October 26, 2021

The superhuman Lamar Jackson is as close as the NFL gets to a one-man team

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The superhuman Lamar Jackson is as close as the NFL gets to a one-man team
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<span>Photograph: Geoff Burke/USA Today Sports</span>

Photograph: Geoff Burke/USA Today Sports

If this is what figuring out Lamar Jackson looks like, can you imagine what would happen if NFL defenses were still playing catch-up?

On Monday night, Jackson led the Baltimore Ravens to 22 unanswered points to seal an overtime win over the Indianapolis Colts and launch himself back into the MVP discussion. But in reality, if the award is truly about “value” – and it is supposed to be – then he should already have a monopoly on the votes.

Jackson is a one-man offense. The Ravens rely on their quarterback to produce everything through the air and on the ground (he’s also helped by the best kicker in NFL history). And he has delivered.

Through five weeks, if Jackson was a one-man team, he would rank as the 15th-best offense in the league. To put that into context: Jackson has outpaced, as passer and runner, the entire offensive output of the Packers, 49ers and Colts. There are 17 teams who have posted less total yardage than Jackson on his lonesome.

Related: ‘I was just calm’: Lamar Jackson leads Ravens to wild comeback over Colts

The Ravens entered the season trying to democratize their offense, looking to take some of the weight off Jackson so that he could elevate the areas of his game that had become a concern. That didn’t happen. Injuries have meant that Jackson has been asked to do even more. And he has responded.

Monday night saw Jackson’s finest performance of the season to date. Jackson accounted for just shy of 500 of the Ravens’ 523 total yards.

It hasn’t always been this way. When Jackson entered the league, the Ravens paired his unique style with a bulldozing run-game. The threat of Jackson pulling the ball and taking off as a runner, helped elevate the Ravens ground attack into one of the most devastating units in the league.

That has all but vanished this year. Baltimore lost their top two running backs (JK Dobbins and Gus Edwards) to season-ending injuries. The team’s once-formidable offensive line became a victim of the salary cap and injuries: All-Pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley has missed the last four games; Orlando Brown, one of the league’s top right tackles, was traded to Kansas City due to his contractual demands. The team still run the most creative, diverse run scheme in the league, but more than ever they rely on Jackson to make superhuman plays. And this after his ability was once again questioned.

Prior to the start of the new season, ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler reported that people around the league had told him: “This might be the year that everybody figures out Lamar Jackson.”

Beneath the not-so-subtle racial rubble – many in the league held the nonsensical belief for years that black quarterbacks can run and not much else – there was a point trying to be (inelegantly) made. Defenses have figured out, schematically speaking, how to stop some of the unique elements that Jackson has thrived on during his early years. But it’s one thing drawing up plays on a whiteboard and another trying to stop the finest open-field runner in the NFL.

The main criticism of the “figure him out” narrative was the disservice it did to Jackson as a passer. Jackson entered the NFL as a savvy, nuanced passer whose Michael Vick-like exploits on the ground forced defenses and commentators to focus on what he could do with his legs. He was always a good-enough passer. Now, he’s an excellent one.

Jackson is currently seventh in the league in completion percentage over expected (CPOE), per NFL Gen Stats. CPOE uses the league’s Next Gen tracking data to measure should-be completions based on historic data. It is, at this point, the best data we have to show how well a quarterback “throws his guy open”, as the cliche goes.

The six players ahead of Jackson in CPOE are Kyler Murray, Russell Wilson, Teddy Bridgewater, Dak Prescott, Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes. Only Murray offers a similar kind of output on the ground, though through a different means: Murray scrambles and freelances; Jackson does his best work on designed quarterback runs.

And Jackson is doing this without a complete – or even very good – receiving corps. He isn’t throwing to Davante Adams or DeAndre Hopkins, players who help expand the margin of error for Rodgers and Murray respectively. Rashod Bateman, the receiver the Ravens drafted in the first round to bring more complexity to the passing game, has yet to play due to injury.

Without Bateman in the line-up, the Ravens have leaned into one of Jackson’s best assets: taking deep shots. Baltimore’s coaching staff have tailored the passing game around a boom or bust system … and it’s working. Because Jackson booms far, far, far more than he busts. Jackson’s average depth of target on throws is 10.7 yards, by far the highest mark in the league. No other quarterback in the league cracks 10 yards. The Ravens care not for a quick-rhythm game; they want to hit explosive plays down the field early and often.

And yet when called upon, as he was on Monday night, Jackson has shown that he can pair that explosiveness with efficiency. Against the Colts, Jackson completed 86% of his passes on 43 attempts. There have been 4,017 games of 40-plus pass attempts in NFL history, per ESPN Stats & Info. Jackson’s completion percentage ranked as the highest in any of those.

The debate over whether Jackson was a legitimate, long-term, franchise-altering quarterback or a gimmick was always flawed, tinged with the kind of narrow-minded thinking that has plagued the league and scouting evaluations for too long. That debate is now over.

Whether the Ravens – and Jackson – can sustain such a high level is an open question. What’s not in doubt is that Jackson has been asked to do more than any other player in the league. And through five weeks, he has held up his side of the bargain. Murray is probably having a more accomplished season, but no player has been more valuable to his team than the Ravens’ quarterback.



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