It's hard to believe now, but Lamar Jackson was under pretty serious scrutiny this time a year ago.
Remember the questions? Was Jackson's success as a rookie a sign of things to come or a fluke? Could he become adept enough as a passer to thrive in the NFL? What about the ball-security issues that nagged him in 2018?
Then there was my personal favorite: Did the Los Angeles Chargers' wild-card playoff victory indicate that defensive coordinators around the league had "figured out" Jackson?
A year later, I'd say we've got a pretty good grip on the answers.
Of course, Jackson soared beyond anyone's greatest expectations for his second season in 2019, so dominating opponents week after week that he earned the league MVP award in a unanimous vote. It was a breathtaking, historic performance that tested one's supply of adjectives (trust me) but now that it's in the rear-view mirror, those nettlesome offseason questions are back. And really, this time there's only one: Can he do it again?
We haven't talked about it much lately because the Ravens zeroed in on other areas of their roster during free agency and the draft. But last week several sports books published prop bets about Jackson's 2020 season, which got me thinking about what we can or should expect. What's fair?
After Jackson posted one of the all-time-best seasons by a quarterback in 2019 and led the Ravens to a 14-2 record, it's certainly not fair to expect more, even if he does. "That's my goal right now; focus on being a better player all around," he said last month.
Yet, setting your expectations for him appreciably lower is, to me, a tacit sign that you may believe his MVP season was something of a fluke. I'm not about to go there. Jackson deserves better.
So … what's the right place to set those expectations?
Caesar's Casino and Sportsbook set the over/under line on Jackson's 2020 rushing total at 999.5 yards. That's 206.5 fewer yards than he gained last season. FanDuel Sportsbook set the over/under line on his passing totals at 26.5 touchdowns and 3,199.5 yards. That's 9.5 fewer touchdowns and 72.5 more yards than last year.
These projections suggest a mild decline. I'll believe it when I see it. Ten fewer touchdown passes? Hmm, maybe; he had some huge days in 2019 that might be tough to replicate. But I mean, those dangerous run-pass option plays out of the pistol formation aren't going anywhere. And I'll take the over on the passage yardage.
But regardless, big picture, the projections predict an in-the-ballpark similar performance in 2020, with possible variations due to Jackson wanting to pass a bit more and run a bit less as he evolves.
I like that. I'd say it's entirely fair to hope for a ballpark-similar season in 2020 – with the different ending he wants more than anyone, of course.
Yes, defensive coordinators around the league have an entire offseason to scheme up ways to stop him, and they're good at what they do, so he'll see plenty of new fronts and alignments this year. That'll be a challenge, as will the evolution of his offensive line without Marshal Yanda.
But conversely, Jackson has more experience and more playmakers around him, and at 23, he is so young that he's still developing, honing his fundamentals and learning some of the finer points of playing quarterback in the NFL.
Some might not believe that after his MVP season, but he'd be the first to acknowledge, for instance, that he could complete more passes outside the hash marks.
I've seen it suggested that the only relevant analysis of Jackson from now on is how he performs in the playoffs, where he is 0-2. "I need to win a playoff game before anything, because I'm tired of that already," he said last month.
But that analysis misses a fundamental point. How he changes, develops and performs during the regular season could go a long way toward determining how he performs in the postseason.
I wouldn't expect him to be exactly the same player as he was a year ago; not when he's so young. But he might be even more proficient in some respects. The Ravens certainly hope so.
Only a few times in league history has a player gone back-to-back as MVP, so that's a tall order. But could he produce another season to remember? Oh, absolutely.