Ravens coach John Harbaugh on Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray: "He is a unique talent. He's very creative as a football players."
As quarterback Lamar Jackson became a viral sensation for his video-game highlights at Boynton Beach Community High School in Florida, he shot up the college prospect rankings, landing as the No. 12 dual-threat quarterback in the Class of 2015, according to the 247 Sports Composite rankings.
At the No. 1 spot sat Allen, Texas, quarterback Kyler Murray.
Jackson went on to capture the 2016 Heisman Trophy at Louisville with an electric display of his passing and running abilities, prompting the Ravens to draft him with the No. 32 overall pick in 2018. Murray showcased his own unique skills in college, first at Texas A&M and then Oklahoma, where he became the Sooners’ second straight Heisman winner last year and the top overall draft pick of the Arizona Cardinals in April.
Sunday’s quarterback duel between the Ravens and Cardinals isn’t just a clash of two of the top high school quarterbacks from the Class of 2015 and Heisman winners, but also a snapshot of what the NFL quarterback has become — and what it will continue to evolve into.
“The ability for a quarterback to move around and create on their own is really important,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Wednesday. “I think there’s a long history of that. It’s probably something that is going to expand in different ways with different schemes now. Some of the schemes that you’re talking about that are coming up from the college game and high school game are starting to show up in the pro game.”
Those schemes are evident in the offenses that have been built around Jackson and Murray, though they are based on different philosophies.
The Cardinals paired Murray with first-year NFL coach Kliff Kingsbury to run the up-tempo, pass-heavy Air Raid the two had great success with at Oklahoma and Texas Tech, respectively.
The spread offense makes use of Murray’s accuracy and offers him the ability to make plays with his legs. In Arizona’s 27-27 overtime tie against the Detroit Lions last week, the Cardinals used four or five wide receivers on 58 of their 82 snaps (70%), according to Sharp Football Stats.
The Arizona offense had mixed results in its debut. Through three quarters, the Cardinals had six points and Murray looked overwhelmed. But as he did so many times in college, he used his arm and his legs to make big plays, leading an 18-point fourth-quarter comeback.
Murray finished the game completing 29 of 54 passes for 308 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. He added three rushes for 13 yards.
“He is a unique talent,” Harbaugh said of Murray. “He’s very creative as a football player. He has excellent arm talent. Obviously, he can move around and escape in the pocket, very good vision. He’s been in that offense, really, his whole career, so he’s very effective with that offense. That’s what we have to deal with this game."
The Ravens’ new-look offense, developed by coordinator Greg Roman, uses the threat of Jackson’s speed to open up running lanes for backs and create easy throws to tight ends and wide receivers. It worked to perfection in the Ravens’ season-opening 59-10 win over the Miami Dolphins, as Jackson completed 17 of 20 passes for 324 yards and five touchdowns.
“It takes one guy out of the coverage that would normally be in coverage, or that would normally be rushing,” passing coordinator David Culley said in August of Jackson’s rushing threat. “And instead of being in coverage or instead of rushing, they use a spy on him because he is such a tremendous guy with the ball in his hands that you have to account for him.
"When he has the ball in his hands, it’s almost like having an extra runner back there. If you don’t account for that, then he ends up making big plays where normally quarterbacks in this league don’t make [them]. That’s one thing that defensive coordinators hate. They hate the kind of guy that when you’re back there, they’ve done everything they can do to get them. They have the rush, he gets out of it, and all of a sudden, there’s nobody to account for him.”
“Being a former quarterback, I was very impressed by the way he stepped up to the plate and hit every throw he threw,” Kingsbury said of Jackson. “He threw a perfect passer rating and that says a lot about his competitive nature. I couldn’t have been more impressed.
“I had thought he was a tremendous quarterback, [and] he is. There’s a misnomer that he’s not a passer or skilled passer, but you turn on that tape and it doesn’t take long to see how good he is.”
The Ravens’ offensive personnel Sunday more often resembled football from the 1990s or early 2000s. The team on just one occasion featured a four- or five-receiver set, according to Sharp Football Stats. They used two or fewer wide receivers on 58% of their snaps.
Despite their success, Murray and Jackson still face questions. Their durability has been debated. Murray’s height was the talk of the NFL scouting combine — he measured in at 5 feet 10 — and Jackson’s wiry build have many wondering whether his body will be able handle another season of 100-plus carries.
But the success of Michael Vick (6 feet), Russell Wilson (5-11) and Baker Mayfield (6-1) has made the league more open to tailoring offenses around smaller quarterbacks with shifty, mobile abilities.
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With the NFL gradually incorporating spread offensive schemes from high school and college, quarterbacks that thrive in such offenses will become much more coveted. Two of the top quarterback prospects for the 2020 NFL draft, Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa and Oregon’s Justin Herbert, play in shotgun-heavy spread offenses.
“In my opinion, [Jackson and Murray] are two guys that can be the future of the sport if they continue to progress and put in the work and the time,” Kingsbury said. “They have all the tools, they have all the competitive nature. Their entire lives, all they’ve ever done is won and been the best player on the field. That’s the way it can go if they’re willing to put in the work.”