Of the 24 passes Lamar Jackson attempted Sunday, there were just two he wanted back. One was an overthrown ball to wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown. The other was a low pass to Patrick Ricard — a touchdown pass.
“Could have been better,” the Ravens quarterback said after a 33-16 win over the Houston Texans, still bothered that his Pro Bowl fullback had had to dive for the 1-yard catch. “But that’s about it.”
If this is the new normal for Jackson, if a win with 75% accuracy is a modest disappointment, maybe the NFL’s reigning Most Valuable Player isn’t due to regress, after all. Maybe Jackson’s historic 2019 was only a stepping-stone to an even more efficient 2020.
He has made it hard to predict what will come next. As the Ravens (2-0) approach their “Monday Night Football” showdown against the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs (2-0), Jackson’s career has been defined by a defiance of the sport’s norms and conventions. In Year 1, he won as a running quarterback. In Year 2, he dominated as a dual-threat weapon.
In Year 3, at age 23, Jackson has evolved into one of the NFL’s most accurate passers, a transformation that seemed impossible two years ago. Even as a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback at Louisville, he never completed better than 59.1% of his passes in a season.
Through two games this month, Jackson is 38-for-49 (77.6%). Only Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson (82.5%) has been more accurate, and according to the Elias Sports Bureau, Wilson’s completion percentage is the highest in NFL history after the first two weeks of a season with a minimum of 50 attempts.
“I feel good,” Jackson said Sunday. “But, you know, there’s still some passes that I want back. But that’s what I’m going to get at when I get out there on the practice field. That’s when the mechanics and throws that I want or didn’t have in the game, that’s when that takes over. It starts in practice.”
Jackson’s improvements owe as much to his mentality as they do to his mechanics. After he went 20-for-25 for 275 yards and three touchdowns in a Week 1 win over the Cleveland Browns — his third-highest completion percentage in 24 career starts — Jackson said the speed of the game had slowed for him “a lot.” Ravens coaches have always raved about Jackson’s field vision, but film study and practice were helping him process coverages faster.
Another offseason of technique work has helped, too. Sessions with personal quarterback coach Joshua Harris focused on his throwing base; sometimes, Jackson would get too narrow, a persistent problem in college, and throw from his toes. The power for sideline shots and long balls had to come from his lower body.
The early results are promising. Last year, according to Pro-Football-Reference, Jackson completed 39.5% of his “deep” throws (15-plus air yards), and Pro Football Focus rated him average on 20-plus-yard attempts. This year, he’s 7-for-12 (58.3%) when going deep, according to Pro-Football-Reference, with no completion prettier than his outside-the-numbers, 47-yard bomb to Brown in Week 1.
“You can tell he’s a lot more comfortable, and he’s a lot more pinpoint with it,” Brown said after the game. “It’s now our job to be at the spot, because that’s where he’s putting it. He’s doing a good job of throwing it away from defenders and throwing it to where you can catch and run.”
Accuracy concerns dogged Jackson through the predraft process in 2018. In 2016, when he became the youngest-ever Heisman winner as a sophomore at Louisville, he completed just 56.2% of his passes. (Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray and LSU’s Joe Burrow, the next three Heisman-winning quarterbacks, all were 69% or higher.)
In 2017, despite a Cardinals receiving corps that had one of the nation’s worst drop rates, Jackson’s accuracy improved to a career-high mark, and his arm strength flashed every week. But mechanical problems lingered. According to PFF, Jackson’s adjusted completion percentage, which accounts for factors outside a quarterback’s control on drop-backs, ranked No. 25 among quarterbacks in the 2018 draft class.
He ultimately fell to the Ravens at No. 32 overall, the fifth quarterback taken.
“When you watched Lamar [in college], we felt like he had arm talent, and he had accuracy — that he had the ability to be accurate,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Monday. “We felt like a lot of the misthrows that he had were more about technique than anything else. And sometimes other things blend into it, too, and certainly experience and repetitions and stuff like that.”
Jackson’s steady progress as a passer has lifted the Ravens offense into the NFL’s elite. As a rookie, he completed 58.2% of his passes. During his MVP season, he finished 66.1%, a single-season Ravens record.
This year, Jackson’s AFC-leading accuracy belies the difficulty of his throws: According to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, he’s throwing the ball farther downfield than ever before (9.4 intended air yards per pass, No. 9 overall). Despite ranking No. 29 in the NFL in attempts, according to Pro-Football-Reference, Jackson ranks No. 13 in completed air yards. As a runner and a passer, the Ravens refuse to coddle him.
Jackson’s precociousness as a runner and leader has been well documented. But even some of the NFL’s most decorated passers didn’t find a groove as quickly as he has. Jackson’s accuracy through his first 24 starts (65%) trumps that of Tom Brady (64.8%), Aaron Rodgers (63.4%), Russell Wilson (63%) and Drew Brees (59.7%).
And there’s room for growth, too. “I don’t think there’s a bunch of quarterback coaches that are going to take his bottom half and kind of use it as teaching tape,” ESPN analyst and former NFL quarterback Tim Hasselbeck said in an interview. Jackson’s innate ability, Hasselbeck explained, helps him succeed where others would fail.
“Guys that are just naturally amazing athletes, sometimes they compensate differently for that. And I think that he’s been able to do that. He’s always had a nice motion in terms of how the ball comes out of his hand. And I think that there are still a lot of times where his feet are out of whack, if you will, but he still makes an accurate throw. And I think a lot of that has to do with just being a really natural athlete.”
As Jackson faces stingier defenses and more prepared coordinators this season, his accuracy will likely fall off. There’s only so much he can control every time he drops back: A receiver might drop a pass, a guard might whiff on a block, a linebacker might get a deflection. Only nine quarterbacks in NFL history have ever finished with a single-season completion percentage above 70.
But what’s obvious to Harbaugh and the Ravens is that Jackson’s accuracy is no longer a weakness. It’s now one more strength.
“When you watch him, day in and day out, you can’t help but say, ‘This is a very accurate passer,’ ” Harbaugh said Monday. “He puts the ball where it needs to be, in some really tight spaces, on a really regular basis.”
Monday, 8:15 p.m.
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Line: Ravens by 3½