xml:space="preserve">
xml:space="preserve">
Advertisement
Advertisement

Ravens’ Lamar Jackson, Patriots' Cam Newton show the promise — and peril — of dual-threat QBs

A decade ago, when Don “Wink” Martindale was in charge of his first NFL defense, his Denver Broncos faced 13 different starting quarterbacks. It was a group of remarkable durability. And unremarkable mobility.

There was Matt Hasselbeck in the Broncos' home opener and Philip Rivers in their season finale. Matt Cassel started against Denver. Matt Schaub did, too. Even the test of a dual-threat like Vince Young was sandwiched by games against Peyton Manning and Joe Flacco.

Advertisement

Now, as Martindale and the Ravens prepare for the second half of their 2020 season, the statuesque quarterback seems like a monument to a bygone era. The New England Patriots' Cam Newton, a record-breaking runner, awaits in Gillette Stadium on Sunday night. Then comes the Tennessee Titans' Ryan Tannehill, a former Texas A&M wide receiver.

The Pittsburgh Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger might be the only first-string quarterback left on the Ravens' schedule whom you couldn’t trust to win a footrace against a defensive tackle.

Advertisement

“It’s the way of the world in the NFL right now, with these young quarterbacks who are coming out,” Martindale said in a video conference call Thursday. “And you better stay up with the times.”

Especially because the old times aren’t returning anytime soon. The Ravens' Lamar Jackson is the league’s reigning Most Valuable Player. His predecessor, the Kansas City Chiefs' Patrick Mahomes, might be best remembered for a 27-yard playoff run; his potential successor, the Seattle Seahawks' Russell Wilson, is second among active quarterbacks in career rushing yards.

Mobility is no longer an asset for young quarterbacks. It’s becoming a prerequisite. Three quarterbacks were taken among the top six picks of the 2020 NFL draft, and at least two could be taken in the top five next year. They all play a lot more like Jackson and Mahomes than they do Manning and Rivers.

“Just being able to have that versatile quarterback, it allows you to do so many more things,” Ravens tight end Mark Andrews said Wednesday. “It really makes it hard for a defense to game-plan against you, just because when you have a mobile quarterback, they can extend plays, they can make plays with their feet. It’s really an all-around thing. It’s incredibly hard for a defense to stop that.”

Martindale noted the trickle-up effect from college football, where the best offenses lean on quarterback-driven rushing attacks and spread formations. At Oklahoma, Andrews spent three seasons catching passes from Baker Mayfield, who finished with over 1,000 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns on the ground in his college career. Mayfield’s backup in 2017 was another future top pick, Kyler Murray, who went to rush for over 1,000 yards himself at Oklahoma — though he needed only one season to do it.

In Baltimore, Andrews now partners with Jackson, who last year became the first quarterback in NFL history to pass for 3,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards in a single season. “Having a guy like [No.] 8, who’s the best in the world at what he does, that’s unmatched,” he said.

Andrews' career has in some ways captured the NFL’s spectrum of “modern” quarterback prototypes. On one end is Mayfield, who’s a good enough scrambler to shake a blitzing linebacker and buy time in the pocket. On the other end is Jackson, who’s a good enough runner to glide by a safety and wind up on “SportsCenter.”

As one-dimensional quarterbacks have aged out of the NFL, the challenge for coaches like the Ravens' John Harbaugh and the Patriots' Bill Belichick has doubled. They not only have to stop the growing array of dual-threat quarterbacks on their schedule; they also have to find the best way to use their own.

This year has not gone as either coach expected. After two weeks, Jackson and Newton were among the NFL’s top quarterbacks. But at the season’s midway mark, both are hoping for a turnaround. Jackson ranks No. 17 in QBR, an ESPN statistic that accounts for all of a quarterback’s contributions; Newton is No. 25.

Maybe most alarming is how little the running success has mattered. According to Football Outsiders, the Ravens (6-2) and Patriots (3-5) rank among the NFL’s top five rushing attacks. But neither offense ranks in the top 20 overall; ineffective and injury-hampered passing games have weighed them down.

That is part of the calculated risk teams take when investing in dual-threat quarterbacks. Add a Lamar Jackson or a Cam Newton to any offense, and the rushing attack should be better off. But when passing production is the key to offensive success, teams can no longer afford to struggle in the ways the Ravens and Patriots have this season.

“I think it’s nice to be able to be a run-first offense,” NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth said, “but eventually, in this league, you’re going to be behind.”

Advertisement

The worst thing an offense can do with a quarterback’s athleticism is neglect it. As for the best thing? That’s harder to say. Change is constant in the NFL. What might work one week, one month or one season could malfunction the next. The Ravens returned nearly their entire record-breaking offense from 2019, along with coordinator Greg Roman, and have rarely looked as dangerous as they did late last season.

But it helps to have someone at quarterback with Jackson’s improvisational flair. Of the starting quarterbacks for the NFL’s 10 most efficient offenses entering Week 10, only two — the New Orleans Saints' Drew Brees and Los Angeles Rams' Jared Goff — are averaging less than 6 yards per scramble, according to Pro Football Focus.

Murray is up to nearly 10 yards per carry whenever he bails on a drop-back. The Green Bay Packers' Aaron Rodgers, at age 36, is averaging 6.7 yards per scramble, more than Jackson (6.3). The Minnesota Vikings' Kirk Cousins has scrambled just six times this season, but even he’s run for 50 yards along the way (8.3 per attempt).

“Some teams do have scrambling quarterbacks, and they really don’t have to design runs for them,” Belichick said Tuesday. “Running yards that come in the passing game are a little bit different than running yards that come in a running game. I know it all looks the same on the stats sheet, but I’ll tell you, it’s not. Defensively, I don’t think you look at it quite the same way. Some quarterbacks get more in one area; some get more in another area.”

Advertisement

Jackson has long said his preference is not to run. While he grew up idolizing Michael Vick, it’s Tom Brady whom he has the utmost reverence for. “He’s definitely the GOAT,” Jackson said last year of the former New England and current Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback, using the shorthand for “greatest of all time.”

Advertisement

In this era, Jackson’s path to the sport’s Mount Rushmore will have to look a little different. What Brady lacks in foot speed, he’s made up for with processing power and pinpoint accuracy. With Jackson’s athleticism, he has another way to win. It’s not that the formula has changed from generation to generation. There’s just one more variable now.

“There’s only one guy who’s going to touch the ball on every snap, so as many skills as I can put under that helmet, that’s the way I would be picking quarterbacks,” Collinsworth said. “There was always the concern that, well, you’re going to get them hurt. But these guys are smarter and smarter. ... Lamar, Kyler Murray, Russell Wilson — it’s just a really fun brand of football to watch.”

Unless you have to defend it, of course.

Baltimore Sun reporter Childs Walker contributed to this article.

RAVENS@PATRIOTS

Sunday, 8:20 p.m.

TV: Chs. 11, 4

Radio: 1090 AM, 97.9 FM

Line: Ravens by 7

Recommended on Baltimore Sun

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement