No NFL storyline in the 2019 season has been more compelling than the emergence of Baltimore Ravens’ quarterback Lamar Jackson as the sport’s most electrifying superstar, a dual-threat run-pass signal caller whose speed, elusiveness and arm talent have sent shockwaves throughout the league. Drafted with the last pick in the 1st round in the 2018 draft, many talent evaluators regarded the former Heisman Trophy winner from Louisville as a better athlete than quarterback prospect coming out of college with many suggesting he would be better suited to playing running back or receiver in the NFL.
Fortunately for all of us, the Ravens organization recognized Jackson’s world historic ability and remade their roster to maximize his talents. Prior to this season, Ravens coach John Harbaugh promised to play a style of football here-to-unforeseen in the NFL, and that’s precisely what has happened as the team racked up a 14-2 record, clinching home field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Baltimore’s innovative running attack set a new record for yards from scrimmage with Lamar Jackson smashing the previous mark for quarterback rushing yards in a season, while throwing for 36 touchdowns and only 6 interceptions. As the Super Bowl-favorite Ravens begin their postseason slate on Saturday night against the Tennessee Titans, I spoke with the Baltimore Sun’s Ravens beat reporter Childs Walker about his ground-level view of the Jackson phenomenon, what that experience has been like, and his expectations for Jackson, Harbaugh and the Ravens moving forward.
EN: We live in a moment of extreme recency bias and hyperbole, and yet it really does feel like we are experiencing something unprecedented with Lamar Jackson this season. The dual-threat quarterback has always existed to an extent, but nothing on the order of magnitude of Jackson’s skill and productivity with both his arm and running talent. What was your first impression of Lamar Jackson as a draft prospect? And what was your initial response when the Ravens drafted him, knowing Joe Flacco was still under contract?
CW: I don’t watch a lot of college football, so I knew Jackson was a phenomenon, but I didn’t have strong, specific opinions about some of his supposed shortcomings as a prospect. The Ravens had grown stagnant around Flacco, so I applauded them for acting boldly when they saw a potentially transformational talent sitting there at the end of the first round. But I did wonder if it would lead to a tense season, given that Flacco — still an immense figure in the franchise — would have to co-exist with his likely replacement. Ultimately, they both handled the situation well. Jackson was deferential and built enormous capital in the locker room with his work ethic and natural social touch. Flacco spoke honestly about the awkwardness of it all but did not undercut his young teammate.
EN: This strikes me as a signal moment in the career of John Harbaugh. Were you surprised that he had the foresight to actualize the Jackson handover?
CW: His decisiveness was essential to the whole thing working, no question. I wasn’t hugely surprised because he’s always been open minded about finding better ways to run the team. We’ve seen this on a smaller scale with his embrace of analytics-informed game decisions. He’s not a fearful person, even when the team is in a tough spot. He’d rather make a decision and have it not work than sit on his hands while the train passes by.
EN: How much credit do you give to offensive coordinator Greg Roman for the Ravens’ rapid evolution and Jackson’s progress?
CW: The numbers don’t lie. Every time Roman takes over an offense, it becomes one of the most potent ground attacks in the league. And he quickly recognized Jackson could be an ultimate weapon to make all his ideas work that much better. They’ve been great for each other. Roman will almost certainly become a head coach, perhaps sooner rather than later. It’s something he wants, and he’s worked hard on developing a rapport with the media, which is a big part of that job.
EN: Without piling on, do you see the emergence of Jackson as a painful rebuke to old-guard NFL figures like Bill Polian who suggested that he would not be a viable candidate to be a starting quarterback in the NFL? I recognize that the QB skill set is one of the most difficult to project. At the same time, the essence of scouting is to be ahead of the curve. Do you feel more sympathy or more incredulity for those who let Jackson slip into the last pick of the first round?
CW: The quarterback revolution was already underway, with more and more evaluators saying teams needed to tailor their systems to these multifaceted talents rather than search for the next Dan Marino year after year. But Jackson has hammered that point home more than any player before him. Change is hard for all people in all walks of life, so I wasn’t incredulous watching teams pass on him. There were some legitimate concerns about his passing, which was still erratic when he arrived for his first training camp. But he fed on all the skepticism and has created a story that might legitimately change the opportunities for athletes coming behind him.
EN: Finally, having covered the Carolina Panthers a bit in the past few years, I’ve watched the gradual physical decline of a great player in Cam Newton. Newton and Jackson are very different kinds of players who run different offenses, but it is impossible not to ponder the long-term viability of quarterbacks who run as much as they do. Do you think the plan is to have Jackson maintain this style of play in perpetuity or do you anticipate him transitioning into more of a traditional pocket passer moving forward?
CW: Quarterbacks aside, we know from the careers of great running backs that carrying the ball against NFL defenses is no recipe for longevity. Jackson wants to be a passer first, so he’ll probably reduce his carries without being told. His quarterback coach from Florida, Joshua Harris, told me he looks forward to seeing Jackson as an old passer who can’t rely on his wheels. So they’re thinking along those lines. We might see him follow a Russell Wilson arc and run far more selectively by the middle part of his career.