It was Oct. 1, 2016 when No. 3-ranked Louisville took on No. 5-ranked Clemson in Death Valley. As broadcaster Chris Fowler said at the start of the game, it was the “new sensation” Lamar Jackson versus the “steely veteran” Deshaun Watson.
The quarterbacks put on an absolute show. Jackson threw for 295 yards, ran for 162 yards and scored three touchdowns. Watson threw for 306, tossed five touchdowns and ran for 91.
In the end, Jackson and Louisville fell just one yard short of a first down and three yards short of scoring the go-ahead touchdown in the final seconds, swallowing a bitter 42-36 defeat. Jackson hasn’t forgotten that loss.
“He was just dicing us down the field. He was just doing Deshaun Watson things – scoring touchdowns, making incredible throws, and they came out with the victory,” Jackson said.
“I can’t wait to see him again.”
That game three years ago was a preview of the next wave to hit the NFL’s shoreline. Stationary pocket passers are aging out. Dual-threat quarterbacks are in.
Three years later and with both players now in the NFL, the script leading into Sunday’s game at M&T Bank Stadium is very much the same. The Ravens and Texans are two of the AFC’s top teams. Jackson and Watson are the leaders of their respective teams and top contenders for the league’s most prestigious award.
Jackson ended up winning the Heisman Trophy after that 2016 season. Watson was the runner-up. The latest ESPN opinion on the horse race for NFL MVP has Jackson in second and Watson in third, both trailing Seattle’s Russell Wilson.
But you can bet Jackson would rather have won that game in 2016 than taken home the Heisman hardware. And you should definitely know by now that Jackson cares more about winning Sunday in a huge AFC tilt than taking home the MVP.
Jackson and Watson are currently two of the NFL’s most exciting players, and they'll be on the same stage at M&T Bank Stadium. Jackson lit the sports landscape on fire last week with his 67-yard whirling dervish touchdown run. Watson stole the show a few weeks ago when threw a game-winning touchdown pass despite being kicked in the eye.
Beyond their highlight-reel plays, both quarterbacks’ ability to beat opponents with their arm or legs is changing the way offense is played in the NFL. Ravens veteran safety Earl Thomas III certainly sees the changing tides and he doesn’t like having to defend it.
“I’d rather play against a quarterback that is going to stand there,” Thomas said. “These quarterbacks coming in now, they’re able to run, they’re able to throw it deep, they have the schemes with all the misdirection stuff. I’m not enjoying these young quarterbacks coming into the league and doing all the spectacular stuff they’re doing, but it’s just the way the league is going now.”
Watson has the arm to make any throw and smarts to diagnose any defense. He has the fourth-best quarterback rating (107.1) and is tied for the third-most touchdown passes (18). He also has the third-most rushing yards (279) of any NFL quarterback and often escapes pressure to make plays in the passing game.
“I think he’s playing at the highest level,” Head Coach John Harbaugh said. “He’s at the top of the heap, right there with all the top guys right now. He’s doing it his way, making a lot of plays.”
Jackson has the most rushing yards for a quarterback in the league by far (702). That’s more yards than his own running back, Mark Ingram II, and two yards behind the Texans’ lead back, Carlos Hyde. Jackson may be the best running quarterback in league history.
At the same time, Jackson is ninth in the NFL in quarterback rating (101.7), 10th in touchdown passes (15), and 20th in passing yards (2,036). Last Sunday, he became just the second quarterback in NFL history to record a perfect passer rating twice in the same season.
So are there similarities between the way Jackson and Watson play the game? Absolutely. But are they the same player? Nope.
Jackson was asked Wednesday if he sees some of himself in Watson.
“No, I play Lamar Jackson ball,” Jackson said. “I don’t play nobody else ball.”
“They have similar attributes,” cornerback Jimmy Smith said. “I think Deshaun Watson is a heck of a player, heck of a quarterback. He can extend the play very well and I think he’s very smart. But overall, I think they’re a little bit different. Lamar Jackson brings a whole different element to running the ball than any quarterback ever.”
Jackson is on pace to shatter Michael Vick’s single-season rushing record for a quarterback. His spin-move touchdown run may be the greatest quarterback run in the history of the game.
It’s not as easy as putting guys in two buckets: pocket passer and dual-threat. Every quarterback is unique in his own way.
What’s universally true about Jackson, Watson and some of the other young, mobile quarterbacks such as Wilson, the Chiefs' Patrick Mahomes, Cowboys' Dak Prescott and Cardinals rookie and top-overall draft pick Kyler Murray is that they’re A) fun to watch and B) difficult to stop.
“The more you can do, the better you’re going to be,” Harbaugh said. “We appreciate our guy and we have a tough time defending those other guys.”
Off the field, Jackson and Watson became friends in college after that epic showdown, Watson said, and will continue to be linked as leaders of the next generation of NFL quarterbacks.
"'Brodie’ is pretty cool," Jackson said. "He's a great guy, down-to-earth guy, tremendous football player."
"I'm a proud quarterback, proud friend," Watson said Wednesday when asked about Jackson. "He's definitely a guy that I've always encouraged and talked to in the offseason. ... He's a guy that's been doing everything that all the naysayers have said he couldn't do, and even more. His career is very, very bright and he's going to continue to do great things."