David Culley joined the Ravens’ coaching staff in January for two reasons. One, he said, was to reunite with head coach John Harbaugh, whom he worked with for a decade on Andy Reid’s Philadelphia Eagles staff. The other was to coach Lamar Jackson.
“He’s a franchise-type quarterback, and you always want to be able to be a part of something special there,” Culley, the Ravens’ wide receivers coach and passing coordinator, said after a mid-August training camp practice. “I think we have something special going here.”
That’s the feeling swirling around Owings Mills, where Jackson has looked more and more like a veteran leader and less like the 21-year-old rookie he was last season. For a team in both transition and contention, that’s the development that was always necessary.
If the Ravens’ run to their first AFC North title since 2012 made clear that Jackson would remain the team’s quarterback, not former Super Bowl Most Valuable Player and longtime starter Joe Flacco, the grim reality of their playoff exit showed how far he still had to go. With the Ravens’ vaunted running game held in check by the visiting Los Angeles Chargers, Jackson entered halftime of their AFC wild-card-round game 2-for-8 for 17 passing yards and an interception.
After the 23-17 loss, in which the Ravens trailed by as many as 20 points early in the fourth quarter, Jackson acknowledged his shortcomings. “I didn’t play my game at all,” he said. “Only towards the end,” when his late-game passing gave the Ravens a faint chance. “There are a lot of things I need to work on.”
And so he has, with still more room to grow. No one who’s watched him progress through organized team activities, mandatory minicamp, training camp and the preseason slate would confuse him for a superstar. He is a second-year player with just seven starts on his resume. There’s the occasional misread of the defense. His deep balls tend to wobble every now and then.
But last season, the list of warts was longer. Much longer. Now, Jackson’s coaches have said, he commands the offense in the huddle and at the line of scrimmage, handling play calls and protections with confidence. His mechanics have improved, and with them his accuracy. (Even the short-range sidearm throws Jackson attempts don’t miss often.) He’s thrown better to the sideline, where he struggled last season.
Maybe most important, he seems to trust himself and his receivers more, winding up before they’re even out of their breaks.
“He’s been great,” tight end Mark Andrews, his top target throughout training camp, said after one practice. “I think he gets pegged as a guy who can’t throw the ball and all of that, but you come out to practice, and that’s all we do. That’s all we’re doing, is throwing the ball. He puts the ball in incredible spots, and he’s such a dynamic player. He has that special ‘it’ factor about him, and again, he’s special, and there’s really no other word to describe him. He’s incredible.”
Jackson’s first two months as a starting NFL quarterback left him with a low bar to clear entering 2019. While he finished with twice as many touchdown passes (six) as interceptions (three), Jackson completed just 58.2% of his passes, among the lowest rates in the league. He passed for as few as 125 yards (in a win) and surpassed 200 yards just once (also in a win).
Analytically, Jackson was no darling. According to Football Outsiders’ efficiency ratings, he was somewhere between the Tennessee Titans’ Marcus Mariota and Denver Broncos’ Case Keenum as a passer — and definitely behind Flacco. Pro Football Focus rated him the 31st-best quarterback in the NFL, worse than even the New York Giants’ Eli Manning and former Jacksonville Jaguar Blake Bortles. Neither came close to the playoffs last season. (But then, neither had the Ravens’ top-ranked defense, either.)
“You guys seen me last year. You guys know. I was horrible,” Jackson said.
Where he thrived was as a rusher. While Jackson struggled with ball security, he finished the season with 695 rushing yards, second most on the team, and 4.7 yards per carry. His 147 carries were the most ever in a single season by a quarterback, and the times when he faked as if he would run sprung open holes for other players.
All of which led some critics to disparagingly suggest that Jackson play running back, not quarterback.
“There is negativity all over the place, but I think as players, we know what we’re capable of,” tight end Hayden Hurst said. “What I’m seeing out there, that’s not a running back. He’s an incredible quarterback. He makes really good decisions. He makes some really impressive throws. I’m just happy to see how he progresses moving forward.”
While the 6-foot-2 Jackson tended to his game and his frame in the offseason — he said he’s added 7 to 10 pounds of muscle since January — general manger Eric DeCosta and the Ravens front office did what they could to give him a talented enough supporting cast.
In free agency, they signed two-time Pro Bowl running back Mark Ingram II, whose receiving know-how and blocking ability might be just as important as his hard-charging rushing style. In the draft, they used two of their top three picks on wide receivers: Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, one of the draft’s fastest players, and Miles Boykin, an athletic, more physical target. Elsewhere, they secured the return of All-Pro guard Marshal Yanda, who will again spearhead what could be a top-10 offensive line.
“It’s a challenge for a team to face speed when you have multiple guys on the field at the same time who can run and make explosive plays,” DeCosta said in April, after the Ravens had added running back Justice Hill and quarterback Trace McSorley, among the draft’s fastest players at their respective positions. “We got a chance to see what Lamar can do this past year, and I think our vision, collective vision, for the offense is to add more guys like that to make it really challenging on the defense.”
The Ravens’ offensive playbook is, for now, something of a mystery box. After Greg Roman, the architect of the team’s running game, was promoted to offensive coordinator in January, the coaching staff set about tearing down the offense. It could no longer cater to Flacco, who would soon be traded to the Denver Broncos. It had to amplify the strengths and minimize the weaknesses of Jackson.
Ravens officials have said the offense, which ran about 60% of the time with Jackson as a starter, will be more reliant on its passing attack this season. In the modern NFL, that’s the smart play. The best offenses are those that take to the sky most efficiently. The Kansas City Chiefs, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Los Angeles Rams finished atop the NFL in yards per pass attempt in 2018 — and also yards per play. The Ravens ranked among the bottom nine in both categories.
But scheme matters, too. Patrick Mahomes’ rocket arm and quick-fire delivery are especially valuable in Kansas City’s offense, which mixes college-style spread concepts and Air Raid elements. Jackson, Roman has said, is a “unique, special player.” Why design an offense devoid of the attributes that helped Jackson win the Heisman Trophy as a sophomore at Louisville, that kept defenses on the field for punishing double-digit-play drives last winter?
So expect zone-read plays. And run-pass-option plays. And play-action and misdirection, jet sweeps and college-style options, old school and new school. Expect Jackson in the middle of it all, for better or worse.
“They don’t change the iPhone, but they add another number on it, and they fix something,” Harbaugh said in June. “We’re probably doing iPhone 1 now. We have a whole new idea. It’s not that there is anything new in there, concept-wise, that has never been done in football before. But the way we put it together, to me, is unique and different.”
Harbaugh, who signed a contract extension through 2022 in January, has touted the offense as potentially “revolutionary,” akin to what the San Francisco 49ers’ Bill Walsh and Joe Montana achieved with the West Coast Offense in the 1980s. It’s a weighty burden, the prospect of such drastic change, but Jackson’s past year has been nothing if not transformative. There is no better face for the vanguard than his.
“Coach was talking to us last night,” Jackson recalled early in training camp. “He was getting me pumped up talking about the new revolution, changing [everything] and stuff like that. … I was pretty pumped. I was thinking we were about to play today. I was like, ‘OK, Coach. I’m all in!’ The whole team was all in.”