The best thing I took away from a 15-minute conversation with Lamar Jackson in training camp this past summer had nothing to do with anything he said. It was what others said. To him. As I interviewed him.
This was in late July. Joe Flacco was the Baltimore Ravens’ undisputed starter, and their coaches were intent on making sure everyone knew that. But as Jackson and I were standing in the hallway outside the locker room, I could not believe how many of his older, veteran teammates playfully busted his chops while they walked by. At least five of them, probably more.
It was a quick comment here, a smirk there, all with the unspoken insinuation — don’t say too much, rook. And by the amused look on Jackson’s face, he was in on the joke.
These guys really like him, I noted to myself.
It led me to ask Jackson how many rookies he was hanging out with, and he named 11 of them.
Another good sign, I thought to myself.
If all of this sounds goofy, I get it. You kind of have to hang around NFL locker rooms for a while to understand the brotherhood aspect of it, and how much it matters. But take my word for it, when it comes to the quarterback, it helps if he’s likable. In this league, where being the QB also means being a leader, players tend to play harder for guys under center they like and/or respect, even if it’s subconsciously. This is one of many areas where Jackson is already ahead of the game.
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“Lamar hates to lose,” rookie tight end Mark Andrews said. “He’s a guy that’s … you know, you’re down, you can rely on him, he’s going to do everything he can to win – whether it’s running the ball for fourth-and-inches or what not. He’s a guy that’s going to make the play.”
Jackson turns 22 in January, so it’s hard to expect him to lead men with wives and kids. But in the absence of veteran experience, his combination of likability and talent has been enough to lift the Ravens to the cusp of the postseason.
Since Jackson took over for Flacco a month ago due to injury, the Ravens are 5-1, with the only loss coming to the AFC-leading Kansas City Chiefs, who are 11-4. And with a win Sunday against the Cleveland Browns, the Ravens can clinch their first AFC North title since 2012, which was the season the Ravens won the Super Bowl under Flacco.
Over the past six weeks, the Ravens’ offense has morphed into a ground-and-pound juggernaut, a team averaging nearly 250 rushing yards per game since Week 11. They’re content on hitting opponents over the head with the run game and letting their top-ranked defense rest until it’s their turn to beat a team over the head some more.
A big reason for this strategic shift is their excellent defense, but it also speaks to Jackson’s strengths and weaknesses as a quarterback. Jackson, the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner, is an electric runner, perhaps the most dynamic at quarterback the league has seen since prime Michael Vick. This allows the Ravens to pair their varied run game with a ton of play-action, zone reads and run-pass options, all to take advantage of defenses’ need to account for Jackson as an athlete.
“The Ravens have done a lot of good things this year in the last couple of games, mixing in play-action off of runs and looks that they have used previously in the game,” said Browns linebacker Joe Schobert, who will try to stop Jackson on Sunday. “It all comes down to eyes … the way they have run their offense the last couple of games, it could be up the A gaps, it could be up a nose tackle, it could be up the linebackers and it could be the D ends, corners or safeties.”
However, it’s safe to say the Ravens also do all that stuff because Jackson must improve as a passer, which isn’t a surprise. It’s one of the reasons Jackson was the last of the five first-round quarterbacks taken in the NFL draft this past spring, as the Ravens traded up to No. 32 to snag him, thus securing an extra year of club control.
For all his collegiate production, dynamic overall creativity and arm strength — all of which are ample at Louisville — teams were concerned about his overall efficiency, eyes and accuracy as a pocket passer, in addition to his mechanics and footwork.
Some wrote off Jackson. Before the draft, Hall of Fame general manager Bill Polian even suggested Jackson should be a receiver, which seems downright silly now. Even as the Ravens have racked up wins with Jackson at center, his passing numbers as a starter — he has a 58 percent completion rate for 935 yards, five touchdowns and three interceptions — have been roundly criticized, along with how much he has run (he’s averaging 16 attempts and 77 rushing yards per contest), with some suggesting that the latter is an indication he could be a flash-in-the-pan injury risk like his current backup, Robert Griffin III.
It’s true that Jackson must get better in the pocket so he can avoid taking as much punishment, but here’s the thing about that: while he can surely improve his accuracy, anticipation and footwork, he is already better as a passer. He has the strong arm to make all the throws, and he already connects on them just enough to keep defenses honest.
According ESPN Stats and Information, Jackson is fifth in the NFL among quarterbacks who have been in the league for five years or less in passer rating in the pocket — ahead of players like the Rams’ Jared Goff, the Bears’ Mitchell Trubisky and the Browns’ Baker Mayfield — and he flashes the ability to hurt teams vertically, as he did Saturday on a gorgeous 68-yard touchdown throw to Andrews that split two defenders in the Ravens’ win over the Chargers.
“Lamar threw an incredible ball – right over the linebacker, right in stride,” Andrews said. “Really made my job easy.”
When you see throws like that, and hear Ravens coaches rave about Jackson’s “all-football” mindset, it’s easy to imagine this 21-year-old getting better and trending upward from here.
“He’s handled himself very well — he’s done a very good job,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “He’s a very even-keeled guy, very competitive, focuses on what’s important, which is football. He keeps it simple, keeps it about the football. I do feel like he’s kind of a ‘gym rat’ that way. You appreciate that about him and just try to keep building and getting better every single day, and that’s really what he thinks about.”
Whenever I’ve thought about whether Jackson is going to make it down the road as an elite quarterback, I always end up coming back to that training camp conversation, and how many of his teammates seemed to like him. On the surface, it seems to be the biggest difference between Jackson and Griffin, who was criticized by many of his former teammates in Washington for having a “me-first” attitude, and it’s a pretty big one. Players often know who’s the real deal, both as a player and leader, before anyone else. And when it comes down to figuring out if a quarterback is going to make it, I’ve found that when a QB’s cohorts go above and beyond describing him to the media, that’s typically a good sign.
Jackson probably needs to start getting the benefit of the doubt — and soon. After all, he’s already getting it from his teammates.
“He’s one of those guys, he’s almost like a gamer,” Andrews said. “He practices well, but when it’s a game, he’s in a whole different mindset, whole different person, whole different persona about him. It’s all about winning, and he’s going to do whatever it takes to win.”
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