A year after the injury that gave him a starting role, Lamar Jackson has the wider football world excited about the Ravens

The sky did not open, and no thunder cracked when Stephon Tuitt swept around the left shoulder of Jermaine Eluemunor and crashed onto Joe Flacco with the full force of his 303-pound frame.

It seemed like just another hit in the eternally bruising turf war between the Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers. Flacco did not even leave the Week 9 contest, which ended as a 23-16 loss that dropped the Ravens’ 2018 record to 4-5.


“We’re rolling right now with what we have,” coach John Harbaugh said the next afternoon.

With 12 months of perspective, however, we can see that Tuitt unwittingly closed one chapter in Baltimore football history and opened another. Flacco suffered a hip injury on the play and would never take another snap for the team he’d quarterbacked through 10 ½ seasons. The Ravens traded him to the Denver Broncos in March, and after a star-crossed first eight games in his new city, Flacco is sidelined with a neck injury and facing questions about his NFL future.

Meanwhile, Lamar Jackson started in Cincinnati two weeks after the Tuitt hit and ran for 119 yards in a three-point Ravens victory. From there, he led the Ravens to the playoffs, and he has them pointed in that direction again this season. The 22-year-old has wrought such havoc with his legs that he’s forced seasoned NFL observers to reconsider long-held prejudices against running quarterbacks.

The Ravens went into Week 9 of the 2018 season as Joe Flacco’s team. A year later, as they prepare to host the mighty New England Patriots in Week 9 of a new season, they’re defined by Jackson’s electrifying style.

“[In] the NFL in general, things change very quickly, rapidly, and you just move on,” said Ravens guard Marshal Yanda, who spent most of his career blocking for Flacco. “Joe was here for a very long time, played a lot of really great games and productive football, but obviously, it’s just part of the beast, part of the nature of this business. So, we roll, and Lamar has done a great job.”

Jackson hews to an in-the-moment philosophy, so he hasn’t spent much energy contemplating the year since Flacco went down.

“I didn’t really care about that, to be honest,” he said. “I’m just trying to win. That’s why I’m here. I’m trying to build. I’m trying to be better than I was last year.”

But it’s natural to take stock of the Ravens’ big picture when they’re about to play the NFL’s standard-bearing franchise in a Sunday night showcase. And it’s apparent that to the outside world at least, Baltimore’s football narrative became a lot more intriguing when Jackson took center stage as its protagonist.


Jackson’s matchup with the Patriots is football catnip on multiple levels, from the generational quarterback showdown with Tom Brady to the tactical questions of how Bill Belichick might counter his one-of-a-kind running talent.

“Lamar Jackson is truly one of the most exciting young players to come into the league in some time. Some of the plays that I’ve seen him make this year getting ready for this game are breathtaking,” said NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth, who will call the Patriots game with Al Michaels. “I think we’ve seen offenses evolve and change, the influence of the college game, and this is very much one of those matchups of style that is going to make this game as interesting as anything that we’ve done all season.”

Even the curmudgeonly Belichick acknowledged Jackson’s “unique” skills, noting that the Patriots have no one capable of imitating him in practice. “I don’t know if anybody else in the league has a guy, either,” he said.

Given such flattery and Jackson’s 11-3 record as a starter, it would be easy to present his last year as a seamless ascent. On the ground, it has felt quite different.

There was the playoff loss to the Los Angeles Chargers in January, when he threw an interception and fumbled three times as fans filled M&T Bank Stadium with boos and called for Flacco to replace him. There were the debates heading into this season about whether he’d ever throw precisely enough to thrive as a longtime NFL starter or whether his body would hold up to the punishment invited by his daring scrambles.

He’s silenced some of the dissenters by continuing to win and posting running statistics, individual and team, that defy our expectations of the modern game.


But part of the fascination around Jackson flows from the doubts that persist. Can he sustain a career playing the way he does?

“The only thing — all it takes is one shot,” said NBC commentator and former All-Pro safety Rodney Harrison. “All it takes is one shot, and he’s been doing a pretty good job of not getting hit, but a couple times you’ll watch him on tape, he’ll take a couple shots, and he’s young, and he’s a stud, and he feels good. But all it takes is that one hit and it can really change the complexion of their team. So I still worry about a quarterback that’s really heavily involved in the run game.”

The excitement for Jackson vs. Patriots extends beyond fans and commentators and into the Ravens locker room.

“I feel like he brings a whole new dynamic to our offense,” said defensive tackle Brandon Williams, who’s 0-3 against the Patriots in his seven-year career. “He’s a baller, and with him, they have a lot of stuff to work on. They have a lot of things to try to get ready to play him.”

You’ll never hear anyone with the Ravens utter a disrespectful word about Flacco, who led the franchise to six playoff appearances and a Super Bowl victory. But there’s a palpable enthusiasm about what they’ve created around their young star.

“We’ve completely revamped the offense to tailor it more towards a mobile guy,” said Jackson’s back-up, Robert Griffin III. “I think that’s the biggest difference, the ability to attack the defense with all 11 guys on the field as opposed to the more traditional 10 with most offenses.”

How has Jackson evolved as the atmosphere has changed around him?

Fans, writers and people within the team have made much of the pivotal fourth down in the Ravens’ Week 7 victory over the Seattle Seahawks, when Jackson pushed Harbaugh not to settle for a field goal.

“I probably wouldn’t have done it last year,” Jackson said. “There probably were moments we could have went for it last year, and I was just jogging off the field.”

But it’s possible to go too far with this narrative and portray Jackson as a steely-eyed commander when in fact, his youthful joie de vivre remains a significant part of his charm.

As he spent the week preparing for one of the greatest tests of his career, he still took time to discuss the Harry Potter costume he wore for Halloween (sans lightning bolt scar) and to call Brady the G.O.A.T of G.O.A.Ts with a mischievous grin.

“He’s comfortable with who he is and how he wants to lead,” Griffin said. “He’s still more of a laid-back, goofy kind of kid, so I don’t know how to say if he’s more assertive or not. Joe had his way of doing it. I have my way of doing it. I think everybody’s different, and I don’t think that’s a problem.”

The 29-year-old Griffin said he’s still the “proverbial voice of reason” in a quarterback room that features Jackson and rookie Trace McSorley.


Seven years ago, he was talked about much as Jackson is now — an athlete who could re-define the accepted possibilities of how to play quarterback in the NFL. He understands the joys and the pitfalls of such attention, so he’s in a unique position to play the older brother.

“He’ll always have an opportunity to ring me up, hit me up with a text message and talk to me about anything,” Griffin said. “That’s special. It’s something I never had in this league, so I wanted to be that for him while I’m here.”

As Jackson prepared for the Patriots, news emerged that the man he used to play behind could miss at least five weeks because of a herniated disc in his neck. Once known for his extreme durability, the 34-year-old Flacco has now suffered three significant injuries in the last five seasons. The announcement of his latest came a day after he questioned the 2-6 Broncos’ lack of play calling aggressiveness. “What do we have to lose?” he wondered, pondering another bitterly close defeat.


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