Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco talks about the chemistry with rookie QB Lamar Jackson and tight end Hayden Hurst. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun video)
In an average game at Louisville last season, Lamar Jackson attempted 33 passes and carried the ball 18 times.
In seven games as a backup quarterback with the Ravens this season, he's played 59 snaps total.
Though Jackson has evolved into a dependable short-yardage threat, he knows Joe Flacco is the true pilot of the team’s offense. Which raises a practical question: If you rarely get to do your job, how do you know you're improving at it?
If Jackson is uncertain about his progress as he nears the midpoint of his rookie season, he's not letting on. He knew the deal coming in, and besides, he's not given to self-doubt.
“I have a good sense of where I am right now,” he said Thursday.
The Ravens are trying to make the playoffs in 2018, and in Flacco, they have a quarterback who's performing well enough to facilitate those ambitions. It's entirely possible that will be the case in 2019 as well.
It means Jackson's big-picture progress is not the coaching staff's week-to-week priority. He's more like a special project, assigned to the team's first-year quarterback coach, James Urban.
“I don’t think it’s as much of a factor right now,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said as he looked ahead to Sunday’s matchup with the Carolina Panthers. “He does extra work during the week with James, from the long-term development part of it. But really now, we’re just getting ready to try to win games.”
It’s an unusual position for a player who dominated national highlight reels in college and who ranks as arguably the most important person in the Ravens’ story going forward. But Jackson has avoided any awkwardness by operating with humility at every turn.
Harbaugh said before the season that he fully expected Jackson to be active on game days and to be a part of the Ravens offense. And he’s been good on his word, using the rookie in every game so far.
The Ravens deploy Jackson in a fairly narrow way, sometimes as a decoy but usually with the option for him to either carry the ball or hand off.
Aside from the Ravens’ season-opening blowout of the Buffalo Bills, in which Jackson played for much of the second half, his workload has hovered between two snaps (in Weeks 3 and 6) and nine snaps (Week 4 in Pittsburgh).
On the 29 snaps he’s played since the opener, he’s carried the ball 13 times and attempted two passes. Only once, on a 22-yard scamper in Week 6 against the Tennessee Titans, did he truly break free. But he’s become an important short-yardage option for offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg.
“I like it,” Jackson said of those high-stakes carries. “I like it when the pressure’s on. It’s pretty cool for me that they’re relying on me to do it.”
Last Sunday against the New Orleans Saints, when the Ravens needed to punch the ball in from the 1-yard line with eight seconds left before halftime, they turned to the rookie. He converted for his first NFL touchdown.
That ball already occupies a place of honor in his man cave.
“It’s really nothing written in stone,” Harbaugh said, expounding on the size of Jackson’s weekly role. “I think it’s just like anything else — it’s more art than science. I think as much as possible, within reason, if that makes sense — because we have a quarterback who’s playing at a high level … Joe is playing at a very high level. I don’t want to lose sight of that. We try to do the best we can to put both of those guys in there in ways that help us score points and move the ball and things like that.”
The Ravens used first-round pick Lamar Jackson early and often in his first NFL game, deploying him as a decoy when the result was still in question and as Joe Flacco’s fill-in once their rout of the Buffalo Bills was officially on.
Generally, when Jackson comes in the game, Flacco lines up at wide receiver. Though the 11-year veteran has poked fun at his role on those plays, fears that he might become frustrated with Jackson’s usage have proved unfounded.
Like most of the coaches, he’s not focused on Jackson’s overall progress as a quarterback. But he expressed a growing confidence in Jackson’s utility for this season.
“Obviously, I don’t get to see him at quarterback and doing those kinds of things in our offense, but in terms of how we’re progressing as an offense with him involved, I think we’re definitely starting to do some good things and make a real impact on games, for sure,” Flacco said.
Opposing coaches have said Jackson creates an extra problem for them as they prepare for the Ravens.
“Oh yes, most certainly,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “The young man is a dynamic, explosive player. He’s a threat whenever he’s on the field, so you have to account for him, and then you have to account for where the other quarterback lines up.”
But others, such as Fox analyst and former Dallas Cowboys standout Daryl Johnston, have questioned the value of putting both Jackson and Flacco on the field.
"When you do these special packages with quarterbacks that have a unique skill set at the position like Lamar Jackson has, you really do reduce your odds because you're really playing 10 on 11,” Johnston told Baltimore radio host Glenn Clark last week.
Regardless, Jackson feels he’s grown closer to Flacco, the man he might one day succeed.
“Joe’s funny,” he said. “I don’t know if y’all know that. But I’m always laughing. He’ll be saying little stuff.”
Jackson said he doesn’t monitor the progress of the other four quarterbacks selected in the first round of this year’s draft — Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen and Josh Rosen. He’s the only one of the five not to have started at least four games. But he’s also the only one playing for a winning team.
Though it’s become the norm for first-round quarterbacks to be thrown into the fire, Jackson said he’s content to help where he can as he continues to develop his craft.
That’s where the extra sessions with Urban and fellow reserve quarterback Robert Griffin III come in.
“Man, is he working hard,” Mornhinweg said. “James and he … and ‘RG’ go down there after practice for, man alive, 20 or 30 minutes in most cases, and work the quarterback part of it.”
Griffin lived a different experience, starting 15 games as a rookie for the Washington Redskins in 2012. Without that level of game action, he said, Jackson probably doesn’t know where he stands as an NFL quarterback. But that’s not a bad thing.
“I think right now, Lamar is working in a way that he doesn’t understand how helpful those sessions can be,” Griffin said. “I don’t know if he’s really gauging it like a 28-year-old quarterback would gauge it. He’s really just going out and playing right now. Later, down the line, he’ll understand the importance of what we did this year and what we did after practice every single day.”
Even as he tries to keep himself in game-ready form, Griffin advises Jackson on how to get the most from their extra work.
“It’s easy to disconnect from it and not pay attention and not get better,” Griffin said. “I just try to add any assist that I can from my playing experience — going through how to tinker with your technique without going off your rhythm. Because throwing a football and playing in the NFL is like dancing. It’s more chaotic dancing, because there are a lot of different variables, but I just try to help him stay loaded and stay ready to throw.”
Jackson said they don’t pinpoint any one area of his game, though he spent the summer working on widening his base to improve his throwing consistency.
“Everything,” he said when asked about his to-do list with Urban. “Accuracy, timing, everything. It’s always important, even if I was in the game throwing them. It’s always important; you’ve got to keep working on your craft, trying to better yourself. I don’t care if you’ve been in the league 15 years. You always want to better yourself.”
He joked that on game days, he stays warm by stalking Urban step for step on the sideline. “Stay ready! Stay ready!” Urban tells him as Jackson plays the role of NFL relief pitcher.
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It’s possible the wider world won’t see the full fruits of his labor until next summer, when he’ll again take the reins of the Ravens’ offense in preseason games. Given Flacco’s resurgent play and the team’s status as an AFC contender, it’s impossible to predict the context Jackson will face in his second season. The Ravens could save $18.5 million if they designate Flacco a post-June 1 cut, but would they truly consider such a move if he leads them to the playoffs this season?
It’s not an issue anyone in the organization is willing to touch at the moment.
But there are periodic reminders that Jackson is no ordinary rookie backup. As the Ravens prepared to play the Panthers, Carolina quarterback Cam Newton, the league’s 2015 MVP, proclaimed himself a Lamar fan.
Jackson offered a sheepish grin when reporters informed him of this Thursday. He said he’d love to exchange jerseys with Newton — whom he described as “my Heisman brother” — after the game Sunday. But he wondered if that would be overly presumptuous for a first-year player.
“I wish I could give him mine, but I’m a rookie, so I don’t know how that goes,” he said.