With the regular season only a month away, the Ravens want to see rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson take another step forward.
“He gets better every day,” quarterbacks coach James Urban said. “I keep seeing growth in all the different areas that we talk about, and one of the important things that we talk about is consistency. You see in our drill work, you can see the growth, and sometimes when the bullets are flying, so to speak, he reverts back to what he knows.”
During one of his 11-on-11 sessions, Jackson lingered in the pocket a little too long, instead running around the defense and sprinting down the sideline, grinning as he finally slowed to a halt.
It was his signature move — using his legs to avert danger — but it was almost out of place. The kind of stuff you might expect in a scheme at Louisville, but also the kind that could get him sacked in the NFL.
Even as Jackson breezed by the scrum, outside linebacker Bronson Kaufusi had a hand on him. In a real game, it could have been a bone-crushing collision.
“Lamar’s going to have to learn that while he goes, because his natural instinct is that no one’s going to tackle you, that no one can tackle you,” Ravens quarterback Robert Griffin III said. “There’s guys in this league that can tackle him, and he’s going to figure that out.”
The two quarterbacks, both brimming with their own talent, pose a conundrum any team would be happy to have. Neither are going to snatch the starting role away from 10-year veteran Joe Flacco, but it’s also very unlikely that the Ravens will keep three quarterbacks in September.
When Griffin looks at Jackson, it's impossible for him not to see a younger version of himself, a college star gassed up to burst onto the NFL scene. While Flacco conducted the offense, the two stood on the sideline with Urban and running back Mark Thompson, tossing the ball around.
Jackson is a threat to Griffin, a 28-year-old just returning to football after looking in from the outside for a year.
“But I’m not going to be on the sideline and say ‘I told you so,’ ” Griffin said on Jackson getting hit. “I’m going to be on the sideline and say, ‘Are you okay?’ ”
When the rookie does make a quick call to skip around the defense and start running, it’s partially because Urban allows him that creative freedom.
“He doesn’t try to coach the playmaker out of you,” Griffin said.
But Jackson might have felt a little braver, unable to recall the last time he’d really been hit.
“Uh, bowl game from college?” Jackson said. “Last time I remember.”
No one implied that Jackson needs to trade in his legs for his arm entirely.
“Well, you know, that’a a slippery slope,” Urban said. “He didn’t get drafted where we drafted him, and he hasn’t accomplished what he has, because he stands in the pocket, right? No, he has to learn how to throw in the pocket, of course. At some point, to play quarterback in the National Football League, you have to drop back and throw. So, we’re getting there, and he’s improving dramatically.”
In that vein, Jackson is still half-sketched. While scanning for receivers with the defense wriggling around him, he’s still not as talkative as a seasoned quarterback, a little hesitant to call plays and execute with his arm.
He is, after all, still a 21-year-old who holds a playbook in front of him and recites calls into a mirror. The Ravens have prioritized nailing down their playcalling verbiage with the rookie all summer, and even as the days grow shorter, it’s still something he’s struggling with.
“I get in the huddle. Coach gives me the play, I get in the huddle and start tongue-twisting me. And I’m like, ‘Uh, say it again?’ ” Jackson said.
During his last session, Jackson, who had mostly thrown well all morning, let a little chaos into his rhythm. After connecting with receiver Jaelon Acklin, Jackson overthrew his target during the next play, missed Janarion Grant and fired a missile into the bleachers packed with Ravens fans.
But the Ravens have more publicly put their faith in Jackson. On Griffin, coach John Harbaugh said, “Well, he’s a really good football player. Again, keep it simple. Here, you’ve got a player that’s got tremendous success in the league, who has got quite a pedigree. This is a talented football player who’s had lots of success while he’s in the NFL. Why wouldn’t you want him on your team?”
Griffin has ached for football for the past year, training in Orlando to get himself back into shape and studying trends to give him an advantage intellectually.
“Being out of football … gives you an appreciation you thought you might have already had. It’s like someone taking something away from you, like someone taking your girl,” he said. “You miss it a little bit. You thought you miss her before, but now you miss her a little bit more. I think that’s what happened with me and football.
“To come back and be blessed with this opportunity is something that I don’t take lightly.”
When Griffin signed with the Ravens, he didn't want to be a work in progress.
“One thing I was able to get back pretty quick was the timing, because once you play in the NFL, you know that speed. It’s not lackadaisical. You can be this close to winning a game and losing a game,” he said.
Griffin has tried to pass this advice onto Jackson, an expert on the college field in the subject but a novice in the NFL.
“What I try to tell him mostly is that in this league, things happen faster. It’s not that he can’t run, he just has to be smart when he does run. I’m not going to try to — I feel like he’s my little brother, but I’m not as the big brother to tell him ‘Don’t do that,’ ” Griffin said. “He’s going to have to learn some things on his own as he’s out there and he’s working. I think he’ll figure it out pretty quickly and still be the dynamic player that he is.”
Griffin, maybe even more so than Flacco, will be Jackson’s cheerleader while he can. This preseason will likely either keep the former Cleveland Brown and Washington Redskin on the team or send him packing.
“It’ll be a tough decision, because anytime you keep one player at position extra, that’s one less player at another position that you have to decide to lose,” Harbaugh said.
When Griffin does take charge during the Ravens’ preseason games — maybe on Thursday night, but certainly in the coming weeks — he doesn’t feel like he’s a shaky-toned singer auditioning for the understudy role.
“Things are going to be said, people are going to doubt you, but you have to go out and perform to the best of your ability … It’s not an audition. It’s not anything like that, to that nature,” he said. “I’m excited to go play football again, be out there and just throw the pigskin.”