By mid-August, Ravens running back Gus Edwards had already seen Lamar Jackson turn the incredible into the routine for a couple of weeks. He could run and he could juke. He could throw with power and with accuracy. He could do everything Edwards wanted from his quarterback.
“He's so good, man,” Edwards said then. “He's so good. And you can't catch him. Once you break free, it's over.”
Through a historic seven-game stretch, Jackson has been the real deal, earning NFL Most Valuable Player consideration as he leads the Ravens (5-2) into Sunday’s prime-time game against the New England Patriots (8-0) atop the AFC North once again. But Edwards’ preseason praise was not for Jackson; it was for his digital doppelganger.
Because the only player in a Ravens jersey more terrifying than the living, breathing Lamar Jackson might be the computer-generated, pixel-powered Lamar Jackson who inhabits the “Madden NFL 20” video game.
“People said I can’t be stopped in ‘Madden,’ ” Jackson said earlier this month. “I don’t know. I really don’t know. That’s a good question, though.”
Jackson’s production and panache invite video game comparisons. He has put up video game-like numbers: 324 passing yards and five touchdowns on just 20 passes in a Week 1 win over the Miami Dolphins, a career-high 152 rushing yards in a Week 6 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals. He’s fourth in the NFL in total offense (318 yards per game) and on pace for the first season with 3,000 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards.
He has video game-like attributes: speed and acceleration that can rarely be contained in the open field, one-on-one moves that would make James Harden proud, an arm so strong that a mere flick of the wrist propels throws 50 yards downfield.
So, naturally, people talk about Jackson as if he were a video game creation. His high school football coach called him “Mr. Video Game.” CBS play-by-play announcer Ian Eagle, upon seeing one of Jackson’s ankle-breaking jukes in the Ravens’ Week 3 game against the Kansas City Chiefs, exclaimed, “Oh, video game!”
Days later, Cleveland Browns defensive coordinator Steve Wilks was asked about how the team could simulate Jackson’s dual-threat abilities ahead of their meeting in Baltimore. “Playing ‘Madden,’ ” he joked.
Sometimes playing with the virtual Jackson can be as fun as the genuine article. Marquise “Hollywood” Brown would know. He’s one of Jackson’s favorite targets and a “Madden” devotee.
Brown’s history with the game dates to his days in elementary school. He still remembers the cover athlete on the first “Madden” game he played: Marshall Faulk. The former St. Louis Rams running back was the face of “Madden NFL 2003,” released in August 2002, just a few months after Brown’s fifth birthday.
Brown has played every installment since. And Jackson, he said, is “the biggest cheat code ‘Madden’ has made since, like, Michael Vick.” Which is like saying he’s the kind of player you can single-handedly win a game with — or smash a controller over. In “Madden NFL 2004,” Vick was one of the greatest video game players ever, a “Tecmo Bowl” Bo Jackson for the new age. He had elite speed, arm strength and acceleration.
The version of Jackson that Brown uses to toast opposing defenses with on his “Madden” livestreams is not quite so overpowering. After Real-Life Jackson led the Ravens to a Week 7 upset of the Seattle Seahawks, Madden Jackson finally surpassed Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield in overall rating. But his mark of 81 (on a 99-point scale) is still just 15th among quarterbacks, behind standouts such as the Atlanta Falcons’ Matt Ryan (88 overall), Carolina Panthers’ Cam Newton (82) and Detroit Lions’ Matthew Stafford (82).
Jackson’s still faster than all but 20 players, though, which means he can make plays that often strain belief and trigger profanities.
Brown remembered one example Wednesday. He was playing with the Ravens — he plays exclusively with the Ravens because they’re the only team with, well, him — and an opponent blitzed Jackson. So he scrambled to the right. When he couldn’t turn the corner, Brown spun Jackson back around and reversed field. As Ravens blockers picked up the line of defenders chasing after Jackson, he finally had time to throw and an open target downfield.
That receiver was Brown, of course.
“He’s, like, cheating-fast on the game,” he said. "It’s ridiculous. No one can stop him.”
Life imitates art. Or maybe art imitates life. On one scramble against the Seahawks, Jackson escaped a blitzer coming from his right, took off left down the left sideline and ended up in the middle of the field. On another scramble, he escaped a three-on-one pickle with a juke that sent two Seattle defenders to their knees and the third grasping at the towel flapping behind Jackson’s back.
Jackson’s ascent has helped his virtual attributes almost as much as the Ravens’ second-ranked offense. His awareness rating has soared. His throwing accuracy has kicked up a few notches. Madden Jackson’s Achilles’ heel might actually be Real-Life Jackson’s biggest improvement: his ball security.
On “Madden” this summer, Edwards used an option-heavy offense featuring Jackson and himself. But he learned that if a linebacker was squaring him up, Jackson needed to get out of bounds or to the ground. Otherwise, he’d lose the ball as often as he did last season. “Yeah, he’ll fumble here and there,” Edwards said.
“He fumbles way too much,” right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. said last month. “They've got to fix that. He fumbles way too much.”
That habit hasn’t deterred many. The Ravens are a popular pick with “Madden” livestreamers and celebrities like the rapper Quavo. Orlando Brown Jr. said he’d won over 90% of his games with the team. Edwards called the Ravens “the best team in the game, honestly. Not even being biased.” Marquise Brown said there’s no tried-and-true solution to stopping Jackson in the game, not with the offense’s other weapons (notably, his own speed).
And yet he’d still take the Jackson he’s set to reunite with Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium over the one he controls on his big-screen TV. “Because he can do the moves that ‘Madden’ can’t simulate,” Brown said.
On Wednesday, Jackson was focused on real football. He reiterated that quarterback Tom Brady, with his six Super Bowl rings (and maybe his presence on the “Madden NFL 18” cover), is the “GOAT of all GOATS” — the greatest of all time, bar none. But it was Vick whom he emulated growing up. Jackson saw himself in Vick. Especially when he played as him.
“Just watching him on a video game and watching him on TV and seeing what he did, what he brought to the table with his team, winning games for Atlanta, it was like, ‘Man, I want to do some of the things he did on the field,’ ” Jackson said after he was drafted last year. “So I would go out there on a little-league game on a Saturday and try to do the same things.”
And maybe, one day, he’ll have his own cover, too.
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