When the Ravens face the Los Angeles Rams on Monday night, a national TV audience will be watching. A smaller part of the “Monday Night Football” viewership will be listening.
Even as Lamar Jackson developed into a Heisman Trophy winner at Louisville and helped lead the Ravens to the playoffs as a rookie last season, ESPN analyst Booger McFarland remained skeptical of his long-term prospects at quarterback, given his struggles as a passer.
The Baltimore Sun spoke recently with the former NFL defensive tackle and current “Monday Night Football” analyst recently about Jackson’s surprising development, Monday’s most interesting matchups and more. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Lamar Jackson has been one of the NFL’s most impressive players this season. What sticks out to you about how much he’s improved since his rookie year?
Just the dedication, man. I think when you go back and you look at where we saw him at the end of last season against the Chargers [in a playoff loss], and then for him to go and put the work and the time in, and for the support he’s gotten from the Ravens organization with [offensive coordinator] Greg Roman putting the offense around him, it’s been an astronomical leap and climb to where he’s come. And you know, he’s playing well. He’s likely the front-runner for the MVP right now.
I know you and a lot of other people have acknowledged that you were skeptical Jackson would be able to reach this level of play. What did you not expect him being able to do this year that he’s done with such consistency?
Well, you can just go back and just look at the game that I think everyone stared at, or looked at: the game against the Chargers. So when you looked at that game, then you say, “OK, is the game moving too fast for him?” And that day, it was. But I think with the dedication that he has put in and the improvement that he’s made, not only has the game slowed down, but he’s toying with people out there.
So I just think you’ve got to give him a lot of credit for what he’s done and how the game has slowed down for him. And on top of that, most of the time, coaching staffs, what they try to do is, they try to put players in their system. You’ve got to give John Harbaugh a lot of credit, because he created a system around his player, which is what every coach should do. But a lot of them don’t do it.
If you were devising a defense to stop this attack with Jackson, running back Mark Ingram II and the Ravens’ tight ends, would you prefer to have an interior disrupter like the Rams’ Aaron Donald or edge rushers like the Chargers’ Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram?
Well, it’s not about one or two guys. It’s about 11 guys. That’s the quandary it puts you in, because the Ravens cover all 53 yards [of the football field] in width. So not only do you have the running backs and the tight ends, but if you’ve got [Marquise] “Hollywood” Brown out there, if you don’t get up and get a hold of him, he’ll beat you deep. Just ask the Miami Dolphins. So it’s not just one or two guys, as far as getting disruption. You’ve got to have 11 guys that are ready to tackle not only Ingram, but they’d better be ready to tackle Jackson also.
Greg Roman has become a hot name in coaching. If this offense keeps producing and he does become a head coaching candidate, how real do you think those chances would be with his run-first background and unique roster in Baltimore?
Here’s the thing about it: People look at your background, and they try to say, “OK, what is it that you do?” All I know is, I’ve seen Greg Roman in San Francisco. I’ve seen Greg Roman in Baltimore. They went to the Super Bowl in San Francisco when he had Colin Kaepernick because he built an offense around Colin’s skill set. Now he’s built an offense around Lamar’s skill set.
So to me, that’s what football is about. That’s what coaching is about. Coaching is about taking what you’re given and making the best out of it, and Greg Roman has proven he can do that. So when you start talking about candidates, especially with the new-age quarterbacks that are coming in, guys that are more mobile, why wouldn’t Greg Roman be a hot name?
Do you think that with the Ravens’ defensive improvements and the offense’s current pace, they’re the best team in the NFL?
I think right now, that title probably goes week to week. If [Patrick] Mahomes comes out and he has a good couple of weeks, people will go back to saying the Chiefs. What I always say is this: The Ravens are part of a group of teams that have a legitimate shot to win the Super Bowl. That’s the way I group those teams. And there’s probably seven or eight teams that are in that group: New Orleans, Seattle, San Francisco, New England. There’s a few more that I’m leaving out, but they’re all part of a group that has a chance to legitimately win a Super Bowl, and Baltimore is clearly in that group.
Looking ahead to Monday night, what are some of the matchups you’re most interested in watching?
Well, I think anytime you go against the Rams, you’d better have a plan for Aaron Donald. And then once you have a plan for him, you’ve got Dante Fowler Jr., Clay Matthews. And on the back end, you’ve got [Jalen] Ramsey and Eric Weddle. So Baltimore’s going to go against a defense that I think is going to be one of the better ones they’ve seen. And then on the flip side, the Rams defense has to go against Lamar Jackson and this rushing attack and the tight ends. So I think that’s the matchup there that really jumps out to me.
Now, just because that’s the headliner doesn’t mean that the Ravens "D" against the Rams offense is not going to be a great matchup. I think overall, these are two teams that have star power on both sides of the ball. And so when they match up, I think this is going to be a classic game on Monday night.