his desire to reach any particular benchmarks. But he did suggest this offense, his first under coordinator Todd Monken, will be different from the four he led under Greg Roman. “Less running and more throwing,” he explained.
“Running can only take you so far,” said Jackson, one of the best running quarterbacks in NFL history. “I feel like, with this new era of teams and offenses in the league, I feel like we need that.”
The Ravens are better equipped for an aerial attack than they’ve ever been since Jackson’s arrival in 2018. Monken oversaw prolific pass-first offenses as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ coordinator. Rashod Bateman, Zay Flowers, Odell Beckham Jr., Devin Duvernay, Nelson Agholor and Tylan Wallace are, on paper, the Ravens’ most talented wide receiver group in years.
Mark Andrews is one of the NFL’s best tight ends, and Isaiah Likely could be a rising star. Running back J.K. Dobbins flashed an improved receiving skill set late last season. The offensive line is expected to be one of the NFL’s best.
The biggest variable in the Ravens’ offseason metamorphosis, then, could be their head coach. Even as John Harbaugh has presided over radical changes in the team’s approach — most notably, pivoting midseason from Joe Flacco to Jackson in 2018 — one offensive philosophy has remained largely unchanging: Establish the run.
According to the analytics website RBSDM, from 2010 to 2022, a span in which the Ravens went through six coordinators, their offense was among the most run-heavy in the league. The team’s early-down pass rate, which excludes the final two minutes of both halves and accounts only for situations when a team’s win probability is at least 20%, ranked 25th (50.2%) over those 13 seasons. The Green Bay Packers, by contrast, led the NFL with a 57.1% pass rate on first and second downs.
Harbaugh’s Ravens never ran the ball more in so-called neutral situations than they did in Jackson’s early years in Baltimore. From 2018 to 2020, when the Ravens ranked second, first and first in rushing yards per game, respectively, they also finished 30th, 32nd and 30th in early-down pass rate.
In Jackson’s past two seasons, however, the offense pointed toward a new direction. In 2021, the Ravens ranked 13th in early-down pass rate through Week 14, when Jackson suffered a season-ending ankle injury. Last season, they ranked eighth through Week 13, when Jackson suffered a season-ending knee injury. Even the Flacco-led Ravens rarely passed as often.
Ascribing such a turnaround to any one key factor can be tempting but difficult. Injuries decimated the running game in 2021, and the aftershocks lingered well into 2022. Teams have defended the Ravens differently, in some cases daring the offense to run into a stacked box. And, as Jackson’s comfort levels as a passer have expanded beyond the middle of the field, so has the offense’s ability to execute more passing plays.
But, even after the Ravens parted ways with Roman in January, Harbaugh seemed unwilling, at least publicly, to embrace the NFL’s pass-first trends. Asked at his season-ending news conference about his hopes for the offense’s next identity, Harbaugh underlined the importance of a balanced attack before saying: “You’ve got to be able to run the ball.”
“We’re going to always believe in running the ball, and we’ve done that really well over the last number of years,” he added. “With that, you’ve got to have a complementary passing game. You’ve got to have a stand-alone passing game — with drop-back passing — situational passing, third downs, especially long and in the red zone.
“And then you’ve got to have a play-action passing game that goes with whatever runs you run, whether it’s quarterback-driven runs or power runs or whatever, and they’ve got to fit your run game. So those are the things that kind of play off of each other; it’s just a well-rounded, balanced offense.”
Jackson said last week that Monken is “basically just giving us the keys to the offense,” empowering his quarterbacks to make adjustments before the snap. But the former Georgia play-caller is also helping to design the car that those keys will start, and it’s unclear which model he prefers.
In Tampa Bay, his offenses ranked fifth and fourth in 2017 and 2018, respectively, in early-down pass rate. Over those two years, Buccaneers quarterbacks combined for nearly 10,000 passing yards, a mark Jackson didn’t hit until his fifth NFL season.
At Georgia, Monken’s offenses took a different tack. The Bulldogs passed on just 43.1% of their offensive plays in 2021, in the bottom third of Football Bowl Subdivision schools, and on just 46.5% of their plays in 2022, in the bottom half of the FBS. (Information on early-down rates was not readily available.) They still ranked among the nation’s most efficient and explosive groups.
“I think, when you go into an install meeting, all of your skill players want to say, ‘Where are my opportunities coming? Where am I going to get a chance to touch the football and showcase my ability?’” Monken said at his introductory news conference in February. “And I think the more you’re able to do that and utilize that … to me, balance isn’t run-pass; balance is, make them cover all five of your guys, make them defend the field, make them defend the depth of the field.”
As the Ravens’ second week of OTAs unfolds, Harbaugh and Monken should have a better sense of what’s best for their offense. Jackson, who sat out team drills last week as he worked on his conditioning and grasp of the new playbook, shared photos on social media Tuesday showing him practicing in 11-on-11 scenarios. This month’s mandatory minicamp will offer the offseason’s best preview yet of the Ravens’ renovated passing offense.
After that comes training camp, then the preseason, then the start of a season that could usher in wholesale change or just slight tweaks here and there. With the Ravens’ talent on offense, the ball could go anywhere in 2023. Jackson has long hoped for a more airborne direction. But he also understands success is paramount, however it’s achieved.
“I feel like, if we’re winning, everybody should be happy,” Jackson said last week. “So we’ll see how it goes.”