CINCINNATI — The Ravens’ Lamar Jackson isn’t going to redefine the quarterback position, but he did catch the AFC North at the right time when other teams were struggling with their signal-callers.
Jackson, in his second season, put on another dazzling display Sunday by completing 15 of 17 passes for 223 yards and three touchdowns and finishing with a perfect passer rating of 158.3 in a 49-13 win over the Cincinnati Bengals. He threw some great touch passes and zipped the ball in front of defenders into tight windows.
Of course, his best play was the 47-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, which would be an insult for me to even attempt to describe. Coach John Harbaugh said they’ll be watching that run “for decades and decades.”
Maybe the best description came from Ravens third-year outside linebacker Tyus Bowser as he watched it on the sidelines.
“Oh man, they were going crazy,” Bowser said of his teammates. “Everyone was, ‘Ooh. Ooh. Oh my God. Oh. Oh.’ Any reaction you can think of that would happen on the sideline, that’s definitely what happened. So it was a great play.”
NFL analysts and commentators have said that Jackson is the new breed of quarterback and that other teams will try to copy his style in a league that has gone pass-happy.
That’s not going to happen.
Some of these same people were saying this about Randall Cunningham 35 years ago and then about Michael Vick at the turn of the century. But it’s hard to imitate or duplicate these players, because their skill-sets and athletic abilities are just so rare.
Jackson is starting to look like a once-in-a-lifetime player, because if teams could have found a player like him, wouldn’t they have done it by now?
Jackson’s timing as the starting quarterback in Baltimore is nearly perfect. At the beginning of last season, Ben Roethlisberger was the starter in Pittsburgh, Joe Flacco was in Baltimore, Andy Dalton had the position in Cincinnati and rookie Baker Mayfield was the heir apparent in Cleveland.
But now Roethlisberger is out for the season with an elbow injury and Mayfield has struggled with a new coach and staff. Rookie Ryan Finley replaced Dalton as the starter for Sunday’s game.
And oooh, it was ugly.
Finley completed 16 of 30 passes for 167 yards, threw a pick-six to Marcus Peters and fumbled on a sack, leading to a 33-yard scoop-and-score for Bowser. It has been a season of growing pains for new coach Zac Taylor, as well as Finley.
Mayfield appeared to be the new savior in Cleveland after a strong rookie season but has struggled with his accuracy. As for Roethlisberger, he is 37, and while he says he will return next season, no one knows for sure if he will be the Roethlisberger of old, or just an old Roethlisberger.
Quite a few teams have changed quarterbacks. Flacco is out for the season with a neck injury in Denver and the Indianapolis Colts’ Andrew Luck retired before the start of this season after a slew of injuries. Former stars like the Atlanta Falcons’ Matt Ryan and the Los Angeles Chargers’ Philip Rivers are struggling and not getting any younger.
It’s not just a changing of the guard, but of the quarterbacks.
And then there is Jackson.
As a runner, you can’t teach what he has because it’s a combination of athletic ability and instincts. With speed, you either have it or you don’t. You might be able to get a step or two faster, but it’s hard to move into Jackson’s class.
Mobility in the pocket? You can’t teach that either. That’s about instincts and feel as well. There were times Sunday when Jackson took that one step to the right or to the left, or stepped up in the pocket like Tom Brady. He never did that last season.
His biggest improvement has come as a passer. A year ago, Jackson wasn’t accurate. He can still be off the mark on occasion, but when teams are challenging him to throw the ball, which the Bengals did Sunday, he is making them pay for it.
A lot of credit has to go to Jackson. He spent the offseason working on his ball-handling and mechanics. He put in the time in the weight room and watched film.
The Ravens were fortunate, because they inserted Jackson as the starter near the midway point of last season. They had a chance to see his strengths and weaknesses and teach him how to read an entire field instead of just a quarter of it.
But as you watched Jackson play Sunday, there is a sense that everything is coming together. Even he acknowledged that he had to work on his footwork, sometimes setting a wider base so he could follow through with his hip and deliver the ball where it needed to be.
As Jackson develops, you hold your breath every time he runs outside of the pocket. Every player is at risk on each play, but the concerns are greater when it’s the quarterback.
But for now, you just have enjoy Jackson. He is special and fun to watch.
Quarterbacks like him are hard to find. The Jackson version doesn’t come along often.