Eisenberg: We’re Watching the Education of Lamar Jackson

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After losing at home to the Cleveland Browns, the Ravens need a momentum reversal. And they’re hoping Lamar Jackson can provide it starting Sunday in Pittsburgh.

Yes, their struggling defense also will need to pitch in, and as always, the team’s nonpareil kicking specialists, Justin Tucker and Sam Koch, can be expected to contribute to the cause.

But no doubt, the job of changing the Ravens’ post-Cleveland narrative begins with Jackson.

This time last year, he was still Joe Flacco’s backup, used only sporadically as a change-of-pace option. A year later, he is the centerpiece of the offense, the face of the franchise and, let’s see, did I leave anything out? Oh, right … pretty much the key to whether any given Sunday ends happily or sadly around here.

No matter what else happens in a game, if Jackson brings his “A” game, which is a sight to behold, the Ravens are a good bet to prevail. If he struggles, the forecast goes from sunny to cloudy.

Being so pivotal doesn’t seem to faze him; Jackson seemingly wouldn’t want it any other way. But as the Ravens look to him to help them make their world a happier place starting Sunday, I think a touch of perspective is in order. Because Jackson isn’t exactly a hardened NFL veteran accustomed to these situations.

He is just 22 (or as Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh put it last month, “22 all the time.”) He might be crucial to the Ravens’ prospects, but he’s still young, just beginning the second quarter of his first full season as an NFL starter. Sunday will bring just his 12th career regular season start, and his first against the Steelers.

The realization that he has never started a game against the Ravens’ biggest rival is what prompted me to bring this up.

According to Harbaugh, it was mentioned in a team meeting earlier this week that you aren’t really a Raven until you’ve beaten the Steelers. Well, Jackson hasn’t even taken a shot at it, not as a starter, at least. That’s how young he is.

Fans in Baltimore are hoping the headline on this season ends up being “The Triumph of Lamar Jackson.” And it very well may. But regardless, there’s another headline on this season that’s already in place and not susceptible to change – “The Education of Lamar Jackson.” That’s what you’re seeing week after week.

His first trip into Pittsburgh’s rollicking Heinz Field is definitely a “class in session” moment for him, as is the way the Ravens’ past two opponents have taken away the deep ball to his favorite wide receiver, Marquise Brown. We’ll see how he responds.

Shoot, the fact the Ravens are on a two-game losing streak is even a teachable moment. After he became the starter last year, he led the Ravens on a 6-1 surge that produced a division title. Then he started 2-0 in 2019. So he’d been living a charmed life of sorts, but an NFL quarterback always experiences downs as well as ups. Again, we’ll see how he responds.

Ravens Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman agrees that Jackson’s education is unfolding before our eyes.

“For a player at his stage of development, it’s a constant day-to-day, week-to-week learning curve. He’s on that curve, and he’s attacking it really well,” Roman said.

Roman added, “He’s taken the right approach. One of the most beautiful things about him is he’s going to be his own harshest critic. And it doesn’t matter what happened; he’s always going to ask himself, ‘What can I do better to make that play more successful or that situation more successful?’ And that’s encouraging and exciting, and it bodes well for the future.”

Thus far, Jackson has easily exceeded the consensus expectations for how he’d fare in the NFL. There was a lot of skepticism, which drives him. He has made plays, won games, demonstrated that his unique style can work in the NFL. Every week, it seems, opposing defenders tip their cap to him after the game.

But there also are moments when Jackson looks young, which he is, and appears to need more development and polish, which he does.

His arrival has injected a lot of excitement into Ravens football, a good thing. But remember, his development is ongoing, nowhere close to over.

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