In the second-to-last week of his first year in the NFL, Lamar Jackson sat down for an afternoon production meeting with Mike Tirico and Kurt Warner in Los Angeles. The Ravens were a day away from a must-win, prime-time game against the Los Angeles Chargers, and Jackson was coming off a very Jackson-in-2018 game: 131 passing yards, 95 rushing yards, another victory.
Warner, a Hall of Fame quarterback and NFL Network analyst, remembered talking to the Ravens rookie about playing the position, about how people wanted Jackson to be certain things that he was not. It was Warner’s first time meeting Jackson, and he mentioned his own quarterbacking quirk: his grip.
Warner had retired in 2010 as one of the NFL’s most accurate quarterbacks ever, and done so with a grip as unorthodox as his rise to two-time league Most Valuable Player: pinkie finger resting on the laces; ring finger across the first lace; middle finger somewhere on the seam; and index finger almost on the nose of the ball, as if he were throwing it like a spear.
That was strange to Jackson, because he held the ball almost exactly the same way, his index finger near the tip. And that grip, he’d been told, was suboptimal.
“Once a Hall of Famer and two-time [Super Bowl] champ says he does it like that, who am I?” joked Joshua Harris, who’s worked with Jackson as a quarterbacks coach since his days at Louisville. Jackson, he explained, “pays ultimate reverence to the previous winners of the game, those elite quarterbacks. So, yes, when a Kurt Warner says, ‘I held it like that and I was successful,’ that just fuels him. That gives him the extra boost of confidence to say, ‘Hey, I’m sticking with this. It can work.’ ”
The story of Jackson’s grip is in many ways the story of his 2019, a season that opened with a perfect passer rating and will close with MVP honors. Here was a precocious quarterback who played like few ever have: electric speed, superior vision, easy arm strength — but rough edges, too.
On Saturday night, a year after Jackson’s passing woes marred a season-ending playoff loss to the Chargers, the Ravens will return to Baltimore for an AFC divisional-round game against the Tennessee Titans as Super Bowl favorites. They have the NFL’s best record and most dynamic quarterback, a warp-speed evolution as notable for what Jackson left behind as for what he kept. His grip on the sport has changed; his grip on the ball hasn’t.
“I tell him all the time, ‘We’re going to be you. Be the best version of you.’ There’s no book I know of anywhere sitting on a self that says, ‘This is the way you play NFL football,’ ” Ravens quarterbacks coach James Urban said last Thursday. “We’re just playing football, and we’re doing it his way.”
‘It’s individualized to you’
Harris met Jackson before his Heisman Trophy-winning sophomore season at Louisville, and his instruction over the next two years aligned with the Cardinals staff’s lesson plan. Jackson’s accuracy improved every year under coach Bobby Petrino, but he never completed higher than 59.1% of his passes in a season. When Jackson began preparing for the 2018 draft with Harris back home in Florida, he’d occasionally throw a wobbly ball.
“I was like, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’ ” recalled Harris, and so he studied Jackson’s grip as if it were a crossword puzzle, something to be figured out. Jackson’s throwing mechanics were still a work in progress — too narrow a base, not enough hip drive — but that index finger, in particular, was vexing. With most quarterbacks, it fell an inch or 2 away from the tip; Jackson’s was almost covering it.
“I had never seen it before,” Harris said. “So it’s one of those things where if you never see it before, you’re like, 'Oh, if we correct this, this is going to make a world of difference.’ ”
NFL history has shown an indifference to the subject. Troy Aikman, for instance, lay the top of his palm across the laces so that his fingers felt only leather. The New York Giants’ Eli Manning throws with his pinkie and ring finger across the laces of the ball, as did his brother Peyton. The Titans’ Ryan Tannehill, who led the NFL in passer rating this season, has only his ring finger across the laces.
Jackson’s approach to ball-handling was no different from theirs; he let comfort dictate his grip. How he started to throw is how he still throws: pinkie touching the laces, ring finger across the first lace, middle finger a centimeter or so over on the seam, index finger near the cone of the ball. It’s that last finger that helps generate spin, the ball spiraling away as the throwing thumb drives down to the opposite thigh. What the grip might sacrifice in control, it makes up for in power.
“As long as you’re not cupping the ball ... and your hand is big enough, it doesn’t really matter how you hold the ball. It’s individualized to you,” said former NFL quarterback J.T. O’Sullivan, whose popular YouTube page, The QB School, explores the nuances of the position. “Very few people hold it exactly the same, and so it’s whatever feels good for you. And then you have to then have that kind of matched to everything from your footwork to your release. ...
“But at the end of the day, how you get that spiral is your wrist spinning the ball at the very end. That's why they call it spinning it.”
When O’Sullivan was in high school in California, he went to the 1995 NFC championship game at San Francisco’s since-demolished Candlestick Park. One memory sticks out vividly from the 49ers’ win over the Dallas Cowboys: Terry Bradshaw, the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback turned analyst, throwing a ball to himself on the “NFL on Fox” set with a bizarre grip. “I’ve never seen someone hold the back of the ball like that,” O’Sullivan remembered thinking.
Bradshaw often threw with his index finger on the nose of the ball and his ring finger across the first lace. If it looked like he was throwing a javelin, it was because, in high school, he had. “You put your finger down toward the end of the javelin,” he explained to Sports Illustrated in 2010. “With that index finger down there, I could really make it whistle. But I wasn't very accurate.”
Warner came by his grip less organically. He didn’t become a quarterback until his freshman year of high school in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where he saw a kid on the Regis varsity who “could really sling it.” Warner approached the quarterback, asked him about his grip and adopted it as his own.
Over his 12 seasons in the NFL, Warmer led the league in completion percentage three times and in touchdown passes twice. He orchestrated the St. Louis Rams’ “Greatest Show on Turf” offense. He completed passes from the kind of unconventional arm angles that Jackson and Kansas City Chiefs star Patrick Mahomes now use almost weekly. And yet, Warner said, “Had I known what I know now, I would’ve never changed my grip because somebody else did.”
Comfort above all
When a reporter brought up Jackson’s grip Friday, he smiled almost sheepishly before lightly scratching his head. The Pompano Beach native might as well have been asked about how he developed his Florida drawl: This is the way he is. This is the way he’s always been.
One time, Harris recalled, he asked Jackson to consider moving his index finger down somewhat, closer to a more conventional grip. “He’s like, ‘Hold it like this, Coach?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah.’ ” Then Jackson tried to throw. “Aw, this feels funny,” he told Harris.
For as receptive Jackson was to coaching, some instincts were immutable. If Jackson moved his index finger at all under a coach’s watch, Harris said, it would be “a millimeter south.” As the offseason approached last year and Harris analyzed Jackson’s game film, he came to a realization: He’d rather have Jackson’s grip feel perfectly comfortable than look picture-perfect.
In Baltimore, Urban came around as well. The more he researched the grip, talked to people around the game and studied quarterbacks who threw like Jackson, the more comfortable he felt. As long as Jackson’s passes were consistent and repeatable — he’d completed just 58.2% of his passes as a rookie — Urban would be hands-off.
“I can definitely understand, with someone like Lamar, you come into this stage ... having some kind of ups and downs with his throwing, everybody knows the answer," Warner said. "And everybody can fix you. And everybody can show you. And everybody’s got their theories on what’s going to make you better. And I always think it’s important to make sure that when you get kids like that, that you get them sound advice, and that you let them know that not everybody has to change everything.”
Early in training camp, after an offseason of work with Harris and Tom House, the former Major League Baseball pitcher and pitching coach who’s tutored some of the NFL’s best quarterbacks, Jackson’s passing was much improved, if not all that pretty. Harris had reminded Jackson early in their training that even Peyton Manning threw the occasional duck, and few of Jackson’s deep passes looked like something out of a training manual.
On Sept. 8, Harris headed to nearby Hard Rock Stadium for the Ravens’ season opener against the Miami Dolphins. Jackson gave him a virtuoso performance: 17-for-20 passing, 324 yards, five touchdowns, an afternoon full of spirals and smiles. Two months later, he’d post his second perfect passer rating. A month after that, he’d have MVP honors all but locked up.
Harris joked that he still hates the grip. He loves that it works anyway. Only Jackson could conjure such a paradox.
“He’s doing it a way that a traditionalist said couldn’t happen, right?” Harris said. “This is not the traditional grip, but it works, and it works well." He recalled what Urban had said about Jackson just days earlier: "You never want the player who does nothing that you coach, and you don’t want the player that does everything that you coach. You want a quarterback who’s in control, a player that’s in control and confident with what they do. That’s what allows their special gifts to come out.”
AFC divisional round
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