If Lamar Jackson wants to firmly establish himself as the Ravens quarterback of the future, the final five games of the regular season would be the perfect time.
A year ago, Jackson was the most imposing threat in the NFL, earning Most Valuable Player honors in his second season by rushing for 1,206 yards and throwing for 3,127. But he has been ordinary this year, at least by his standards, rushing for 575 yards and passing for 1,948 while the Ravens have slipped to 6-5 after a record-setting 14-2 finish in 2019.
Jackson has probably heard the rumors. They are being whispered all around town about him being a “one-trick pony,” and that the NFL has figured him out because he isn’t accurate throwing outside the numbers.
Well, if it isn’t true, it’s time for Jackson to prove it, especially in an offense that is void of leadership. The eyes of Baltimore are watching, especially in the Ravens front office. Jackson signed a four-year rookie contract worth $9.5 million in 2018, and once it ends in 2021, the Ravens have a big decision to make.
Do they sign Jackson to a long-term deal and make him one of the highest paid players in the game? Do they offer him a moderate, team-friendly contract? Or do they perhaps allow him to hit the free-agent market?
Jackson is on the clock now.
It’s not that he hasn’t been in this situation before. When the Ravens selected him No. 32 overall in the 2018 draft, he had to prove he could play quarterback in the NFL. In a sense, he has done that while also showing that he can win.
Now, it’s time for Phase II. Can Jackson become a complete quarterback and win big games, including the Super Bowl?
It’s true, opposing teams have figured him out. The use of zone blitzes, outside pressure and coverage in the middle of the field has taken away what the Ravens offense likes to do. Eventually, Jackson is either going to throw or run to the middle, but zone coverage cuts down on his running space.
The ploy has caused Jackson to hesitate, especially compared with a year ago.
It seems as if he wants to become a complete quarterback so bad that it slows his progressions in the pocket. A year ago, Jackson didn’t wait; he took off and ran with the ball based on his instincts and reaction to the players around him.
Maybe he needs to go back to that because the Ravens offense needs a boost. They don’t have a true No. 1 wide receiver, and the coaching staff can’t decide if it wants one dominant running back or to continue using three or four. It might not matter because the offensive line has been depleted by injuries and struggles pass blocking when the Ravens fall behind.
That’s why Jackson is the hope.
The Ravens have some other players who can deliver big plays, such as cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Marlon Humphrey, tight end Mark Andrews and occasionally wide receiver Marquise Brown, but they aren’t in Jackson’s class.
He has the big-play ability with the same elusiveness of former Chicago Bears running back and Pro Football Hall of Famer Gale Sayers, as well as an enthusiasm that quickly spreads to others. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been on display a lot this year. Jackson has looked more like Joe Flacco, often sitting on the bench alone like a grade school kid who has been punished with a timeout.
The Jackson of last year needs to resurface.
The weaknesses of the offense have been well-documented, but the Ravens don’t need Jackson to play like superstars Patrick Mahomes or Aaron Rodgers. They just need him to throw the ball better, perhaps on the level of the Houston Texans’ Deshaun Watson or the Arizona Cardinals’ Kyler Murray.
A few big plays and some improvement in Jackson’s throwing ability, combined with a strong defense, could take the Ravens into the postseason, and maybe even further than last year’s divisional-round loss to the Tennessee Titans.
The Ravens have the easiest schedule of any of the AFC wild-card contenders. After Tuesday night’s game with the defenseless Dallas Cowboys (3-8), the Ravens travel to Cleveland (9-3) before playing home games against the Jacksonville Jaguars (1-11) and the New York Giants (5-7). They close out the season Jan. 3 in Cincinnati (2-9-1).
The Browns actually look like a real NFL team these days, and the Giants play solid defense. But the Ravens should still beat all of those teams and make the playoffs.
The stage is set for Jackson. Coming out of Louisville, the knock on him was that he couldn’t win big games. In the postseason, Jackson is 0-2. If the Ravens do well, and Jackson carries this team into the playoffs and wins a game, that could earn him more time in Baltimore and a new, lucrative multi-year contract.
They key to greatness is consistency. If Jackson doesn’t step up, people will start to wonder again if he is truly a “one-trick pony.”
Then he might have to move on.