Lamar Jackson is under the microscope yet again
An injury to the dynamic quarterback highlights his importance to the Baltimore Ravens. Jackson’s teammates and opponents know his value.
Editor’s note: This is part of a series on Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson that focuses on the phenomenon and uniqueness of the 2019 NFL MVP in the final guaranteed year of his rookie contract.
BALTIMORE — Lamar Jackson began the most important six-game stretch of his young career Sunday under an increasingly focused microscope.
Last week in Jacksonville, Florida, quarterback Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens suffered an upset loss to the Jaguars. That loss was followed by Jackson’s vulgar tweet in response to a fan who suggested that the Ravens’ results shouldn’t come down to kicker Justin Tucker if Jackson is asking for a massive contract in free agency. Jackson eventually apologized to fans on Friday.
On Sunday in a game against Denver, the Ravens’ worst nightmare unfolded when Jackson was knocked out of the game with a knee injury on the last play of the first quarter after being sacked.
With an unresolved contract situation, Jackson famously is betting on himself, betting that with great performances and a deep playoff run, he can prove to the franchise that he’s worth the sort of fully guaranteed contract that Green Bay gave Aaron Rodgers, Minnesota gave Kirk Cousins and Cleveland gave Deshaun Watson.
But Jackson is not only betting on himself, he’s betting that uber-athletic quarterbacks who play the position as he does can ultimately win a championship.
With Sunday’s injury, the mountain Jackson must climb becomes steeper, and the voices of critics who insist that Jackson’s electric style of play is not sustainable are getting louder.
Fortunately for Baltimore, Jackson’s body double Tyler Huntley stepped in to save the day, and possibly the season, on Sunday. Huntley scored on a 2-yard run with 28 seconds left to lift Baltimore to a 10-9 victory over Denver.
Jackson knew going into the season that an injury could derail his bargaining power. Huntley kept Jackson’s bet alive.
Along with my colleague Jason Reid, I’ve studied the fascinating evolution of Black quarterbacks in the NFL. My book, Third and a Mile: From Fritz Pollard to Michael Vick — an Oral History of the Trials, Tears and Triumphs of the Black Quarterback, presented an oral history of that journey. Reid’s recently published book, Rise of The Black Quarterback: What it Means for America chronicles the evolution at this point.
When Baltimore drafted Jackson in 2018 at the end of the first round, I argued that the latest chapter on Black quarterbacks will not be closed until Jackson leads the Ravens to the Super Bowl. He is the type of extraordinary athlete who critics believe lacks the package of necessities needed to lead a team to a championship.
Jackson’s underdog mentality was formulated at that 2018 draft. He was the last quarterback drafted in the first round, behind Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, and Josh Rosen. Before the draft, veteran NFL executive Bill Polian famously suggested that Jackson would be better off playing wide receiver. The stereotypical concerns about Black quarterbacks were raised about Jackson’s ability to read defenses.
Fast-forward five seasons, Darnold and Mayfield are close to being declared busts. Rosen is out of the league. Jackson’s primary rival is Allen. In the face of overwhelming results, Polian ultimately admitted that he was wrong, but the damage was done, and stereotypes extended. Interestingly, after only his third season, Allen signed a lucrative contract extension with Buffalo that will kick in in 2023: six years, $258 million, $150 million guaranteed. He didn’t have to beg and bet on himself to be offered an extension.
Jackson is the only member of his class to be voted league MVP, winning the award in 2019.
Yet, doubts abound: Is he an accurate enough passer to lead Baltimore to a Super Bowl? Can he stay healthy?
Are Jackson’s shoulders broad enough to carry the Ravens?
The Ravens hierarchy may balk at paying Jackson, but Jackson’s peers are already sold.
Before Sunday’s game Broncos cornerback Patrick Surtain II said that Jackson was a legitimate threat as a passer and that part of game was underrated.
“I believe he can make all the throws on the field. He’s as dynamic passing as he is running,” Surtain said. “He could do everything — throw the ball, run the ball. He’s a great player.”
Denver Broncos coach Nathaniel Hackett said that Jackson is “unbelievably dynamic.
“When he has the ball in the space, he’s always going to try to get that extra yard,” Hackett said. “He’s got the ability to … sometimes he will lower his shoulder, and at the same time, he will make you miss. He’s a quick, accurate quarterback, too, so he can also drop back and throw with the play-action. He’s been spectacular, we’ve all seen him.”
Before the Cleveland Browns played Baltimore earlier this year, Browns All-Pro defensive end Myles Garrett was asked if Jackson posed a unique challenge.
“Absolutely, because he is a top-five athlete but also a top-five quarterback,” Garrett told reporters. “He can really do it all, whether it is through the air or with his feet. He is dynamic, especially with their running game. It is tough to handle. There are a lot of things you have to account for, and you have to be able to play by certain rules to get the result that you are looking for.”
Browns linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah was asked if Jackson’s style of play required extra study.
“I wouldn’t say it requires extra study. I think it does require an extra sense of urgency, whether it is staying locked onto your man during certain plays and making sure you are doing your job,” Owusu-Koramoah said. “You can’t let him break contain because that is a guy who is pretty much one of the fastest players in the league.”
He added, “He uses his feet very well. He is able to throw last-second. I think it is just an extra sense of urgency where you have to stay locked in for those plays that against some quarterbacks might get thrown out right away, where a guy like Lamar can extend the play sometimes for 15-20 seconds. You kind of have to have an extra sense of urgency when you are playing a guy like him.”
Even Chicago Bears second-year quarterback Justin Fields said that his team borrowed from the Ravens playbook. Fields told a sideline reporter a couple of weeks ago that his quarterback runs “just brings another whole element to our offense, stealing some plays from the Ravens.”
After Sunday’s game, Huntley told me that Jackson’s impact on him off the field put him in a position to step in and perform as he did against the Broncos.
“He’s just shown me how to be a pro,” said Huntley. “The ins and outs on the field and off the field. He talks to me about little things that people overlook.”
What Huntley has done for Jackson is allow him to take breaks from practice to allow his body to heal from the pounding he takes.
“When he’s sore after a game, and getting ready for practice and he can’t go, I just take the reps for him and there’s no problem,” Huntley said. “He needs his rest. Just things like that.”
For all the public embrace of the style of quarterbacking that Jackson represents, the resistance and stereotypes persist. Last summer, an anonymous defensive coordinator told The Athletic’s Mike Sando that Patrick Mahomes was a tier 2 quarterback. The unidentified defensive coordinator said, “We love Mahomes because of his unorthodox throws, not because of his natural pocket presence. And when that disappears, that is when they lose games. I don’t think that is a 1. I think that is a 2. Nothing against the guy. I love the kid. But take his first read away and what does he do? He runs, he scrambles, and he plays streetball.”
Streetball is yet another derisive term designed to marginalize Black style and, by extension, Black quarterbacks. And this was directed at Mahomes, who led his team to a championship and reached two Super Bowls.
Mahomes is not the kind of uber-athletic Black quarterback who historically has been the victim of front-office executives like Polian. There were — and still are — executives and coaches who switched generations of aspiring Black quarterbacks to wide receivers because they were too athletic to play quarterback the way the establishment believed the position should be played.
The reality in the NFL is that there are myriad ways to play quarterback, though not everyone accepts that reality. The only way to force acceptance is to win. Despite Jackson’s electrifying style of play, the prevailing school of thought is that throwing from “the pocket” is the tried-and-true formula for success.
Lamar Jackson is making a multimillion-dollar bet that it ain’t necessarily so.