Lamar Jackson has changed the Ravens' season, but it hasn't changed him

Because he is a rookie prone to bouts of inconsistency, because he is a generational athlete who can bend defenses to his will, Lamar Jackson has made every game he’s played something of a guessing game: Just what will the Ravens quarterback do next?

So far, he has experienced defeat as a backup and won as a starter, thrown for touchdowns and botched handoffs. He has completed deep bombs down the sideline and stared down receivers in triple coverage. He has run quarterback draws, read options and end-arounds. He’s lined up as a receiver, even gotten open in the end zone. He has done seemingly everything on offense but line up at guard and try pancaking a 300-bound behemoth.

“It's fun being in there with him because when he takes off and runs, you've got to have your head on a swivel,” said first-round tight end Hayden Hurst, who has played with Jackson since the team’s rookie minicamp in May.

And yet, Hurst added: “You pretty much know what you're going to get with him.”

That, teammates and coaches said, is the dichotomy of Jackson. On the field, where he’s expected to make his third straight start Sunday in Atlanta against the Falcons (4-7), Jackson is thrilling and unique and still grasping the NFL’s unyielding difficulties. In the locker room, during team meetings, in practice, he is still the same ol’ Lamar who entered the season expecting to watch and learn from Joe Flacco.

His circumstances might have changed, perhaps irrevocably, but they don’t seem to have changed him.

“I don’t think it’s ever been a question with Lamar, if you look back at his career and him coming out from college and everything,” said coach John Harbaugh, whose Ravens (6-5) have moved into the AFC’s sixth playoff spot with two wins in Jackson’s two starts. “But it’s not in question here, either. … You never know until you see it, and we saw it from day one. But when you’re the starting quarterback, it’s another level. That’s kind of what you’re talking about. It’s very important, and he’s done a great job with it.”

Jackson’s introduction to the NFL has made his recent production — a combined 328 yards passing and 190 yards rushing against the Cincinnati Bengals and Oakland Raiders — all the more surprising. During training camp, his attempts downfield wobbled as if a wide receiver had thrown them. He didn’t complete over 50 percent of his passes until his fourth preseason game. Robert Griffin III became the rare third quarterback on the Ravens’ season-opening roster in part because of concerns over Jackson’s game readiness.

But Jackson’s competence did not tarnish his confidence. Teammates have said Jackson is as self-assured now as he was then, which is to say, in the words of offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, “very, very, very confident.”

“Confidence?” Jackson asked, almost rhetorically, in response to a question Sunday about that feeling. After all, he’d won two straight games. “My confidence has always been there, but it’s just … you have to execute when you’re out there on the field. Believe. ‘[The team is] trusting in you, Coach Harbaugh is trusting in you, our [offensive] line is. Get the ball to our receivers, and put points on the board.’ So that’s my job. I’m always confident in that.”

But as the Ravens have learned how to play with Jackson, trading their high-volume passing attack under Flacco for a dominant ground game, their quarterback has evolved, too, changing in the way his teammates have needed him to.

Center Matt Skura said he can hear Jackson’s maturation. Flacco stood in the way of Jackson’s ascendance, but so did the rookie’s presnap command of the offense. Jackson struggled occasionally with remembering the play call from his earpiece and vocalizing it during the huddle, Skura said. Sometimes his cadence wasn’t consistent. The rhythm was off.

“I think he's definitely grown a lot since he first got here, and I think it's shown,” Skura said. “He's been a lot more mature as far as being comfortable. … Getting your first start is something different, so I think these reps these last two games have really helped him out.”

Even with Flacco inactive for the past two games because of a hip injury, Ravens players and coaches have said the team’s quarterback room is almost unchanged. Harbaugh called Flacco’s input in game-planning “very big.” Jackson said after his first start that he would study film the same way he had when he played mainly as an early-season running threat.

The two quarterbacks are almost polar opposites in some respects; Flacco is “Joe Cool,” Hurst explained, while Jackson “brings a different vibe to the table.” But the 21-year-old has earned a level of respect not expected to be accorded the youngest player on an NFL team.

“He's very confident in what he does and how he plays, so he puts in a lot of effort, too, studying, but maybe not as much as the next man,” rookie tackle Orlando Brown Jr. said. “But he's still obviously able to go out there and play at a high level, just because of his talent, because of his mind, and some people don't need to study everything. He's got a good understanding of our offense and who we're playing against every week, and that's all that really matters.”

The Ravens have so far avoided any talk of a quarterback controversy. Jackson has not started because Flacco has been benched, but because of his still-ongoing rehabilitation. And the Ravens have not won solely because of Jackson, but also because of their top-ranked defense and somewhat accommodating two-game stretch.

With Flacco’s return to practice Thursday, albeit as a limited participant, there could be decisions to make soon. Would the Ravens go back to their longtime starter for a crucial Week 14 game against the Kansas City Chiefs, even if Jackson’s won three straight under center? Harbaugh skirted around a question about whether a starter could lose his job while injured.

Those matters will likely resolve themselves soon enough. Guard Alex Lewis acknowledged adversity hasn’t visited the Ravens often in their past two games. He said he appreciates Jackson’s hunger, his humbleness. But of paramount importance, he said, is not consistency in approach but consistency in results.

“I think what's important is what you do on the field,” Lewis said. “If you're putting up stats and you're getting touchdowns and you're getting wins, I think that's what's most important out of all.”

jshaffer@baltsun.com

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