At this time last year, the Ravens quarterback did not have to look far or listen long to find critics who doubted his chances as an NFL passer. But what’s the next frontier for an athlete who’s now the subject of near-universal acclaim?
Going into his third season, Jackson has chosen to answer that question in two ways.
First and most important, he’ll never be satisfied with individual achievements if they’re not paired with victory in the Super Bowl. “In the NFL, the Super Bowl is the biggest thing, the biggest accomplishment to me, and that’s what I want,” he said in April. “I want to be able to lift my teammates to being the best in the world at that time. So, that’s what I’m going to do.”
In that sense, Jackson is aligned with analysts who say his evolution won’t be complete until he plays his best football in the playoffs.
But there’s also a craft component. As good as Jackson was in almost every area last season — and statistics show he threw sensationally from the pocket in addition to his once-in-a-generation running — he wants to achieve another level of mastery at the game’s most demanding position. He wants to understand the job of every player on the field and every coach on the sideline. He wants to make sure no throw or read falls outside his comfort zone.
“It’s what he calls the Tom Brady or the mental approach to the game,” said Jackson’s personal quarterback coach, Joshua Harris. “He wants to know where to go with that ball regardless of the strategy thrown at him by the defense. You couple that with a quarterback who can lead the league in passing while breaking the quarterback rushing record, now we’re talking sky is the limit.”
Statistics don’t show Jackson as a poor thrower on routes such as fades, outs, corners and post-corners. He ranked among the league’s most efficient passers on typical outside routes in 2019, though he didn’t attempt as many as other star quarterbacks.
But Jackson and his coaches, both inside and outside the Ravens, aspired to greater consistency on these potential game-breaking throws.
The coronavirus pandemic kept him from working out with Harris as much as he would have liked during his offseason time in Florida. But he did get in sessions with Ravens teammates, some of whom traveled to be with him.
On outside-the-numbers attempts, Harris said Jackson worked to plant his cleats in the ground so he could use his lower body to generate more velocity. On deep attempts, he sought to calibrate his timing with the exact pace of teammates such as Marquise Brown and Miles Boykin. He also practiced keeping his arm close to his body in a motion Harris described as “almost like a high-five.”
The results, glimpsed in the team’s first padded practices in August, were impressive.
It would be difficult to find a group of people who’ve bought into Jackson more fervently than his Ravens teammates. They watched in awe as he took the reins his first year and then stormed the league in his second. They openly defer to him as the man who will lead them to the promised land. So what do they expect to see this season?
“That’s a tough question. Because if you look at the season he had last year, it’s hard to say he needs to have more yards or touchdown throws and things like that,” tight end Mark Andrews said. “One, his biggest goal is to win a Super Bowl — that’s the biggest thing — and to do that, I think we have to be better in all phases. I think we have to grow upon last year. He’s got the capabilities. He’s the best player I’ve ever been around, and he works hard. So, I think you are going to see an even more polished and an even more ready Lamar than you saw last year. That almost sounds unbelievable, but the guy is incredible, and he’s a winner.”
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman does not expect the “gigantic step in every phase of the game” that characterized the quarterback’s 2019 breakout. He’s looking for refinements.
“Consistency, and then decision-making, if we can get two to five percent better in those areas, it’ll be pretty impressive,” Roman said.
Few have watched Jackson’s progress more closely than backup quarterback Robert Griffin III, who’s practiced beside him every step of his Ravens career.
“There’s no ceiling for him,” Griffin said. “He showcased last year his ability to throw the ball along with his ability to run it, which we all know is out of this world. I know he’s stated he wants to work on his deep ball, getting completions and big plays on those outside-the-numbers throws, and I think there’s been a concerted effort to make that happen. And then it’s just continuing to grow as a leader. He does things his way, and that’s how you want it to be done, and the team follows suit. The more and more he plays, the better he’ll be in all those areas.”
“He made a lot of great strides last year in the passing game, but I think the outside game is where he really wants to take [it] to the next level; hitting the comebacks, hitting the out-routes, hitting the hooks,” Snead said. “Throwing inside is so easy for him. He makes it look fluid, but I know when we were talking this offseason, he wanted to get better at throwing the outside game; hitting the go-balls, stretching the field a lot more. And he has taken pride in that.
“I think when he starts doing that, people are going to really respect him as a passer, more than a runner, and that’s kind of where he wants to get better at — the passing game — because everybody knows what he can do when he runs.”
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Former NFL quarterback and ESPN NFL Live analyst Dan Orlovsky doesn’t buy into the nitpicking of Jackson as an outside-the-numbers passer. But he does wonder how the 23-year-old quarterback will perform behind an offensive line diminished by the loss of Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda and without a gifted tight-end trio that was broken up when the Ravens traded Hayden Hurst. And he does want to see Jackson take the next step in the playoffs.
“I don’t really care what Lamar does in the regular season, I love watching him. He’s absolutely spectacular. I expect him to have a similar season this year as he did last year. The guy is remarkable,” Orlovsky said. “But when it comes to win or go home, your team falls down 14-3, the style of offense you want to play isn’t applicable anymore, you can’t play that anymore because we’re in the second quarter and there’s only so much time left in the game, can you kind of overcome those deficiencies and still be the best player on the field? That’s what I will be watching from Lamar and really Baltimore this season.”
There it is, the great looming question that Jackson has no way to answer until January (pandemic willing). He has entered two playoff games as the quarterback of a favored team. And the Ravens have lost those two home contests by a combined score of 51-29, with Jackson committing multiple turnovers in each.
Can he put those disappointments behind him as he did questions about his passing mechanics and ability to withstand hits?
Griffin laughed when asked about those who say Jackson’s progress can’t be validated until he wins in the playoffs. “My guy has done a phenomenal job playing the position. Whatever they’ve asked him to do here in Baltimore, he’s done it,” he said.
“The postseason thing, it’s unfortunate. You have to face facts. We’ve been there twice and we lost both times. But that’s not just on Lamar; that’s on all of us. It’s going to click for him. It’s going to click for us as a team. For Lamar, my advice has been and will be: ‘Don’t make it bigger than it is.’ Yes, there’s more on the line. But at the end of the day, you’ve proven you can play on a high level. It’s time to go do it in the next game.”