Lamar Jackson’s life has not changed much since he was named the 2019 NFL MVP in February.
Even though he was the second-youngest player to ever win the honor — only the great Jim Brown was younger — the Baltimore Ravens’ electrifying 23-year-old quarterback does not feel like he’s made it, nor has he let it get to his head.
In fact, Jackson almost shrugs when asked about the honor these days. Sure, older folks recognize him more, and so do little kids. But he still looks at himself like he’s a regular person, and he’s maintained that humility by keeping his famously-tight circle — spearheaded by his mother, who represented him as his manager before the 2018 NFL draft — even tighter.
“I keep people away from me — I’m being honest — like the people who like the attention and spotlight and stuff like that,” Jackson told Yahoo Sports in late May. “That’s not me, so I’d rather not be around them.”
‘A dream come true’
But come the fall, those who want to get a small piece of Jackson will be able to, provided they have $59.99. Because as the new cover man for the iconic “Madden” video game series, Jackson’s face will be displayed in thousands of stores across America on “Madden 21.”
It’s an honor that he does not take lightly.
“I shed tears looking at the cover,” Jackson said, his voice quaking ever so slightly. “It’s different knowing like, what you’ve been through, what you faced … and for people to look at you and want you to represent them by putting you on the cover of their game, it’s a dream come true.”
Especially as a black, dual-threat quarterback. Jackson’s elite athleticism and elusiveness made him a human highlight reel at the University of Louisville, but neither those traits nor his 69-27 touchdown-to-interception ratio for his college career were enough to keep him from falling to pick No. 32 of the first round in 2018.
And that’s why it means the world to Jackson that now, two years later, millions of black kids around the country will be able to see him on the “Madden” cover, play with him in the game and know that playing quarterback in the NFL — in the manner he does, with both his arm and his legs — is an attainable goal for them.
“I was one of those kids looking up to Michael Vick, Cam Newton, RGIII, [players] of that nature, for the same reason,” Jackson said. “So it means a lot to me, and I just want to keep heading that way and let them know you can make it out of your situation, your neighborhood, whatever you’re doing.”
Jackson understands the importance that “Madden” can have in shaping these views; he’s been playing the game his whole life, and still finds time to play during his increasingly dwindling downtime.
Since “Madden 20” released last August, Jackson says he’s played three seasons — as the Ravens — and has won Super Bowls in every season.
On “All-Madden,” the toughest difficulty level, of course.
“Yeah, I don’t have to cheat,” Jackson said. “I don’t have to play on rookie or any of that.”
Jackson also plays the game enough that he was disappointed with his ratings when last year’s game was released. His out-the-box overall rating of 76 made him the game’s 23rd-best quarterback. By the end of his MVP season, his overall skyrocketed to 92 — the fourth-highest in the game, behind only Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes, Seattle’s Russell Wilson and New Orleans’ Drew Brees.
“Turned it all the way around,” Jackson said.
Mirroring Patrick Mahomes’ rise
It was a similar rise to fame that Mahomes underwent a year prior during his own MVP season in 2018. Like Mahomes, Jackson became a bona fide star in only his second year in the league. Like Mahomes, Jackson was immediately put on the next cover of “Madden.”
Now, Jackson hopes he can also follow in Mahomes’ footsteps in one more way — winning the Super Bowl in his third year in the league, following a devastating playoff loss the season before.
And just like Mahomes used the Chiefs’ AFC championship game loss to New England in January 2019 as motivation, Jackson seemed similarly motivated when asked what fans can expect from him in 2020 following the Ravens’ surprising 28-12 divisional round home loss to the Tennessee Titans in January.
“Another level up, a better Lamar from last year,” Jackson promised. “There’s going to always be a better Lamar. Until I’m done with the game. And that’s a long time from now.”
The one area Jackson wants to improve in 2020 is as a passer, even though his 2019 numbers — he completed 66 percent of his passes for 3,127 yards, 36 touchdowns and six interceptions — were outstanding, especially when combined with his rushing tally (1,206 rushing yards and seven touchdowns).
“I’m just trying to throw the ball different ways,” Jackson said. “I’m trying to throw off-balance, because in the games, everything’s not going to be perfect, everything’s not going to be fundamentally sound. Like when you’re dropping back, sometimes you might have to make a quick drop instead of a five-step drop.”
And if he improves his accuracy, he said, he can help his diverse cast of weapons be even more dangerous.
“I’m just trying to make things a lot easier for us all around, and for my guys making a catch with the ball,” Jackson said. “[I want to help them] go turn up the field, instead of making them slow down for the pass. I’m trying to make everything easier for my guys.”
And even though COVID-19 has eliminated the on-field workouts that would have helped him build the chemistry needed to do that, Jackson — who said he’s spent the offseason at an Airbnb in Miami — has done what he can. In addition to attending virtual meetings for the Ravens four days out of the week, he’s also been getting together with Ravens receivers Marquise “Hollywood” Brown and Willie Snead IV to throw and catch about once a week.
‘I’m not peeking ahead anymore’
The hope, he said, is to quiet all the doubters, all the people who couldn’t wait to talk trash about his throwing ability following the Ravens’ upset playoff loss in January, who couldn’t wait to point out that he doesn’t sling it like Tom Brady or Peyton Manning.
“A dual-threat quarterback just won the Super Bowl — that’s all I’m saying,” Jackson said, referring to Mahomes. “He can do both, run and throw. We both can do both, run and throw. That’s just what it is now.
“Everyone’s not going to be 6-[foot]-4, 6-5, 6-6 who wins the Super Bowl. It’s a new era.”
Jackson was passionate as he said this, and there’s little wonder why. He cares about winning, which only became more obvious when he was asked if he’d seen ESPN’s documentary on Michael Jordan, “The Last Dance.” At the time of the interview, Jackson had not yet seen it.
But watching it — and getting a glimpse of Jordan’s legendary competitiveness — was definitely on his “to-do” list.
“Everyone knows that’s how I am, too, so that’s why I’ve got to watch it,” Jackson said.
Jackson’s eyes widened and he continued, growing only more animated.
“He won six championships,” Jackson said excitedly, all while emphatically clapping his hands twice. “I’ve got to get one. I’ve got to get a playoff win.”
But the road to redemption starts, he said, with focusing on the Cleveland Browns, the Ravens’ Week 1 opponent.
“I can’t peek ahead, that’s what happened before in the playoffs — we peeked ahead and we lost, so I’m not peeking ahead anymore,” Jackson said. “So people better not ask me about the [next] Super Bowl, or who we got Week 3 or Week 2. It’s all about Week 1. Don’t even ask me about [anything after].”
Jackson said this good-naturedly, but seriously. The last 12 months have been a whirlwind, as he’s effectively gone from a 76 overall rating in “Madden,” to NFL MVP, to new “Madden” cover man in one fell swoop.
But it’s one final indication that Jackson is as focused as ever. After all the talk about his passing ability and his 0-2 playoff record — “I don’t forget anything,” Jackson said — it’s clear he still has so much more he wants to accomplish.
“I’m not going to let anyone distract me from chasing my dream and doing what I wanted to do,” Jackson said. “I got picked 32nd, and knowing how I felt that night, I’m not going to let anyone stop that.”
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