It’s not that Gerry Sandusky thought he’d seen it all. He was open to the possibility of something new and fresh, something fun. But after hundreds of games as the radio voice of the Ravens, Sandusky had seen a lot. And a lot of what he’d seen seemed to play over and over, like a song stuck on repeat.
So when Lamar Jackson made his first start as Ravens quarterback in November 2018, Sandusky figured that, from his perch high up in M&T Bank Stadium, he would be prepared to do his job. Then Jackson started to hold the ball out on zone-read plays, and the running back would go one way, and Jackson the other, and Sandusky, for so long a reliable narrator of on-field happenings, just wouldn’t know who had what.
“There were a couple of times where I found myself saying, ‘Oh, he completely fooled the defense — and me,’ ” Sandusky recalled.
Because there is no NFL player like Jackson, the league’s reigning Most Valuable Player, there is also no experience like chronicling his every move in real time. Over 15 million people are expected to watch Jackson’s Ravens (2-0) on “Monday Night Football,” and ESPN’s Steve Levy, Brian Griese and Louis Riddick will have to make sense of it all.
At least the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs (2-0) know what to expect, having faced Jackon twice since 2018; Levy, Griese and Riddick have only watched from afar. But to call a Ravens game is, in many ways, to understand how a defense feels when Jackson is on the field: There is only so much you can prepare for, so prepare to be left speechless.
“You never know when the next snap might be that play of the year that you’ll be seeing over and over and over, and that keeps you on the edge of your seat,” said Mike Tirico, the host of NBC’s “Football Night in America.” “And there’s nothing like entertainment where the unknown, the spectacular, can happen 15 seconds from now.”
In the NFL, Jackson is a unicorn — the first player in league history to pass for 3,000 yards and run for 1,000 in the same year. He’s the single-season record-holder for quarterback rushing yards, the reigning passing-touchdown king.
In college, he left Louisville as a legend, the youngest-ever Heisman Trophy winner. But Jackson’s career started more modestly. As a true freshman in 2015, he lost his first game as a Cardinals starter. In his first Atlantic Coast Conference game, a win over North Carolina State, he went 10-for-27 for 103 passing yards. Louisville radio play-by-play announcer Paul Rogers recalled seeing only glimpses of greatness.
Then Jackson hurdled a Syracuse defender early in the Cardinals' 2016 season — “Just so effortless,” Rogers said — and it was as if the script had changed. A new vocabulary was needed. Rogers recalled color commentator Alex Kupper joking with him in the booth, prophetically, “Boy, there was a Heisman moment.”
As Rogers arrived at those moments of wonder again and again, he found himself almost speechless, searching for words that would articulate his incredulousness. “He didn’t just run; he darted,” Rogers said. “Or he would disappear or evaporate, the things he would do to make opponents look silly sometimes.”
“I use the word ‘pirouette’ with Lamar all the time because that’s the patented move he has now,” said Sandusky, also the WBAL-TV sports director. "I don’t think I ever once said, ‘Joe Flacco pirouetted.’ "
For defenses and broadcasters, it becomes a game of catch-up. Before Jackson’s arrival, Sandusky said he would call Ravens drives “on the ball”: When something happened, he’d describe it, no time lag needed. There were only so many possible outcomes when Flacco faked a handoff and dropped back to pass. Maybe he’d roll to his right, Sandusky said, but “you knew he wasn’t going to sprint from one sideline to the next.”
Jackson makes Sandusky wait, just to be sure. He has to stay “behind the ball.” When the Ravens ran zone-read plays in Jackson’s early days as a starter, Sandusky learned he had to keep his eyes trained on Jackson. From there, it became a process of elimination: Either Jackson had the ball or he didn’t. And if he didn’t, the running back did.
Sandusky chuckled; he’d even consulted former Baltimore Colts linebacker and broadcast partner Stan White for help in understanding the team’s option-heavy offense. If not even the Ravens knew what would happen on any given play, how could the announcers?
“It’s changed the way that you approach things from a play-by-play man’s point of view because of the unpredictability — the [run-pass options], the jet sweeps and the fact that these guys have more freedom than ever before,” said CBS and Westwood One Sports play-by-play announcer Ian Eagle, who’s punctuated Jackson highlights with exclamations of “Lamarkable” and “Lamarvelous.”
“You used to go in with a pretty good idea, a blueprint, of how things are going to go. You call one Baltimore Ravens game, and you realize that it may be something you’ve never seen before. They might bring something new to the table because of the dynamic skills of Lamar Jackson.”
There’s a trickle-down effect on broadcasts. With Jackson, “the potential for something you’ve never seen before is always right there,” Sandusky said. Which means the potential for something you’ve never heard before is, too.
In Week 9 last season, it was an invocation of illusionist Harry Houdini. As Jackson darted past one Cincinnati Bengals defender, slithered past another, spun by two more and outraced the rest to the end zone on a 47-yard score that would define his MVP season, CBS' Kevin Harlan changed gears, too. “Oh, he broke his ankles!” Harlan exclaimed after one Jackson cut-back, as if he were calling a game at Rucker Park’s basketball court.
Then he moved to the present tense: “Now he’s got an entourage.” And then to the outcome: “And he’s got a touchdown.” Harlan waited a beat before summarizing Jackson’s magic: “He is Houdini! What a play!”
Two weeks later, as Jackson weaved through the Houston Texans defense on a 39-yard highlight, Eagle uttered not one but two guttural “Oh!”s: the first when Jackson juked past outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus, and the second when the play ended 11 breathtaking seconds later.
“You kind of know how plays are going to end up: A run inside probably picks up 3 yards in a normal situation, if they’re lucky,” Eagle said. “With Lamar Jackson and his ability to improvise, as a play-by-play announcer, if you do not bring your 'A' game, you’re going to look back on the moment and feel as if you missed it.”
“You hold your breath for 60 minutes just waiting to see what he’s going to do,” NFL Network and Westwood One Sports color analyst Kurt Warner said, “because he’s got a highlight-reel play every time out.”
With how normal Jackson made the extraordinary look, Rogers said he almost failed to appreciate Jackson’s gifts during Louisville broadcasts. The year after he left for the draft, the Cardinals went 2-10, and Rogers needed the occasional pick-me-up. He found it in his phone: archived radio calls of Jackson’s games. Listening to the highlights was a balm.
For Sandusky, narrating Jackson has gotten easier over time but no less enjoyable. Even some of the offense’s quieter moments are riveting. He pointed to a first-quarter play in the Ravens' season opener against the Cleveland Browns, when Jackson pitched the ball to running back Mark Ingram II while 12 yards downfield and almost parallel to the ground.
It struck Sandusky that not even Ingram, a 10-year veteran who “has seen just about anything and everything,” was ready for it.
“You really have to be present with Lamar, with what he’s doing,” Sandusky said. “I have great empathy for defensive players who try to break down and tackle him, because he can just make moves that can leave your feet and your language helpless.”