Lamar Jackson needed roughly 10 minutes to give us a hint of the masterpiece he would paint during 17 weeks of the 2019 season.
The setting was Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium, just 25 miles from the recreational field where Jackson learned to play quarterback for the Pompano Cowboys. The Ravens already had scored on their first two drives when Jackson dropped back to pass on third down from deep in his own territory. With an easy flick of his wrist, he lofted the ball over the entire Miami Dolphins defense and into the arms of another South Florida youngster, Marquise “Hollywood" Brown, who scampered for an 83-yard score.
It’s easy to forget now that he’s won NFL Most Valuable Player honors the night before the Super Bowl, but the questions going into that Sept. 8 game did not contemplate a reality in which Jackson would conquer the league.
When he spoke with local reporters four days before the season opener, Jackson was asked if leading the Ravens might be too heavy a responsibility for a 22-year-old. Did he expect to silence critics who insisted his running would always overshadow his passing?
“Critics are going to always be there,” replied Jackson, who turned 23 on Jan. 7. “I’m just looking to win.”
That awareness of criticism remained Saturday night, when he accepted the MVP award — the first Raven to do so.
"There’s been a lot of doubt about me being a running back, and I had a great group of guys and an organization that believed in me,” Jackson said.
Former NFL MVP and current CBS analyst Rich Gannon was among the 50 voters who unanimously awarded Jackson the highest individual honor in the sport, and he termed it “an easy choice for me.”
“He’s different, he’s unique and he’s got a very special skill set,” Gannon said. “On top of that, he brings toughness and competitiveness that is way up there when you start to evaluate young quarterbacks. What I look for, and the numbers are significant, but what I look for is consistency, and he played at a really high level throughout the course of the regular season. I thought he was the best player in the regular season, and by a lot.”
Before each CBS broadcast, Gannon uses recent highlights to illustrate the strengths of star players. He usually needs to comb through three or four games to find the appropriate video clips. In Jackson’s case, he found the requisite highlights in one quarter of one game.
“In fact there were too many,” Gannon said, laughing in amazement.
Jackson’s statistics — a league-leading 36 touchdown passes against just six interceptions, a record-smashing 1,206 rushing yards for a quarterback, a league-best 14-2 regular-season record — would be staggering in any context. But they’re all the more so considering the rapidity with which he advanced his career. In less than four months, he transformed himself from question mark to one of the most compelling and inspiring athletes in Baltimore’s rich sporting history.
Jackson’s performance transcended box scores and win-loss records. He left memories that will be passed on to children and grandchildren. He vanquished orthodox notions about which types of athletes could master the most glamorous position in American sports. He drew acclaim from the rapper Drake, the actor Al Pacino and thousands of newly minted Ravens fans as far away as Australia and Brazil.
“He’s somebody who has captivated a city at a time when we have a murder rate that’s through the roof," said former NFL first-round pick Aaron Maybin, who grew up in the city and now teaches art at Matthew A. Henson Elementary in Sandtown-Winchester. "I’m not saying a football player can ever offset the many hardships a city endures. But when you talk about galvanizing people and bringing them together, few things can do that as well as sports. And he has used his talent in such amazing way, not only to be an MVP candidate but also to help unite a city.”
It was this magnetic quality Ravens coach John Harbaugh spoke to during his oft-replayed sideline exchange with Jackson, when he told his quarterback: “You changed the game, man. … Do you know how many little kids in this country are going to be wearing No. 8 playing quarterback for the next 20 years?”
Jackson became the fourth Baltimore-based player to be named MVP after Colts quarterbacks John Unitas (1959, 1964 and 1967), Earl Morrall (1968) and Bert Jones (1976).
Morrall’s MVP season was among the most unusual in league history. The 34-year-old journeyman had attempted just 24 passes for the New York Giants the previous season, and he started for the Colts only because Unitas injured his elbow. But he threw 26 touchdown passes for a 13-1 team that generated “best-ever” buzz until it ran into Joe Namath and the New York Jets in Super Bowl III.
Unitas, of course, was one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, and his three MVPs tie him with players such as Tom Brady and Jim Brown, behind only Peyton Manning, who won the award five times. When Unitas was honored for the first time, in 1959, he already was a well-established star, having led the Colts to victory in the “Greatest Game Ever Played” against the Giants the previous December. But as a University of Louisville product who led his team to multiple championships and set a gold standard at quarterback, his career arc is the one Jackson will most try to emulate.
But Jones’ 1976 performance might be the best match for Jackson’s 2019. The Louisiana native also was a first-round pick, called on to replace a Baltimore institution (in his case, Unitas, and in Jackson’s case, Joe Flacco). He also possessed sublime athletic traits; New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick once called Jones the best pure passer he ever saw. He also faced early doubts after the Colts won just two of his first 13 starts. At age 25, Jones put together a season for the ages, throwing for a league-best 3,104 yards and 24 touchdowns as the Colts went 11-3 before falling to the mighty Pittsburgh Steelers in the playoffs.
Jones followed that with another strong season in 1977 but never regained such heights as injuries derailed the second half of his career.
None of the old Colts, however, could match Jackson’s gift for controlling a game with his legs. It’s hard to find a quarterback in league history who equals him in that respect. He broke Michael Vick’s single-season rushing record for the position and, more importantly, led an offense that broke a 41-year-old record for team rushing held by the New England Patriots led by another dual threat quarterback, Steve Grogan.
Beyond the cold numbers, there was a stupefying quality to Jackson’s runs that sent fans into reveries every Sunday. Who could forget the spin move he unleashed in Cincinnati or the various fakes with which he seemed to stop time as defenders stumbled at his feet?
As his momentum picked up throughout the Ravens’ 12-game winning streak, it was difficult to pick a favorite Jackson performance.
Was it the 30-16 victory against the Seattle Seahawks in which he outdueled fellow MVP candidate Russell Wilson over a wet field?
Or maybe you liked the finality of his performance against the Cleveland Browns, in which Jackson threw for 238 yards and three touchdowns and ran for 103 yards as the Ravens clinched the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs.
After each of these bravura efforts, teammates’ faith in Jackson deepened.
“I’m right with the crowd [chanting MVP for Jackson],” safety Earl Thomas III said after the team’s 37-20 victory over the Patriots in November. “I mean that. This man is the MVP. I’m right behind him.”
Jackson won a succession of individual awards over the course of the season and his response to each was essentially the same: “That’s pretty dope.”
Then he’d remind us that his real goal was to win the Super Bowl.
That won’t happen, given the Ravens’ stunning 28-12 loss to the Tennessee Titans in the AFC divisional round. It’s the one blight on Jackson’s beautiful season.
Even though he won the MVP Saturday night, he’d hoped to have a game, the biggest game, to play Sunday.
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“I don’t know,” Jackson said, when asked how long the sour ending will stick with him. “I hate losing. I really do, so I don’t know. But like I said, we’ve got to move on. We’ve got to get better for next year.”