Lamar Jackson is no underdog, not anymore.
Though Jackson dazzled the college football world, his Louisville teams never started a season ranked in the top 10. He faced enough questions going into his first full season as the Ravens' starter that he felt compelled to say “Not bad for a running back” after a stellar passing performance in Week 1.
But that time is past as Jackson and the Ravens prepare for their opener Sunday against the Cleveland Browns.
It’s difficult to find a preseason NFL power ranking that doesn’t have the Ravens in the top three. Jackson is the reigning Most Valuable Player and the top man in the sport, according to the NFL Network’s poll of his peers. Pundits debate how far he can go in the postseason, not whether he can get there.
On a recent conference call, CBS analyst Tony Romo said Jackson could be one of a few players who “evolve the quarterback position to heights that we’ve maybe never seen.”
Add to that the pressure Jackson has placed on himself by saying no season will feel truly successful unless it ends with him clutching the Lombardi Trophy as a Super Bowl champion.
Does any of this create new tension for the 23-year-old face of the Ravens?
“I really don’t care about the hype or what people expect,” he said Wednesday in his first game-week media session of the season. “I expect for myself and my teammates to go out there and produce and win games. I don’t know what [else] to tell you.”
He laughed, perhaps because he’s said the same words so many times before.
If anything, running back Mark Ingram II sees greater assurance in the third-year quarterback, for whom he became an unofficial hype man last season.
“He’s the man. He handles outside noise and adversity great,” Ingram said. “He doesn’t pay attention to it. He stays focused on the task at hand. He’s focused on trying to be the best quarterback he can be, the best player he can be, the best leader he can be, and he does a great job of it. I feel like he’s light years ahead now of where he was last year. ... It’s special to be able to see it.”
Teammates discuss Jackson with more reverence than they did when he was a rookie, but their personal affection for him has not changed, a sign that he has not become more closed off as the gaze of the outside world has intensified.
“He’s just a good dude,” Ingram said. “Someone that everyone in this organization loves very much because of who he is and what he stands for.”
Some of the debates around Jackson sound familiar. If he had turned on ESPN’s “First Take” this week, he would have heard Stephen A. Smith opining that he needs to change his style to win in the playoffs.
“Can we trust Lamar to drop back and throw the ball 38 times and make good decisions and be efficient and move the ball that way?” wondered NBC analyst and former NFL quarterback Chris Simms on a conference call Tuesday.
“To me that’s the most important point right there because we know they can run the football, we know that he can run the football,” said Simms' NBC colleague, former All-Pro safety Rodney Harrison. “But in case that run isn’t working, that’s the question right there. That’s the million-dollar question; can he put a team on his back, throw the ball 30-plus times and have success and win football games?”
Such doubts will linger until Jackson wins a playoff game. But good luck finding an analyst who does not expect him and the Ravens to be spectacular this year.
Romo, the former four-time Pro Bowl quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys, believes skeptics are underestimating Jackson’s unique talent when they question how far he can go as a run-pass hybrid.
“Is it sustainable?” he said. “Yes, 100%. The one thing you have to understand is everyone wants to pretend he’s a runner, and he does run a lot. But you also have to understand he has a rare gift; the reason that works is he has the ability to have spatial awareness, which not a lot of runners do. If you really watch Lamar Jackson, he has the ability to, even without knowing the coverage … he knows this guy’s a little farther away than this guy who’s running this route, and he just feels that and sees that. Well, he does that when he runs as well, so he doesn’t take these big hits. I think he’s special and rare. Should everyone else go copy that? Well, you can try.”
Simms anticipates “another big jump to year three” for Jackson.
“I look at the Baltimore Ravens like this: This is the most talented roster in all of football,” he said. “There’s really not a weakness to the football team itself when you look at it. I don’t look at any one area and go, ‘Oh, my gosh, if they don’t get that better, then they’re not going to be a good football team.’ There’s nothing like that. They’re unbelievably constructed that way.”
Such lofty words could inflate a team’s self-regard, but Ravens coach John Harbaugh has never worried about Jackson losing perspective. He’s seen the same balance between constant refinement and outsized ambition that has defined Jackson’s rise from the recreational fields of South Florida to the heights of NFL success.
“I think Lamar really has a great focus for that,” Harbaugh said. “He’s focused on the day, and if he doesn’t do something well, he’s trying to correct it and come back better. He does a good job of learning from his mistakes and building on his successes. But I also think he has the long view as well.”
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Line: Ravens by 7 1/2