Cover Story: How Lamar Jackson Keeps Raising His Game And Adding to His Bandwagon
Through three games this season, Lamar Jackson has taken his game to places that have sparked talk about him winning another MVP.
By: Clifton Brown
As he watched Lamar Jackson pick apart the Patriots in Week 3, Mike Mayock was fascinated.
The former general manager of the Raiders meticulously breaks down NFL game tape every week. To Mayock, Jackson's passing has never been more precise, while his comfort level in the pocket and pre-snap recognition have moved to a different level.
As the Ravens prepare to face the Bills on Sunday, Jackson is off to the best start of his career, leading the NFL in touchdown passes (10) and quarterback rating (119) while Baltimore leads the NFL in scoring. By the way, he's also tied for fifth in the league in rushing.
However, Mayock has been on the Lamar bandwagon for years. As a draft analyst with NFL Network in 2018, Mayock pounded the table before the draft that the Ravens should select Jackson.
Mayock wanted the Ravens to take Jackson at No. 16, but they made two draft-day trades and still got Jackson at No. 32. The rest, as they say, is history. Heading into Sunday's game against the Bills, Jackson and Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen are the early frontrunners for MVP. Jackson has already won the award in 2019, but the 2022 version of Jackson is one that Mayock likes even better.
"You look at those touchdown throws he made against New England, and they were into tight windows," Mayock said. "He gave Mark Andrews a shot to make a play. The throw to (Devin) Duvernay was against tight coverage. I love the throw to Josh Oliver – a crossing route that he put on the back shoulder so he didn't run into a linebacker.
"People don't talk about that kind of stuff, but to me that's growth. Because he's athletic and tough and can run, that gets all the publicity. But he's developing in the pocket, a quicker release than people want to give him credit for. And now, more often, he's extending plays in the pocket to throw, not run, looking downfield. There's a lot of cool stuff going on with Lamar."
Always a Fast Learner
Watching Jackson add elements to his game looks familiar to Bobby Petrino, Jackson's college head coach at Louisville. To Petrino, the notion that Jackson could not become an elite passer in the NFL was always narrow-minded.
"I've always thought people underestimated how well he could throw the ball because of how well he can run," said Petrino, now head coach at Missouri State. "When I had him at Louisville, I always thought if this guy couldn't run a lick, he would still have a chance to win the Heisman Trophy."
Jackson won the starting job as a true freshman in 2015 and led Louisville to a bowl game, but he wasn't satisfied after the season. Louisville relied on Jackson's running and arm strength to propel their offense, but Jackson knew he had work to do.
"His verbiage was, 'I want to be a real quarterback,'" Petrino said.
Louisville's coaching staff put Jackson through intense mornings of mental reps, and Jackson embraced the studying. How quickly Jackson could conceptualize plays and analyze how defenses could be attacked impressed Petrino.
"He was in every morning at 6 a.m., watching the install tapes, learning the entire offense," Petrino said. "The next year was his Heisman year.
"He can picture things in his mind. I've always felt that was something great quarterbacks have to do. You have to see it. Then you can take mind reps when you're driving down the street. Lamar can do that. He has a good sense of concepts. He can just picture things in his mind."
Petrino chuckled when asked if he ever envisioned Jackson playing another position when he recruited him.
"No, some other schools were talking to him about playing him at wide receiver, but for us it was always quarterback," Petrino said. "I mean, his skills and potential as a quarterback were so obviously off the charts. But one day I asked him at practice, 'Maybe we should have you go back and return some punts.' He didn't like that. His mom wasn't into it either."
Chemistry and Pinpoint Passes
Jackson's ability to take his talent from the classroom to the field has been evident this season. It's been a collaborative effort between the coaching staff, Jackson and his teammates, but the franchise quarterback is homing in on the details.
The offseason throwing Jackson did with his receivers has them stay on the same page, reading things the same way. If there's a communication breakdown at practice or in games, Jackson is quick to figure out what went wrong.
"We talk amongst each other a lot, especially in practice," Jackson said. "Say we have a missed assignment, no chemistry on a certain route, we talk about it right after. We go look at the film, look at the [tablet] and talk about it right after, and I tell them where I'm going to put the ball if I see 'this coverage' or 'how this DB [defensive back] might play,' and we just go from there."
Jackson's throwing accuracy has made it easier for his targets to make catches and do more damage after making the catch. The slant pattern that Rashod Bateman took to the house for a 75-yard touchdown was a product of Bateman's speed and Jackson's pinpoint throw that allowed Bateman to catch the ball without breaking stride.
"Lamar's proving to everybody what kind of thrower he is," Bateman said. "That pass he threw to me was a dime. He just allowed me to take off with it.
"The only thing Lamar seems to be focused on right now is football. He's just being a leader. I don't see anything bothering him."
Beating the Blitz
How Jackson responded to Miami's blitz and Week 2 (three touchdown passes, 318 yards passing, 119 yards rushing) after struggling against blitz pressure last season was more evidence of his growth. He's also playing with a poise that seems unflappable.
When the Ravens started slowly in Week 1 against the Jets, held to just three points until late in the first half, Jackson stayed cool. Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman was impressed with Jackson' patience, and he eventually threw for three touchdown passes in Baltimore's 24-9 victory.
"I love it," Roman said. "You've got to be cold-blooded in this game. Now when Lamar gets fired up, he can go. But is that sustainable for 17 games, the playoffs? You have to have a way of operating that's sustainable, and I think he's really growing into that
"I also think the game's slowing down for him. I think he trusts his offensive line. He's a wise man, and wise men learn from experience. I think it's a natural evolution for him, his maturity at the position. There's room for more growth and experience, but he's showing a lot of adaptability which is exciting, because we can move forward and go in different directions, do different stuff, experiment with different things."
He Won't Stop Chasing Greatness
Jackson is still only 25 years old, younger than most quarterbacks are when they reach their prime. However, football is a violent sport, and some have always believed Jackson is more susceptible to injury as a quarterback who runs more than most, although he never missed a game due to injury until last season.
Both Petrino and Mayock believe Jackson will likely run less as he gets older, yet will remain a top quarterback.
"I think every offensive coordinator I've ever talked to says that if you continue to call planned runs, you'll eventually beat up your quarterback, you'll lose him for games, and eventually you'll lose him for seasons," Mayock said. "That's why his development from the pocket is so crucial. You don't see him taking a lot of big hits in the pocket. He's getting a better feel for when he should hang in, and when he should get out.
"What's Lamar going to be at age 35? As he continues to development as a pocket quarterback, I think the longer and more successful his career will be. Sooner or later, you've got to win from the pocket."
Petrino said Jackson's ability to avoid impact collisions is a key to his success.
"I can understand why people talk about longevity, simply because of what the NFL has been like in the past," Petrino said. "But in the three years I had Lamar, I never saw him take a big hit. He's got this sixth sense where he can get out of the way, get down on the ground. He rarely takes big hits. The skill he has allows him to slip the big collisions."
Each week in the NFL is a new challenge, and Jackson is focusing on the big picture. He agrees he has taken more command of every facet of playing quarterback, which has become easier as he has gained experience.
"Just a lot of studying, a lot of work out here on the field – and it's translating over to games," Jackson said. "So, that's pretty much it. I feel comfortable, though."
But when asked if he has ever played football better than he is now, Jackson was reticent to compare.
"I don't know," Jackson said. "It's too early. It's only three games in."
Critics Are Being Silenced
The media will use Sunday's game as another measuring stick between Jackson and Allen, but both have silenced many critics. They are great athletes who are great quarterbacks.
Some of the takes on Jackson from his rookie season sound almost silly, like in 2018 when Colin Cowherd of FOX Sports said Jackson was "over-drafted, a project not a prospect."
Give Cowherd credit for backtracking in 2021, saying that he was "very wrong" about Jackson.
"Lamar Jackson, I didn't really get it," Cowherd said. "Lamar Jackson's really good. He not only can get you to a Super Bowl, hell, maybe he should be a favorite. The best word I would use to describe Lamar Jackson is electric."
That energy Jackson brings to every game will be plugged in on Sunday. It's hard not to be excited about Jackson and Allen sharing the field on Sunday, with both young quarterbacks playing lights out.
While most of the pre-game hype has surrounded their matchup, Jackson acts the same every week, another trait that his teammates love. The talk about Jackson's contract negotiations during the offseason has shifted to how well he's playing. Those who know Jackson well aren't surprised that he keeps pushing himself to be better and has found ways to make it happen.
"That's why he's so special," Petrino said. "He makes every person around him better because of his personality. His love of practice. I never really saw Lamar have a bad day. He always had a smile on his face, he'd sprint all the way to the end zone every time he had the ball. His enthusiasm, his passion, his love for the game made everybody else better.
"I'm just really happy that he's going out there and proving all the critics wrong. He's the most lovable young man I've ever coached."
Jackson says he will continue handling praise and criticism the same way. He's not worried about his bandwagon and who joins, or who jumps off. He's too busy balling.
"I don't feed into it; I play ball – that's all. I don't feed into it, because they were just saying what they were saying. I'm still hungry about that, since the beginning of the season."