"I had butterflies before the first tackle, but after I got tackled, it was game on," said Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson when asked about his nerves in his first start. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun video)
“How many teams run the ball with a quarterback 25 times?”
Ravens safety Eric Weddle meant the question to be rhetorical, as if its mere asking would underscore the absurdity of Lamar Jackson’s record-breaking day in his first start, but not even those weird words properly conveyed the Ravens rookie quarterback’s Sunday afternoon.
Because, of course, Jackson did not run the ball 25 times in a vital 24-21 win over the Cincinnati Bengals at M&T Bank Stadium. He carried it 27 times, actually, for 117 yards, the most attempts by a quarterback since 1960 and the second-most yards by a rookie quarterback in the NFL’s modern era.
But after a three-game losing streak that threatened to submarine their season before Thanksgiving, the Ravens would have thrown jump balls to Marshal Yanda all day if a victory required doing so. Instead, they will wake up Monday morning with the AFC’s No. 6 playoff seed tenuously in their control and interest in their quarterback room ratcheted even higher.
Coach John Harbaugh said the team knew as early as Monday or Tuesday that longtime starter Joe Flacco’s right hip injury would sideline him for Sunday’s game, ending a streak of 41 straight starts. Flacco was healthy enough to stand on the sideline in sweats Sunday, but Harbaugh said it would be “tough for him this week.”
Flacco’s continued absence could make easy a decision — for another week anyway — that will be scrutinized as intently as any other in Harbaugh’s 11 years in Baltimore: Did Jackson’s performance against one of the NFL’s worst defenses merit another start in Week 12 against the Oakland Raiders?
“I think everybody was ready to see Lamar,” said Ravens wide receiver Willie Snead IV, who had five catches for 51 yards, both team highs. “We're just looking for an edge at some point. You know, 4-5, we were itching for a victory, like I said. Lamar came in — that gave us that spark as an offense, as you all see. I don't know what's going to happen going forward. …
“If Lamar's still in there, great, we'll see what happens. If Joe's back, we're going to embrace it, too. So we'll see what happens. It's too early to tell.”
Harbaugh said he knew Thursday that Jackson, not veteran Robert Griffin III, would start. “He was the next man up,” Harbaugh explained. The only thing disagreeable was Jackson’s stomach.
Before practice Thursday, he felt off. His stomach hurt badly. He told head athletic trainer Ron Medlin to tell Harbaugh that he couldn’t make it through the workout. At the hospital, Jackson was released almost as quickly as he’d been admitted — “In and out,” he said — but Harbaugh was concerned. It is not often that a team has to practice with just one healthy quarterback, and a third-stringer, at that.
But Jackson was back under center Friday, a full participant in practice, no worse for wear. His only message to reporters afterward was succinct: “I’m good.” He struggled to sleep the next night, too excited by the prospect of his first start. “Go time,” as he called it, beckoned.
Go time was not exactly throw time, though. On their first possession, a 75-yard march to the end zone, the Ravens ran 11 plays. All 11 were runs (a handful, Harbaugh said, were run-pass-option plays). Jackson didn’t pass until their 14th play, a short gimme pass to tight end Nick Boyle.
“That was our game plan coming in,” tight end Mark Andrews said. “Those were scripted plays we worked on, and it was great to see them work. It just goes to show [Jackson’s] versatility and the fact that everyone bought into it. I don’t think they were ready for that, and it’s really tough on their defense.”
"It's like facing two different offenses,” Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict said of the Ravens’ revamped look under Jackson. “With Joe Flacco, he just stands back there and isn't very mobile, but he throws the ball hard. This guy is very unpredictable.”
It wasn’t so much the number of Jackson’s runs [that stood out] but the diversity in what he called a “kick-butt game for the offense.” The Ravens’ first first down came on a read-option keeper by Jackson, a play they nickel-and-dimed the Bengals with all day. They converted a third-and-4 with a designed quarterback draw out of a five-wide formation, center Matt Skura leading his quarterback downfield. Jackson traced figure-8s in the pocket on Vick-esque scrambles. His 14 carries of 15 mph were the most by an NFL player this season, according to the NFL's Next Gen Stats, and five more than the runner-up.
In a pass-first, pass-second, maybe-run-third league, the Ravens finished with more rushing yards (265) than they had passing yards in three of their previous four games. Jackson and undrafted rookie running back Gus Edwards (115 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries) became the Ravens’ first tandem of 100-yard rushers in nearly six years.
“It looked like, to me, a lot of the Bengals defenders were in the right spot, but he was just beating them to the edge time after time,” cornerback Marlon Humphrey said. “When you practice with him, you’re never really trying to tackle him, so you think, ‘Oh, I could have tackled him.’ That’s what you say. Actually, this week, there was a play I let up, and he was like, ‘I got you.’ I was like, ‘No, you wouldn’t have gotten me.’ But after watching today, he might have gotten me.”
Jackson was not Joe Namath or even Joe Flacco as a passer. He finished 13-for-19 for 150 yards, no touchdowns and a third-quarter interception he threw after an ankle-breaking open-field juke. He attempted odd-looking sidearm passes and rarely looked deep.
But Jackson was drafted as the Ravens’ quarterback of the future, and he did enough Sunday to merit that label. Perhaps his most impressive throw went for just 19 yards. On third-and-7 early in the fourth quarter, with the Ravens having rebounded from a 21-13 deficit to even the score, Jackson dropped back and surveyed his options against a four-man rush. No one was open. He scrambled to the right and looked downfield. Andrews was streaking across the field, a half-step open. Jackson fired on the run, looping a pass over one linebacker and just out of reach of another Bengal, into Andrews’ hands.
“I thought [Jackson] played spectacular,” Harbaugh said. “I thought he played winning football. It’s tough being a quarterback in this league. … The playmaking, that comes from God. He made use of that, too. Very proud of that.”
Jackson still has much to learn, not least whether he’ll start again this season. After the game, a Ravens public relations official told Jackson to get the game ball. He’d forgotten to secure it ahead of time. So Jackson chased the official down and “had a strip-sack on the referee,” he joked.
But at the end of it all, after 27 carries and 19 passes, after one postgame chase-down and 22 postgame questions, he sat on a chair in the corner of the Ravens’ locker room and scrolled through his phone, a moment of peace to savor. It had been a long wait. It had been a long day.