On Monday, Lamar Jackson learned he was going to make his first NFL start. On Thursday, he was in the hospital. On Sunday, he finished in the winner’s circle.
It was a wild week for the Ravens’ first-round rookie quarterback, but that kind of suits Jackson. His game is a little wild too, and that’s what makes it so fun to watch and, most times, effective.
In the end, Jackson handled it all with poise and left M&T Bank Stadium with a must-have 24-21 win over the Cincinnati Bengals and a game ball in his red backpack. He, in large respect, kept the Ravens’ playoff hopes alive.
“I thought he played spectacular,” Head Coach John Harbaugh said. “This guy is a great quarterback already, and it’s just going to get better from here on out. I’m excited about it.”
Jackson was a bit more muted in his reaction. The first question to him after the game was pretty generic. How did he feel about his first start?
“I don’t know,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. “Came out with a win. It was pretty good, I guess.”
He’s not all that exciting of a quote, but his play on the field energized M&T Bank Stadium and his teammates.
Jackson rushed 27 times for 117 yards – the most by a Ravens quarterback in franchise history. He completed 13 of 19 passes for 150 yards and threw no touchdowns and one interception.
It certainly wasn’t a stat line that Ravens fans are accustomed to seeing from Joe Flacco, who was on the Ravens sideline in sweats as he deals with a hip injury. Flacco missed his first start since 2015, when he suffered a season-ending knee injury.
But no matter how he did it, Jackson won, and perhaps ushered in a new-look Ravens offense in the process.
The Ravens ran, and kept running, against the Bengals with the 1-2 punch of Jackson and Gus Edwards, a fellow rookie. Edwards ran 17 times for 115 yards and a touchdown. Their 265 yards were the most in a single Ravens game since 2011.
And guess what. It worked. The Bengals, who entered with the NFL’s lowest-ranked defense but had flustered the Ravens’ offense many times before, couldn’t stop it with any consistency.
“It's like facing two different offenses,” Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict said. “With Joe Flacco, he just stands back there and isn't very mobile but he throws the ball hard. This guy [Jackson] is very unpredictable."
Harbaugh knew Jackson was going to be his starter early this week, after Flacco went for an evaluation on his hip injury in New York. The team prepared a game plan tailored to what the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback is best at right now.
That got thrown out of whack a bit on Thursday, when Jackson realized just before the start of practice that he was too ill to suit up. He told a team trainer to let Harbaugh know, and the Ravens sent Jackson to the hospital just in case it was appendicitis or something like it.
“I have to admit, I was concerned about that,” Harbaugh said.
Once Jackson returned Friday morning ready to go, Baltimore moved forward with their plan. The Ravens featured a ton of run-pass option plays that they had built into their offense over the summer. Jackson darted everywhere – around the edge, up the middle.
Jackson’s first NFL drive as a starter ended with a touchdown, but he didn’t throw a single pass. He ran five times for 46 yards and running back Alex Collins capped it with a 7-yard touchdown scamper. Jackson didn’t throw a pass until the Ravens’ 14th offensive play – a 4-yard completion to tight end Nick Boyle.
There were hiccups and plays that made Ravens fans get up from their seats along the way. Jackson rolled to his right and threw a bad interception on his first drive of the second half, leading to a Bengals touchdown. That still bothered him after the game.
“I hated that,” Jackson said. “[After that, I thought], I have to score; I have to score. I have to put my team in a good situation.”
Jackson also made some masterful throws, especially on the move. He escaped a sack to hit wide receiver John Brown for a 23-yard gain that set up a field goal at the end of the first half. Jackson fired a 19-yard pass to tight end Mark Andrews that helped set up another field goal.
But Jackson did most of his damage with his legs. He averaged 4.3 yards per carry on 27 rushes, which would be strong for any NFL running back.
“I didn’t think I would run the ball that much,” Jackson said. “But whatever it takes to win.”
That’s going to be a big question moving forward. Jackson got the win on Sunday, but can he keep playing like that – taking that many hits – and keep on ticking?
"Quarterbacks don't run forever in the NFL,” Bengals Head Coach Marvin Lewis said. “Sooner or later, they get hurt, and they don't run the same. But, today, he could run, and he did a good job."
Harbaugh cautioned reporters not to read too much into Jackson’s run-pass disparity. He said a lot of those were short-yardage situations where Jackson chose to run but could have passed.
“We’ll be throwing the ball quite a bit in the future. It wasn’t by design; it kind of played out that way,” Harbaugh said. “I don’t believe it’s going to take that many carries every week. It’s not what we’re going to be shooting for, by any stretch. But if it takes that many, Lamar will do it.”
For now, it seems to be Jackson’s job going forward. Harbaugh said “it will be tough” for Flacco to play next Sunday against the visiting Oakland Raiders.
Who knows yet whether it’s the start of the Jackson Era, but it was certainly a thrilling first act.
Jackson said he stayed up all night Saturday before his first NFL start. He couldn’t wait for his chance. His teammates and Ravens fans were excited for it too.
“I think everybody was ready to see Lamar,” wide receiver Willie Snead IV said. “We’re just looking for an edge. … Lamar came in and gave us that spark.”