Ravens head coach John Harbaugh talks about the 30-16 win over the Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field.
James Urban stood behind Lamar Jackson after the best game of his young career and heard the three little words every quarterbacks coach dreams of.
“Perfect quarterback rating,” Ravens spokesman Kevin Byrne announced in the team’s locker room after a 59-10 blowout of the Miami Dolphins in Week 1. It was the first in Ravens history. In just his eighth start, Jackson had gone 17-for-20 for 324 yards and five touchdowns.
As the applause and cheers rang out, Urban bowed his head and wiped his eyes, as if in disbelief.
“He could play another 20 years and never be at home [in South Florida] ... and have a day like that in front of friends and family, perfect quarterback rating, all those things,” Urban recalled Tuesday. “It was very cool for him, and I was very proud of him and happy for him. And in that moment, I was a little reflective, yeah.”
There have been few more impressive and improved players in the NFL this season than Jackson, whose dual-threat repertoire has helped carry the defending AFC North champions back atop the division and into a much-anticipated Nov. 3 battle against the undefeated New England Patriots. Doubts about Jackson’s ability have morphed into buzz about his Most Valuable Player candidacy.
Over the season’s first seven weeks, Jackson, coach John Harbaugh, offensive coordinator Greg Roman, Ravens teammates and even Ravens opponents have served as the primary narrators of the quarterback’s reliably entertaining 2019. But with the team getting the week off ahead of its Week 8 bye, Urban and passing-game coordinator David Culley were among the six assistant coaches made available to reporters Tuesday for the first time since the preseason.
And what they’ve seen, they actually can believe.
“You knew from Year 1 to Year 2, there's always a big jump,” said Culley, also the Ravens’ wide receivers coach. “And from watching all the video of him the second half of last season, and then once we got into our [organized team activities] and watching him do some things that he did the previous year, you could just see the maturity. You could just see the experience. He had been through this before. He knew what not to do. He knew how to do things.”
“I've been around a couple players from their first year to their second year,” Urban said, “and he's improved in just about every area that you can quantify.”
He’s not kidding. As a passer, Jackson’s improved his completion percentage (58.2% in 2018 to 63.3%), yards per pass attempt (7.1 yards to 7.7 yards) and passer rating (84.5 to 95.1). As a rusher, he’s averaging more yards per carry (4.7 yards to 6.9 yards) and more yards per game (79.4 as a starter to 82.3), even after the Ravens said all offseason that they would rely less on their ground game.
That Jackson would remain a dynamic rusher has surprised no one (except, maybe, the linebackers and defensive backs he still routinely jets around). But his passing mechanics have improved greatly since last season, when he struggled to complete sideline throws. Even the wobbly passes he threw in training camp have all but disappeared.
“We work at it daily,” Urban said. “I know you guys see us [at practice]. We work at it daily. It’s one of those things that, you know, I tell [Jackson], ‘Professional golfers go to the range every day for a reason. Professional baseball players go to the batting cage every day for a reason. So we’re going to work on mechanics every day for a reason.’ I think he’s been good. There’s always room for improvement. There’s always room for consistency. And that’s where we’re striving.”
Urban said most of his work with Jackson is spent on game situations “from snap to throw.” But it’s Jackson’s legs that have provided the bulk of the Ravens offense the past two weeks. “When when the play breaks down, your great natural ability takes over,” Urban said.
With self-preservation paramount, the Ravens have given Jackson some scrambling guidelines. Ball security was an offseason focus. After fumbling at least once in every start last season, Jackson has fumbled in just three of the team’s seven games and lost none. He’s also mostly avoided dangerous collisions, easing up in the open field against would-be tacklers and searching for the sidelines on runs to the perimeter.
“We always want to run the play,” Urban said. “We want to try to run the play and find completions, and he's been diligent with that and worked hard at it. But when something happens or he has to create, go create and do it the way you've always done it.”
“The beauty of having him is that you know that when he gets outside of the pocket, very rarely does he get pinned in,” Culley said.
The next step for Jackson, Urban said, is understanding what he does best as a quarterback and helping the staff tailor the Ravens’ game plan to those preferences. Against the Seattle Seahawks, Jackson’s insistence that the Ravens go for it on fourth-and-2 late in the third quarter convinced Harbaugh to pass on a short field-goal attempt from Justin Tucker. The Ravens scored a go-ahead touchdown from 8 yards out on their next play.
And if something doesn’t work? Urban’s not worried about that, either.
“He’s very focused on one thing, and that is winning this football game,” he said. “He’s very, very competitive that way. So he has this ability that he’s shown to blink and move on to the next one. And when we make a mistake, on the sideline, it’s admit it, correct it and move on quickly to what’s coming next. And he’s been really good with that.”