Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson talks about why he changed his playbook wristband in the 49ers game and the possibility of breaking Michael Vick's record.
As NFL draft prognosticators sorted through the ballyhooed quarterback class of 2018, they could not stop nitpicking Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson.
Allen was a 6-foot-5, 237-pound marvel of speed and arm strength, but why couldn’t he complete more than 56 percent of his passes at Wyoming? Was he just another workout warrior destined to disappoint on Sundays?
Jackson was the electrifying run-pass talent who seized the Heisman Trophy as a true sophomore but still left some hidebound NFL evaluators predicting a position switch. Could he ever throw consistently enough to thrive as a professional quarterback?
Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold and Josh Rosen were all deemed “safer” picks based on their gleaming resumes as college passers at high-profile programs.
But as these first-round quarterbacks near the end of their second season, Jackson and Allen — who will meet Sunday when the Ravens play the Buffalo Bills in a match-up with significant playoff implications — have risen to the top of the class. They’ve prompted talk of a new generation at the game’s most glamorous position, as dangerous on the ground as through the air.
The entire football world knows Jackson’s story now that he’s regarded as the MVP frontrunner. Allen hasn’t been that good, but he’s improved steadily as the offensive leader for the 9-3 Bills. After throwing seven interceptions in the first five games of the season, he’s thrown just one in the last seven games. He leads the Bills in rushing touchdowns and ranks second to Jackson in rushing yards for a quarterback.
Before the season, few people could have imagined Allen outplaying Mayfield, the former No. 1 overall pick who was seen as a potential MVP for the suddenly glamorous Cleveland Browns. But Mayfield ranks last in passer rating among quarterbacks with enough attempts to qualify, six spots below Darnold, who’s performed unevenly for the New York Jets. Rosen is already on his second team and could not beat out Ryan Fitzpatrick to start for the lowly Miami Dolphins.
Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts, who will serve as the CBS color analyst for Sunday’s game, said both Jackson and Allen have benefited from connecting with the right offensive coaches early in their careers. He noted that his own career did not take off until Bill Walsh became the San Diego Chargers’ offensive coordinator in his fourth season.
“There’s no question how important that is,” Fouts said. “Right system, right philosophy, right coach — all those things are what make quarterbacks successful.”
The Ravens built their entire offense around Jackson’s skills after they watched him start eight games (including their playoff loss) last season. Coach John Harbaugh installed Greg Roman as his offensive coordinator, because he believed Roman’s expertise with the running game would blend with Jackson’s magic legs to create an attack no team could duplicate.
Jackson seized the opportunity and improved at a rate few anticipated. Ask Ravens coaches where he’s made the biggest strides and they’ll tell you there is no single answer. Jackson is a sharper passer, yes, but he’s also a more secure ball handler, a more confident decision maker and a more galvanizing leader on and off the field.
“Whatever it is you want to do, he will improve at it — a throw, ball-handling, communications on protections,” Roman said. “He’s one of those unique guys — rare, I might even say — that no matter what you do, he will improve at it. So, that’s a fun guy to coach, right there.”
After completing 58.2 percent of his passes and posting a quarterback rating of 84.5 as a rookie, Jackson is completing 66.5 percent this year, with a 109.6 rating this season. He’s as scintillating a runner as ever, on pace to break Michael Vick’s single-season rushing record for a quarterback as soon as this week.
It’s striking to hear the enthusiasm Jackson generates in Fouts, who’s played against or watched almost every great quarterback of the last 50 years. Jackson makes him think of Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders, a remarkable comparison for a player who also completes two-thirds of his passes.
“He makes guys fall on their wallet,” Fouts gushed. “He’s got a world of confidence. He plays with such freedom and such joy that it’s infectious. I get excited to watch him play. It’s just one of those things where you pay more attention every time he’s out on the field, because you might see something you’ve never seen before.”
Allen’s rise has not been quite so meteoric. In the early weeks of this season, Buffalo columnists lamented that for every step he took forward, he seemed to take one back. But over the last seven games, he’s cut back on mistakes and become a genuine problem for opposing defenses.
“What’s impressed me the most about him is his patience in the pocket,” Ravens safety Earl Thomas III said. “He never seems in a hurry.”
Allen doesn’t have Jackson’s quicksilver moves when he gets past the line of scrimmage, but he’s so big that he breaks tackles and keeps on rumbling. Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale compared him to a tight end in the open field.
Ravens linebacker Josh Bynes said that on some plays, Allen looks like a bigger version of Jackson, a sobering thought.
“It's not like he's a pipsqueak or anything like that,” Bynes said. “He's a big, solid quarterback, and he runs like a running back. That makes it a little bit more challenging, because he's a quarterback, as well. So, we just have to make sure we wrap up and we bring our pads with us and bring our feet and just make sure we get him to the ground.”
Though the taller, bulkier Allen looks different than Jackson in a uniform, they share more similarities than you might imagine. They made their pro debuts in the same game, the Ravens’ 47-3 Week 1 romp over the Bills last season. Both were under-recruited in high school. Both faced questions about their accuracy coming out of college. Like Jackson, Allen relied more on his legs than his arm when he became a starter midway through last season. And like Jackson, he’s benefiting from an offense tailored to his unusual skill set.
“He makes a lot of plays with his feet and that’s been their success the last five or six weeks,” Martindale said. “[Bills offensive coordinator] Brian Daboll does a great job with him, moving him around and doing different things.”
Daboll has said his offense is essentially a chameleon, changing its look based on the opponent, and Allen’s diverse talents fit that approach. Beyond his mobility and arm strength, he draws praise from Buffalo coaches for his devotion to craft.
“The guy works extremely hard,” Bills coach Sean McDermott said. “He’s got a good foundation, a good support system. I think the coaches are doing a really good job with him, as well. He has players around him that help him in different ways. But it starts with Josh. He’s put in a lot of time.”
Fouts said Allen is right on schedule and playing in the perfect setting, given that he learned to handle cold, windy conditions while playing for Wyoming.
“It’s a big jump,” the Hall of Fame quarterback said. “I think the second half of the second year is where you hope to see this improvement. … You can see that he’s more comfortable in his decision making, and when you’ve got an arm like he does, that helps a lot too.”
Wherever their respective roads wind from here, Jackson and Allen will always be linked, with each other and with Mayfield, Darnold and Rosen. NFL fans have long been fascinated by quarterback classes, because they tend to present such drastic arrays of outcomes. Think 1983, when John Elway went No. 1 overall but then Todd Blackledge went ahead of Jim Kelly and Tony Eason went ahead of Dan Marino.
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Allen told Buffalo reporters he identifies with Jackson’s story and admires him from afar. “Being a guy who’s kind of had that situation where guys want to doubt you, and to go see what he’s been doing, just proving everybody wrong, has been awesome to watch,” he said.
Jackson said he got to know Allen a little as they were preparing for the draft, but he makes no special effort to keep tabs on his fellow class of 2018 quarterbacks.
“No, I’m focused on what we have going on, what we have in front of us,” he said. “I focus on myself and my teammates. I don’t really care about what other people have going on, to be honest.”