By now it is a foregone conclusion, as sure a thing as a Justin Tucker field goal: Lamar Jackson will be named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player.
The Ravens quarterback has been so good for so many weeks this season that he will not be needed in Sunday’s regular-season finale at M&T Bank Stadium. Entering their Week 17 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Ravens already have secured home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs. Their most brilliant star can stop and rest for once. Seasons this special don’t come around often.
By Week 10, Jackson had already posted his second perfect passer rating. By Week 15, he’d broken Michael Vick’s single-season rushing record for a quarterback. By Week 16, he’d led the Ravens to a franchise-best 11 straight wins. Slowly, the best-ever regular season for a Ravens quarterback started to approach more hallowed ground.
“I think his season is historic,” said NFL Network analyst Kurt Warner, who was named MVP in 1999, also after his second season with the St. Louis Rams. “To me, it needs to go down as one of the best quarterback seasons that we’ve seen, just because we’ve never seen anything like it. And being at that level both ways [as a runner and passer] is incredible. ...
“I think it's a special, special season that we need to appreciate, because we may never see it again.”
Warner could not say whether Jackson’s 2019 is indeed the best ever. Certainty requires clarity, and there are too many variables that muddle comparisons: generational trends, rule changes, surrounding talent. But few quarterbacks have had a year like Jackson’s.
He will win the league’s highest individual honor in a style all his own, a 22-year-old at football’s most demanding position, playing and producing unlike anyone else. Jackson has taken to calling some of the league’s greatest stars the “GOAT,” or greatest of all time. In some respects, this season has already made him a peer.
The proprietary statistic, created by ESPN in 2011 to offer a more holistic measure of a quarterback’s performance, accounts for carries, sacks, fumbles and penalties. In other words, it captures Jackson’s value to the Ravens offense better than passer rating ever could.
Barring a miraculous Week 17 charge by Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, Jackson will finish the season as the top-rated quarterback in QBR, with his 82.2 rating suggesting that a team with Jackson would be expected to win 82.2% of its games over a season.
As measured by expected points added, part of the framework for QBR, Jackson will finish with the greatest rushing season for a quarterback since 2006, the year for which QBR data was first available. As a passer, his 2019 EPA is currently fourth in the NFL, behind only the Dallas Cowboys’ Dak Prescott, Mahomes and the Philadelphia Eagles’ Carson Wentz.
Jackson’s QBR scores rank among the greatest in what’s become the NFL’s greatest era for passing proficiency. Only four quarterbacks — the New England Patriots’ Tom Brady (2007), Indianapolis Colts’ Peyton Manning (2006), Green Bay Packers’ Aaron Rodgers (2011) and New Orleans Saints’ Drew Brees (2011) — finished a season with a higher QBR than Jackson’s 82.2. And only Jackson has three games rated among the top eight of the QBR era. All are from this season, of course.
Passing touchdown rate
In two of those highly rated games — wins over the Miami Dolphins and Los Angeles Rams — Jackson threw for five touchdowns and no interceptions. And he didn’t have to wear out his arm to do it, either: Both required just 20 attempts. Against the New York Jets, he got to five scores on just 23 throws.
No quarterback this season, and few in the league’s modern era, has found the end zone as often as Jackson has on drop-backs. When Mahomes threw for 50 touchdowns last season, he had a scoring rate of 8.6%, meaning that close to one of every 12 attempts resulted in a score. Jackson threw for 36 touchdowns in 15 games this season, but his scoring rate for his 401 attempts is an NFL-best 9%. The Tennessee Titans’ Ryan Tannehill is second, at 7.5%.
A 9% passing touchdown rate isn’t even within spitting distance of Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Sid Luckman’s all-time-best mark of 13.9%. But the Chicago Bears quarterback managed such efficiency in 1943, when he attempted just over 20 passes per game. In the NFL’s post-merger era, Jackson is in elite company.
Since 1970, only three quarterbacks have equaled or tied Jackson’s touchdown share: Manning in 2004 (9.9%), the Oakland Raiders’ Ken Stabler in 1976 (9.3%) and Rodgers in 2011 (also 9.0%). Even more impressive, only Rodgers posted a lower interception rate than Jackson (1.5%), throwing a pick on just 1.2% of his attempts that season.
The most recent MVP season comparable to Jackson’s is Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton’s 2015. Like Jackson, Newton flourished in an offense built around his running ability, then used that threat to exploit defenses with play-action fakes. He finished with 35 passing touchdowns and 10 interceptions, along with 10 rushing scores.
Both Jackson and Newton relied on a tight end as their primary receiving target — Greg Olsen led the Panthers with 77 receptions for 1,104 yards, while Mark Andrews tops the Ravens with 64 catches for 852 yards — and no other receiver on either team had more than 800 yards. Newton finished 2015 with 3,837 passing yards and 636 rushing yards in 16 games; Jackson had 3,127 and 1,206, respectively, this year.
Jackson took on a larger role as a runner than Newton — Jackson carried the ball 44 more times than Newton — and attempted 94 fewer passes, but Jackson has Newton beat in completion percentage, quarterback rating and touchdown-to-interception ratio.
Two weeks ago, against the Jets, Jackson cemented the most impressive rushing season for a quarterback, surpassing Michael Vick’s 2006 record for rushing yards. They’re the only two quarterbacks in NFL history with over 1,000 rushing yards.
Jackson has thrived in a run-first offense that relies on designed quarterback runs and option plays. Vick, meanwhile, had just 49 designed runs in 2006, according to Pro Football Focus. He never carried the ball at the rate Jackson has in his first two seasons, but remained just as efficient. In 2006, Vick rushed 123 times and averaged 8.4 yards per attempt for the Atlanta Falcons, the highest single-season rate for any quarterback. Jackson averaged 6.9 yards per attempt despite rushing 176 times this season, the most ever for a quarterback in one season.
Entering Week 17, Jackson ranks sixth in the NFL in rushing yards. Barring any surprises, he will finish in the top 10. While the totals for single-season rushing leaders have declined in recent years, no quarterback has finished that high.
Last season, Mahomes became the youngest player since Dan Marino to be named NFL MVP. Jackson, who turns 23 in nine days, would trump Mahomes as the youngest-ever award-winner.
The three quarterbacks share similar MVP arcs: Marino and Mahomes both won in their second year, and like Jackson, neither started more than nine regular-season games in their rookie year.
Their sophomore seasons also have defining accomplishments. In an era when the rules did not yet cater to the passing game, Marino threw an NFL-record 48 touchdowns in 1984, a feat that stood for 20 years and has since been broken just four times.
In his age-22 season, Mahomes joined Manning and Brady as the only players in NFL history to throw at least 50 touchdown passes. But both Manning and Brady had by then spent at least eight years in the league.
Jackson, after facing persistent questions about his accuracy, has thrown 36 touchdown passes this season, which will likely finish atop the NFL’s leaderboard. Only Mahomes and Marino — in their MVP seasons — threw for more at age 22.
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