"My favorite player [Michael Vick] growing up; it's amazing and I'm going to cherish that forever and just got to keep it going," said Jackson.
Joshua Harris almost smiled to himself as the air at M&T Bank Stadium filled with jeers and calls for Joe Flacco to enter the game.
The date was Jan. 6, and a chorus of derision soundtracked the lowest moments of Lamar Jackson’s budding professional career. This playoff failure against the Los Angeles Chargers — three fumbles and an interception in a 23-17 loss — would surely embolden critics who insisted Jackson’s style could never work in the NFL.
And in that negativity, Harris saw gleaming opportunity. Over the previous few years, he’d come to regard the young quarterback as a sort of football Obi-Wan Kenobi: Strike him down with your doubts and he’d come back more powerful than you could possibly imagine.
“He heard the booing,” said Harris, the Florida-based quarterback coach who’s worked with Jackson since his 2016 Heisman Trophy season at Louisville. “And I remember, because I know him, thinking, ‘This is the perfect thing. Baltimore, you don’t know what you did. You just made the quarterback that you want.’ … When the fans booed him, he took that to heart. It was like, ‘I’m going to prove to the city of Baltimore that you made the right choice.’ ”
If you want to understand Jackson’s stunning ascent this season, you must look to all those who believed it could not happen — the high school rating services that assigned him three stars on a scale of five, the college recruiters who said he’d have to switch to wide receiver or cornerback, the draft pundits who warned he couldn’t stay healthy, the 31 NFL teams that didn’t pick him in the first round, the fans who grumbled that he was more Barry Sanders than Aaron Rodgers. You must play those words of doubt on a loop, because that’s what Jackson does.
“It's true,” he said recently. “It's been like that all my life. That's why I don't complain about it. I just move on. Let people have their own opinions, but I know who I am. And I know what I want to do.”
Like Michael Jordan, Michael Phelps and other great athletes before him, Jackson possesses an engine that creates remarkable competitive achievements out of negative inputs.
A generation of sports fans grew up hearing how Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team and used that disappointment to make himself the greatest of all time. Even with his pre-eminence well established, he’d search for slights that would possess him to destroy the next opponent. This might seem petty for an athlete of Jordan’s talent and purpose, but no one could argue with the results.
Phelps idolized Jordan and used similar methods to get himself out of bed each morning in a competitive lather. On the day of the 100-meter butterfly final at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, Phelps’ coach, Bob Bowman, mentioned that Serbian rival Milorad Cavic had said the sport of swimming would be better off if Phelps didn’t win eight gold medals.
“He said what?” Phelps replied, his indignation rising.
“We were sitting at breakfast, and I swear he physically got bigger,” Bowman recalled. “He just sat straight up, and I knew, ‘OK, that had the desired effect.’ ”
Such competitive baiting doesn’t help all athletes.
“It works really well for those guys, because they’re super-talented, and they can back it up,” Bowman said, referring to Phelps and Jackson. “I mean, let’s be honest; if you take anything that will give them an extra 2%, they’re already ahead of the curve. So if you get 2% more out of someone saying Lamar’s just a running back or Michael can’t swim the 100 fly, they’re going to use that to go beyond.”
Jackson is not entirely a chip off the Jordan block. He does not pour his intensity into scathing critiques of teammates, and he does not seem driven to humiliate rivals in one-on-one combat. He’s a buoyant spirit, a team builder, and as such, his need to feed on negative energy feels paradoxical at times.
But it’s real, say those who’ve known him since his high school days in South Florida. Jackson and his closest confidantes have long held a vision of where he’s headed. Tell him that vision is unreachable, and you become fuel for the journey.
“The most amazing thing about him is the degree to which he does not like to be doubted,” Harris said. “I learned early that if I critiqued him, if I said, ‘Man, that wasn’t a good throw,’ or if I said, ‘Man, you can’t do that,’ … the very next rep or throw, whatever I asked him to do, would be perfect. And I’ve never seen an athlete that dialed in after he’s gotten negative criticism.”
The football world has given Jackson plenty of fuel. Lamar Thomas, who recruited him to Louisville, took advantage of the fact that coaches from other programs weren’t convinced Jackson could start at quarterback.
“They want you to be a backup,” Thomas would say, playing into Jackson’s competitive rage. “Come on, man! For real?”
He knew how perturbed the young quarterback felt about the three-star ratings from recruiting analysts and the lack of invitations to showcase events such as the Under Armour All-America Game.
“You know how you get people back?” Thomas told Jackson. “You go out and prove them wrong. You’re going to have a great stage to do that.”
The skeptical takes persisted even as Jackson laid waste to college opponents with his arm and his legs. As the NFL Draft approached, analysts could not agree whether a team should build its offense around Jackson’s unique skills.
“Whether he’ll ever be a good enough passer to be a winning NFL quarterback … there’s a lot of work to do there,” Hall of Fame general manager Bill Polian said at the time. “Nobody makes a living in the National Football League running the football as a quarterback at 213 [pounds].”
Jackson ultimately watched four other quarterbacks go off the board before the Ravens swooped in to take him with the last pick of the first round. Though Jackson felt he should have been selected higher, his long draft night fit with the narrative he and his family had embraced. “So the last will be first, and the first will be last,” they told each other, quoting a favorite Bible verse.
As with the boos at the Chargers game, Harris suspected the experience would help Jackson in the long run.
“He doesn’t have rabbit ears … but he knows what they’re saying about him,” he said. “He’s like any young person; he loves social media. So he sees what they’re saying. But this is what I loved about him — he internalizes that into motivation. He has this laser-like focus that creates greatness. I think it’s amazing.”
Though Jackson rarely addresses his doubters explicitly, he makes biting comments to remind us of his defiant outlook. “Not bad for a running back,” he said after throwing five touchdown passes in the Ravens’ Week 1 victory over the Miami Dolphins.
Last week, he made a point of saying he’s more likely to take hits to the legs when standing in the pocket than when he’s running around the edge. He’s forever attacking the perception that he’s a one-gear player with a limited shelf life.
If Jackson can’t find an outside source to motivate him on a given day, he’ll turn to his true harshest critic: himself.
“He’s his worst critic,” said Van “Peanut” Warren, who became Jackson’s first quarterback coach when he was 8 years old. “Especially when he knows he should have completed it or he should’ve made a different read or whatever it was. You didn’t read as much when you were in little league, but he would beat himself up if he had an incomplete pass.”
To this day, Jackson will get up after a dazzling run and slap himself on the helmet because he felt he should have gained a few more yards. When Bowman, a Ravens fan, sees those moments on television, he can’t help but think of Phelps.
“That’s total Michael,” he said. “He would win a race by two body lengths and be unhappy with the time. … You have to have that if you’re going to keep getting better. You’re already way ahead of everybody else. Something’s got to make you improve, and that’s it.”
Harris texts Jackson a weekly critique of his play after watching the all-22 footage of the Ravens’ latest game. He’s been known to tell MVP front-runner he “sucks.” But he also knows Jackson will stew over his mistakes without any prompting, so he tries not to be too negative during the season.
The beats of Jackson’s evolution mythology, like the Jordan story for a previous age, are already falling into place — the naysayers who predicted he’d have to change positions, the draft-night wait, the rookie playoff disaster, the succession of mesmerizing performances in Year 2.
Already, he’s asked if younger quarterbacks who’ve adopted his style will benefit from the path he’s carving.
“They should,” he said. “They should give them a try. You never know what’ll happen. That’s how I see it.”
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Harris has looked ahead, and he described a perfectly defiant vision for how his pupil’s NFL story might end, one that would serve as ultimate comeuppance for the haters. What if Jackson finishes not as the next Michael Vick, but the next Tom Brady?
“I can’t wait until he’s old and he can’t run,” Harris said. “While he can run, do it. It’s the ultimate X factor — God gave you a gift. … But I can’t wait ‘til he’s old and looking like Tom Brady back there, going through four reads and then the check down.”
Jordan traded dunks for turn-around jumpers. Phelps won Olympic gold medals as a 31-year-old dad who’d battled depression. What better way for Jackson to answer the skeptics than to just keep going?