If Lamar Jackson seems from afar as if he has been through this before, facing existential questions about what type of quarterback he is and what he can be, forced to examine his future just days after his first career start, it is because the Ravens rookie pretty much already has.
Three years before his legs powered the Ravens to a crucial victory over the Cincinnati Bengals, Jackson supplanted Louisville’s starting quarterback midway through the Cardinals’ 2015 season opener against Auburn. Only a true freshman then, he was not especially productive or prolific through the air. He had more carries than he did completions. He led the team in rushing yards.
The past was not necessarily prologue — Louisville lost that game, after all — but the uncanny parallels between then and now extended to even the postgame narratives. Bobby Petrino, Jackson’s coach, was asked about his quarterback’s running, just as John Harbaugh was this past week. How much was too much?
Said Petrino in 2015: “The good thing about him is, he really wants to throw it, and he does a good job of going through his progressions and, if it's there, flicking his wrist and going. There were probably three instances the other night when he's dropping back and the middle just opens up, playing man-under coverage, and he just takes off and runs. … So I thought he did a really nice job of deciding when to go and when to stay in the pocket.”
Said Harbaugh last Sunday: “There were some runs that could have been throws in there. With the third downs, we were just in a position where we could run it. We didn’t have to throw it as much. But we’ll be throwing the ball quite a bit in the future. It wasn’t by design; it kind of played out that way.”
The Ravens drafted Jackson to be their quarterback of the future because of what he developed into at Louisville. He finished each of his final two college seasons with over 1,500 rushing yards, yes, but also over 3,500 passing yards. In 2015, against Auburn, his first career pass attempt was an interception. A year later, when he won the Heisman Trophy, he averaged over 31 pass attempts and less than one pick per game.
The hope in Baltimore, where the Ravens (5-5) will on Sunday face the Oakland Raiders (2-8) in another vital home game, is that Jackson’s unique dual-threat talents will fully translate to the next level. The trouble is Jackson is still so inexperienced against NFL defenses — and NFL defenses so unused to facing a talent like Jackson — no one yet knows what will work best. It is a calculus with too many variables.
Not that there is any less clarity than before Week 11. Harbaugh’s most revealing and least surprising acknowledgment this past week was that 26 carries were too many for Jackson. Too many for any player, in fact, much less a quarterback. In 2006, Kansas City Chiefs running back Larry Johnson set the single-season NFL record for rushing attempts with 416 in 16 games — exactly 26 per game. And besides Jackson, only three other quarterbacks in the NFL’s modern era have had at least 15 carries in one game.
“But I didn’t get banged up, which is cool on that part,” Jackson said Wednesday. “But  rushes — I didn’t know about it until after the game. I was like, ‘I ran  times?’ I was shocked myself. So I was like, ‘Dang, maybe I do have to get down.’ They were saying, ‘Oh, he’s going to get killed,’ this and that. Oh, man. We won the game. That’s all that matters.”
With Jackson under center at least until longtime starter Joe Flacco recovers from a right hip injury, the Ravens find themselves in an unusual position for an NFL team in 2018. Every team except the Seattle Seahawks and the Tennessee Titans this season has passed more often than it has run the ball, and rarely has an offense opted for over 30 more running plays in a game than passing plays, as the Ravens did against Cincinnati.
Unusual as it was, the Ravens’ ground-and-pound method had its advantages. By game’s end, they owned a 16-plus-minute advantage in time of possession. They’d run 75 plays to the Bengals’ 54.
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“That's the defensive dream,” said safety Eric Weddle, one of the leaders on the Ravens’ No. 1-ranked defense. “A lot of teams are hard to deal with when you can run the ball and you play great defense.”
A second dimension on offense would make them even harder to deal with. Against Cincinnati, Jackson finished 13-for-19 for 150 yards, no touchdowns and an interception he blamed on his unwillingness to throw to an uncovered check-down receiver. He rarely looked to stretch the field vertically, and his two biggest gains in the passing game came as he scrambled outside the pocket.
Tight end Nick Boyle predicted Jackson would “grow tremendously, even from this game to next game,” and Jackson promised more throws. “They’re going to see,” he said of his critics. Harbaugh was even more forceful in his defense of the 21-year-old.
“All this veiled stuff — ‘Is he really a thrower?’ — I have news for you: He’s a thrower,” Harbaugh said Monday. “The kid can throw. He’s a quarterback. He’s a quarterback. So all these little veiled questions … I don’t appreciate the insinuation of the question. We will continue to say it: Lamar Jackson is a quarterback. Did you see the game [Sunday]?”
Raiders coach Jon Gruden did. He called the Ravens’ Jackson-led offense “a different style of football,” and that scared him. With Jackson’s elite athleticism and the offense’s embrace of a seldom-used chapter in its playbook — zone reads, run-pass options, quarterback draws — Gruden seemed to find daunting not only the challenge of knowing where a Ravens play might go but also how the rookie quarterback might contribute to it.
Jackson said his week of self-study was no different after his first Sunday as a starter, but Gruden’s film review was at least a little atypical. He watched what tape of Jackson he could, including preseason games. But he also went back to those Louisville days. The footage offered a reminder.
“He won the Heisman Trophy because of his dual-threat ability. He can throw,” Gruden said. “The college tape proves it. … So you have to prepare for Lamar Jackson, the complete body of work that he put on tape at Louisville, or you’re making a big mistake.”