Longtime NFL fans have seen this before. Whether it was Kordell Stewart, Michael Vick, Robert Griffin III, Colin Kaepernick or Cam Newton, an athletic quarterback phenom with a new-look offensive scheme who captivated fans and threatened to change the game as we knew it.
And then the rest of the league caught on, the player ran out of magic and traditional pocket quarterbacks recaptured their throne atop the NFL kingdom.
Will Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson be any different? He very well could be, because we’ve never quite seen anything like this for a sustained period.
The Ravens’ 45-6 demolition of the defending NFC champion Rams on Los Angeles’ home turf ran Jackson’s record as a starter to 15-3 since he took over for Joe Flacco midway through last season. The Ravens are on a six-game win streak and have outscored opponents 202-62 in the past five games, with impressive victories over the Seahawks, Patriots, Texans and Rams, all playoff contenders.
Jackson, who is responsible for an NFL-best 30 total touchdowns (24 passing), is the only quarterback in league history to have at least 2,000 passing yards and 800 rushing yards in the first 11 games. He’s on pace for 1,274 rushing yards, which would shatter Vick’s single-season record of 1,039 for a quarterback.
“I’ve never seen a player like this at the quarterback position,” said Patriots Pro Bowl safety Devin McCourty, a 10-year veteran.
It didn’t take Greg Roman, a young Ravens assistant when Steve McNair was Baltimore’s quarterback in 2006, long to see that Jackson, the final first-round pick in the 2018 NFL draft, was much more than a developmental quarterback. The former offensive coordinator for Kaepernick was a senior offensive assistant in Jackson’s first season and astounded by the read he made in the second week of offseason practices.
“Wow, that’s something Steve would have done in practice,” Roman recounted remembering. “(Jackson) can do things you can’t coach in the passing game. He has really, really good field vision, and that’s something we noticed last spring. You could put a progression to a passing route, like, ‘Hey, I’m going one to two to three.’ You could have him read the coverage and figure out where to throw it. But often times, he’ll just see guys open. He’ll see leverage take place. Not all guys are like that. … It takes the ceiling and moves it up, because we know that ceiling is going to be even higher.”
Jackson has become a dizzying array of speed (ran 4.32 in the 40-yard dash out of college), instincts and throwing ability. Even a veteran defense like the Patriots’ flailed away at Jackson and were left in awe by his gifts.
“I think it’s a combination of everything,” McCourty said. “If he was just a runner, then you would change your game plan and not worry about the pass. If he was just a passer, it wouldn’t be as big of a deal to try to make sure you keep him in the pocket. But I think it’s his ability to do both things at such a high level that makes it tough, and then it’s the scheme that they run. Everything is not something that you see every week, so now you’re trying to prepare for something that you can’t replicate in practice. We don’t have anybody that can throw the ball and run the ball like he can.”
There’s one other area at which Jackson separates himself from previous incarnations of multi-tooled quarterbacks and makes him more like Hall of Famer Steve Young: Jackson is a leader, wants to be great and works at it.
After the Ravens lost to the Chargers in the wild-card round last season, receiver Willie Snead had an “open and direct” conversation with Jackson during the offseason.
“I remember what he said to me after the playoff game last year: ‘I’m going to be a better passer. I’m going to be a better football player. I’m going to be a better teammate,’” Snead said. “Everything he wanted to be better at, that’s what he’s doing right now. So everybody has his back. Everybody’s on his side. It’s all about how far he wants to go and how far we want to take this thing. I saw it in his eyes that he wanted to be that guy. He’s doing it.”