Friday, December 24th, 2021

The Evolution of Lamar

Liam Blackburn


The Evolution of Lamar

Liam Blackburn NFL

This article originally appeared in Issue LXVI of Gridiron magazine, back in 2021 – for individual editions or subscriptions, click HERE

The story emerged three weeks before the 2021 NFL season began. “There are a lot of people around the league that I speak to, they’re talking a little slick,” ESPN reporter Jeremy Fowler revealed on a segment about the quarterbacks under the most pressure heading into the campaign. “They say this might be the year that everybody figures out Lamar Jackson. There’s sort of that feeling right now.”

ESPN analyst Ryan Clark wore a disturbed look upon hearing Fowler’s comments. “There ain’t nothing to figure out. We see what he’s doing; we just can’t catch him!”

Down in south-east Florida, Joshua Harris would have been firing up the Notes app on his iPhone. Lamar Jackson’s long-time personal quarterback coach has a list of all the comments the doubters have made over the years. When he needs to fire up his pupil, he will hit him with the criticism. Like when Bill Polian suggested he should be a wide receiver, or when the naysayers pointed out his performances in the playoffs, or when some ridiculed his stats in the Pro Bowl passing challenge. Harris feels Jackson thrives off those who doubt him. The suggestion the league had finally cracked the code on how to stop Baltimore’s electrifying number eight… You better believe that was fuel for the fire.

“You know that was one of them,” Harris tells Gridiron. “They’ve figured you out, man! It’s over! It’s a wrap!”

Fowler’s report was put to Jackson. A smile stretched across his face. “I mean, we’re going to keep playing football and we’re going to see. But I doubt it, dude. I strongly doubt it.”

“There’s nothing to figure out,” Harris adds. “When you can throw the ball well and you can run, that’s how you move the ball in football. You either throw it or you run it, and he does both well.”

Jackson has already proven that the league still hasn’t worked him out, and that’s because of how he has evolved in 2021.

“Especially early on in his career, he was really just a by-any-means-necessary person. Whatever it takes to get it done.”

The Baltimore Ravens were a popular preseason Super Bowl pick. Having boasted a top-three defense in each of the previous three seasons – when they also had a top-two rushing attack in each of those campaigns – they looked to have finally found some weapons in Sammy Watkins and rookie Rashod Bateman to help their 2019 MVP quarterback give them a more balanced offense.

Then they were not so much bitten by the injury bug but absolutely ravaged. Down went running backs J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards, All-Pro cornerback Marcus Peters, starting middle linebacker L.J. Fort and Super Bowl champion Derek Wolfe, all for the year. Bateman started the campaign on the IR list, and then All-Pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley’s season was ended after Week 1. Baltimore lost that game 33-27 to the Raiders, then faced a Chiefs team in Week 2 with an NFL-high 15 players on IR. If the Ravens were to be contenders in 2021, the 24-year-old Jackson would need to put the team on his back.

“I think it’s the same mentality he’s always had,” Harris says of Jackson having to assume more responsibility in the absence of other key players going down. “He realised that he has to do his part to help the team, but all of them do. I think that’s one thing that’s great about the organisation – they really are a team. When one guy goes down, the next guy steps up to fill the void.

“That’s just his mindset. Especially early on in his career, he was really just a by-any-means-necessary person. Whatever it takes to get it done. So, when these guys do get injured, his mindset is, ‘I’ll do whatever it takes to get it done.’ If that means running more, if that means passing more, whatever it takes, let’s do it. He’s not a person concerned on how it gets done, just on getting it done.”

In Week 2 it was two fourth-quarter rushing touchdowns and a fourth-down conversion with his legs that saw the Ravens rally from an 11-point deficit to get their season up and running.

Against the Broncos two weeks later, Jackson only had 28 rushing yards on seven attempts, but he picked apart one of the best secondaries in the league to the tune of 316 yards. Eight days on, in a primetime matchup with the Indianapolis Colts, Jackson accounted for 504 of Baltimore’s 523 offensive yards as the Ravens overturned a 16-point deficit with under 10 minutes to play to emerge victorious once more.

That game was the epitome of the new Jackson, a man not afraid to push the ball downfield. His average yards per pass attempt against the Colts was 10.28. Last year his average yards per pass attempt was 7.3. The year before, when he won the league’s MVP award, it was 7.8. Jackson had a higher average than that figure in each of his first five games this season. Sure, some it was based off the scheme and the in-game script according to the score, but rediscovering the deep ball was something Jackson wanted to do this offseason.

“It’s something that he’s taken a lot of pride in,” Harris explains. “One of the things he always mentions is, ‘Man, I’ve got to get my deep ball back.’ He took a lot of pride in his deep ball in high school and in college. When he got to the pros, the results weren’t the same. If you ask me what’s the one thing that he wanted to get going, that was the deep ball. He’s been working on it a lot and you’re seeing it come to fruition.”

Through 10 weeks of the 2021 NFL season, Jackson was fourth in pass plays of 20-plus yards. Last year he was 20th. The notion that the Ravens couldn’t win if they fell behind has been obliterated. Jackson had four fourth-quarter comebacks in his opening nine games. In his first three years in the league, he had two.

A bad day at the office in a four-interception display against Cleveland in Week 12 probably ruined Jackson’s hopes of being named MVP for a second time in four years. However, in one of the more wide-open AFC races in recent years, his ability to lead the Ravens in come-from-behind victories may be pivotal in his dream of collecting the ultimate collective prize.

“Lamar Jackson is not only the most valuable player in the NFL, he’s the best player in the NFL.”

Through his first nine appearances, Jackson was averaging 342.9 offensive yards per game. That’s way more than the 288.9 of 2019, when he was unanimously voted MVP, and, at the time of writing, more than the entire offenses of 10 NFL teams in 2021.

“Lamar is the most irreplicable player in football right now,” ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky tweeted in November. His colleague Marcus Spears was even more effusive in his praise.

“This is the LeBron James effect, everybody,” he said. “Lamar Jackson is not only the most valuable player in the NFL, he’s the best player in the NFL.”

Whether that is reflected in his upcoming contract extension remains to be seen. When Josh Allen signed a six-year, $258 million deal in August, attention turned to another of those quarterbacks from the class of 2018. But there has been little movement on Jackson’s second deal. The 24-year-old, who has no agent, has shown a level of maturity in not allowing the prospect of that looming deal affect his play on the field.

“He’s just a hard-working guy that has the right priorities and he knows, as the leader of his football team, that the goal is to win,” Harris notes. “If you win and do what you’re supposed to do as teammates, all of the rest will come with it. I think that’s the most healthy way to look at it. You know you don’t work in the NFL for free and, if you play well, they’re going to compensate you very well. That’s his ideal: I work hard, I win, the rest will come. It’s a very mature and humble mindset.”

In the view of Harris, who knows Jackson better than most, the Ravens quarterback’s an even better player than he was in 2019, when he became just the second man to be unanimously voted NFL MVP.

“There’s more of a calmness to his game; there’s more confidence because there’s more years so you know what you can do,” Harris says. “He has more command of the offense. The deep ball is back, which he loves to do. He’s doing better at getting to checkdowns, so just his overall game is evolving. To me, it’s a natural occurrence to being in the league and maturing. Even if the numbers aren’t as good as that MVP year – and I know they’re close this year – but just with my eyeball test, I see a better quarterback.”

This article originally appeared in Issue LXVI of Gridiron magazine, back in 2021 – for individual editions or subscriptions, click HERE