At the end of the 2019 NFL season, Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson became the second player to win the league’s Most Valuable Player award unanimously, joining Tom Brady, who did it after the 2010 season.
“Make those people eat their words,” Jackson said at that time, a sentiment clearly directed at those who thought he should become a receiver and whatnot. “It feels good when you can make those people eat their words because they’re so negative. How are you going to wake up and be so negative about somebody who’s not negative toward you or don’t do anything wrong? Don’t worry about what they say. Do you.”
Jackson has been “doing him” ever since. He developed exponentially as a pocket passer, though pundits were slow on the uptake. Jackson regressed a bit there last year, but between left tackle Ronnie Stanley’s injuries and right tackle Orlando Brown’s defection to Kansas City last season… well, it’s tough to be a pocket passer when you have no pocket. Defenses blitzed Jackson at the NFL’s highest rate in 2021, and the more defenders came after him, the more his performance suffered.
Whatever his previous travails, Jackson has come out of the gate in 2022 at an entirely different level. I did a bit of research after Jackson ate the Patriots’ collective lunch in a 37-26 Ravens win, and the numbers are… astonishing.
Lamar Jackson has thrown 88% of his passes from the pocket this season. He has completed 66% of those passes for nine touchdowns and two interceptions.
He's also tied with Christian McCaffrey for fourth in rushing yards with 243.
Not bad for a wide receiver.
— Doug Farrar ✍ (@NFL_DougFarrar) September 26, 2022
But wait — there’s more!
Most games in NFL history with 3+ passing TD and 100+ rushing yards:
1. Lamar Jackson: 4
2. Lamar Jackson over the past 8 days: 2
3. 6 players tied with 1
— Field Yates (@FieldYates) September 26, 2022
Based on the stats and the tape, the 2022 version of Lamar Jackson is the version the believers always dreamed could happen, and the naysayers never wanted to accept was possible. You can throw whatever “fluke” talk attached to his name out the window with the velocity and efficiency of one of Jackson’s 40-yard wrist-flicks.
“No, I’m kind of getting used to it,” Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said after the Patriots win, when asked if anything Jackson does surprises him anymore. “It’s a good thing. But you never do get used to it because he plays his way, and he’s kind of determined to play his way, but he plays — it’s not — his way is winning football. It’s fundamentally sound quarterback play. He’s running the show out there. He’s making the checks. He’s managing the clock. All the things that you would say an operator or a manager does, he’s doing all those things, too. He’s doing those things, and he’s making plays sometimes when the play doesn’t make itself. And the receivers have such confidence.
“You’ve got to give those guys credit. They keep running routes, they keep getting open. The offensive line, to continue to pass protect when Lamar is holding the ball the way he does and moves around the pocket not have holding calls – that’s great technique. That’s great discipline by those guys. [offensive line coach] Joe [D’Alessandris] does a great job with those guys, too.”
So, it’s all come together for the 2-1 Ravens, who are only 2-1 because Jackson was out-dueled in Week 2 by Tua Tagovailoa and the Dolphins, who were able to exploit Baltimore coverage busts that Jackson was not.
Beyond the record, here’s why Lamar Jackson has been the NFL’s best player in the young season by an almost fictional margin.
Jackson is now a fully-developed pocket passer.
(Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports)
So, let’s get into some of those nine touchdown passes Jackson has thrown from the pocket this season. This 75-yard touchdown pass to Rashod Bateman against the Dolphins was a fascinating window into Jackson’s process this season. In Week 10 of the 2021 season, Miami destroyed Baltimore’s offense with the creative and strategic use of defensive back blitzes in Cover-0 (man coverage with no deep safeties), and Jackson had no real response.
Were things to be different this time around, I posited, Jackson was going to have to see things more clearly, get the ball out more quickly, and move out of the pocket aggressively.
This quick anticipation throw to Bateman showed that Jackson was quite happy to do the first two things; he didn’t need to bother with third. Miami has seven defenders either blitzing or defending what they think might be the run strength, and Jackson responds to that by hitting Bateman on the quick screen, knowing that he has the one-on-one won.
Another sign that the light has gone on completely for a quarterback is that all of a sudden, receivers who were on milk cartons for years are now in the spotlight. Third-year receiver Devin Duvernay has been the most obvious beneficiary of Jackson’s development in 2022, and this 25-yard touchdown pass against the Jets in Week 1 is proof of concept. Duvernay just rolls to the end zone against Cover-1, and Jackson makes the anticipatory throw — the ball is out when Duvernay crosses the 18-yard line, and it hits Duvernay in the end zone — despite the mugging given to him by cornerback Bryce Hall.
What I most like about this play is that the Jets aren’t blitzing Jackson here — they’re doing what has become Kryptonite for great quarterbacks from Patrick Mahomes to Joe Burrow in rushing four and plastering receivers with seven in coverage, and Jackson couldn’t seem to care less.
Jackson is shredding whatever defenses throw at him, and he’s doing it all from the pocket nine times out of 10.
Are we not entertained? .
Creating "sudden change opportunities" as a runner.
(Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports)
Jackson decided to add some bulk to his frame this offseason, but it hasn’t affected his ability to create explosive plays as a runner. Only Nick Chubb, Cordarrelle Patterson, and Saquon Barkley have more runs of 15 or more yards this season than Jackson’s four, which ties him with D’Andre Swift, Aaron Jones, and James Robinson.
As has been the case for years, Jackson both benefits from, and greatly expands, the rush game concepts drawn up by offensive coordinator Greg Roman. These concepts are tailor-made for Jackson, and nobody freaks defenses out with them more often and more effectively.
Certainly, no quarterback does.
#Patriots film: The Pats had trouble with Baltimore's QB runs all game, including some mistakes as simple as finding the ball. Bad eyes from Mack Wilson here.
The good news is? Most teams don't run Bash GT QB counter. (Bash = RB runs away from blocks; GT = guard, tackle pull) pic.twitter.com/ieGmw6C7OI
— Andrew Callahan (@_AndrewCallahan) September 26, 2022
Mr. Callahan, our friend from the Boston Herald, is absolutely correct. Here’s the All-22 of that 17-yard run with 5:21 left in the first half. If you want to see an entire defense get caught in a vise with one run concept, the end zone copy is your friend here.
Want a different scheme? Sure. Here’s Jackson torching the Pats for 38 yards in the third quarter on good old QB Power. The Ravens are diabolical with this stuff, because they force suboptimal defensive reactions with motions, fakes, and misdirection. Add in Jackson’s “Percy Harvin, But Actually Good” running skill set, and… well… good luck, everybody.
The Patriots had a few good moments against Jackson — they sacked him four times and grabbed an interception — but as safety Devin McCourty said after the game, all it takes is for a few bad moments for Jackson to set the whole thing on fire.
“I mean, that’s the thing when playing against him. Stat-wise, overall, can look like you did some good things, but he changes games with a couple different plays. Some of those QB run plays at the end of the game were huge for them, changing the field, big gains. That’s the thing, when you play against a team like this, an offense like this… we battled, we had some really good possessions, we had some good I would say back-to-back drives where we were able to get [them] off the field. We had good moments. But against a team like this, an offense like that, it’s 60 minutes consistently of trying to show up, doing a good job with some of the sudden change opportunities we had.”
This season, Jackson has been the master of those “sudden change opportunities.” No matter what he’s doing with the ball.
Building (and buying) the perfect quarterback cyborg.
(Syndication The Providence Journal)
The Ravens now have what they have always wanted in Lamar Jackson — the near-perfect, near-unstoppable Quarterback Cyborg. Were Jackson to never run the ball, and were he to never throw from outside the pocket, he’d still have the NFL MVP award just about wrapped up as a pure pocket passer.
I’ll give the naysayers a second to choke on that one before I continue.
Were Jackson to only run the ball, he’d be a top-five running back from an efficiency and explosiveness perspective.
(Ah, the running QB meme! That’s more like it!)
That’s what the Ravens now have. What they’ll do with it in a contractual sense is another question. Jackson and the Ravens were unable to clear that hurdle in the offseason — reportedly, Jackson wanted a fully-guaranteed contract similar to the one the Browns gave to Deshaun Watson (ugh), and while Jackson may be well worth it, that precedent is going to go down hard.
Jackson is currently playing on the franchise tag at $23,016 million for the 2022 season. The Ravens can keep extending that dance for a while. Or, Jackson could be on his way to the most lucrative contract year in the history of sports. All things are possible in this case.
Harbaugh doesn’t have to worry about that right now; it’s all about the benefits, not the Benjamins.
“No one has to tell me about Lamar Jackson,” Harbaugh said after Sunday’s win. “I believe in him. I love him. I just believed him the first day we drafted him, the first day we talked about drafting him. Felt like he could be everything he is. We’re not there yet, but we’re on our way, and he feels the same way about the play he’s playing, too. We’ve just got to keep working. But I’ll say this about his process. What’s he, in his fifth year now? So, his process as a quarterback in terms of preparation has taken another step. He’s always been going this way. That’s another step in that direction. I think he’s really kind of gotten to a point where he’s really kind of found himself in terms of his quarterback preparation process.”
If Lamar Jackson isn’t all the way there yet? Everybody else in the NFL had better be prepared for even more freaky stuff they haven’t seen before. Jackson is already performing at an unprecedented clip.
Maybe “Most Unprecedented Player” is the award he should seek. Most Valuable Player is a lead-pipe cinch.