After Sunday’s division-clinching win over the Browns, rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson danced with rapper Kodak Black in the locker room and took selfies of himself and teammates wearing the rapper’s gold chain.
This is Lamar Jackson. He’s just 21 years old, and having the time of his life playing the game he loves.
This Sunday, at 21 years and 364 days old to be exact, Jackson will become the youngest quarterback in NFL history to start a playoff game – a fact that will be much talked about this week.
Can a rookie that young handle those immense stakes? In summary, Jackson doesn’t give a hoot about the whole topic.
“It really doesn’t [matter to me],” Jackson said. “I’m here to play football. I was 21 all year, so this is another game for me.”
Asked if anything changed for him this week now that he’s in the playoffs, Jackson said, “I changed my clothes. That’s about it. Everything else is the same.”
Rookie quarterbacks don’t have the best track record in the playoffs.
The last five rookies to start a postseason game have all lost. Rookie quarterbacks are 2-7 in playoff games since 2010. Those two wins came when a rookie faced another rookie (Andy Dalton vs. T.J. Yates in 2011 and Russell Wilson vs. Robert Griffin III in 2012).
Griffin had a magical season as a rookie in 2012, rushing for 815 yards and throwing for another 3,200 as a Washington Redskin. But he tried to come back from a knee injury in the playoffs, got re-injured, and fell in the wild-card round to the Seahawks.
Jackson doesn’t have to look far for an example of a rookie quarterback having success, however. In a system that also leaned heavily on a ground-and-pound run game and dominant defense, Joe Flacco and the Ravens went all the way to the AFC championship game in 2008.
Jackson said he hasn’t talked to Flacco or Griffin about the experience of being a rookie quarterback in the playoffs, but casually added, “I’ll have to ask them though.”
Overall, Jackson’s stance is that experience is a little overrated in the NFL.
“You have to love the sport to be able to compete in it, and I love the sport with all my heart, so I don’t really look at it like, ‘Oh, you’ve been a rookie, you have to perform at this level,’” Jackson said.
You know who is currently the youngest quarterback to ever win a playoff game? Michael Vick, the man Jackson is most often compared to.
At 22 years and 192 days old, Vick and the Atlanta Falcons beat the Green Bay Packers on Jan. 4, 2003 at Lambeau Field in the wild-card round. Vick completed 13 of 25 passes for 117 yards and a touchdown, and ran 10 times for 64 yards.
If a rookie quarterback can rely on their athleticism and running more than having to read opposing defenses time and time again, it sets them up for having more success quickly, regardless of the situation or stakes.
“That’s a guy I looked up to growing up, but I'm playing like me," Jackson said. "I’m playing out there. I’m not wearing his shoes. I’m not wearing his cleats or anything like that. I’m playing to the best of my ability.”
Jackson’s explosive running and clutch throwing have led him to a 6-1 start as a rookie. He’s averaged 79.4 yards rushing during his seven starts. If that were projected to a full 16-game season, it would be 1,271 yards. That would be the third-most rushing yards in the NFL, trailing only the Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott (1,434) and Giants’ Saquon Barkley (1,307).
Sunday night against the Browns, Jackson seemed to hit another gear as a runner. Instead of settling for shorter gains before getting out of bounds, he put juke moves on defenders and got as many yards as he could. It was like he was trying to score every time he touched the ball.
“Honestly, I did [turn it on] a little, I felt like, because we needed it more,” Jackson said. “We need every game, but it was something different. They beat us before last time we played them, and we [were] home, so we have to win at home.”
So it that switch still flipped for the playoffs?
“It definitely is,” Jackson said. “It’s on right now.”
Jackson's next challenge will be beating the same team for a second time. The Chargers saw his speed just three weeks ago, when Jackson threw for 204 yards and a touchdown and ran 13 times for 39 yards. It was his lowest rushing total since becoming the starter.
Jackson’s coaches and teammates are confident Jackson can continue his success in the playoffs for more reasons than just his talent on the field. It’s also how he’s carried himself off it.
“Lamar’s maturity has impressed me greatly. He’s very mature,” Head Coach John Harbaugh said. “I think you guys see it – you see it when you interview him, players see it when he walks around. Like I said before, he’s very comfortable with who he is. That’s a sign of maturity for sure.”
Veteran guard Marshal Yanda gave Jackson a mini lecture on the bench during Sunday’s win about not celebrating too soon before he gets into the end zone. With how good these defenders are, Yanda said, they can come up from behind and strip you. Only thing is, they would have to catch Jackson to do it.
Yanda said Jackson has gotten a little calmer, a little more confident in what he’s doing, every single game. Yanda is tough on rookies, but he’s not afraid to say that Jackson has grown every week. The Pro Bowl guard clearly respects the youngster, even if he doesn’t understand all his millennial, social media, Kodak bop dance business.
“I don’t know anything about all that stuff,” Yanda said. “I haven’t known anything about all that stuff for the past 10 years, so I don’t even worry about that stuff. As long as we’re winning – hey, everything’s great. We’ll bring out the belts. We’ll do everything, alright?”
Jackson will turn 22 on Monday, the day after his first NFL playoff game. Imagine that celebration.
"I’m trying to taste that victory for my birthday Monday," Jackson said. "I can taste it!"