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Why are the Ravens’ Lamar Jackson and Texans’ Deshaun Watson MVP candidates? They still play like like they’re in college.

When Lamar Jackson and Deshaun Watson meet Sunday in Baltimore, it should feel like old times. In their first matchup as starters, they were Heisman Trophy front-runners, quarterbacks in command of offensive machines. Now, three years later, they are Most Valuable Player candidates on division-leading teams. From the NCAA to the NFL, few players have been more powerful agents of change.

For that, they can credit how little their games have had to change. Which is not to say that Jackson and Watson haven’t improved substantially since their days leading scorched-earth college attacks: After three straight years at Louisville and one with the Ravens of sub-60% passing, Jackson has finished two of his nine starts in 2019 with a perfect passer rating. Watson’s touchdown-interception ratio and completion percentage in three Texans seasons are actually better than they were at Clemson.


Schematically, though, the outlines of the Ravens’ and Houston’s offenses are visible in their much-ballyhooed 2016 showdown. When Jackson was asked earlier this season what he remembered about that nationally televised, prime-time game, he answered bluntly: His third-ranked Cardinals had lost. While Jackson would go on to win the Heisman Trophy as a sophomore that year, the No. 5 Tigers’ epic 42-36 victory helped propel them to a national title.

Jackson sighed when he was asked to relive that game Wednesday. His memory of that long October night has endured. But so have the strategies for empowering the quarterbacks who made it so memorable.


“To me … that’s really what coaching is all about,” Texans coach Bill O’Brien said in a conference call Tuesday with Baltimore-area reporters. “You’re not trying to fit someone into your scheme. You’re trying to make sure that you evaluate the players that you have, the quarterback that you have and do everything you can to emphasize the things that they do well, that the quarterback does well.”

For as much as the Ravens rely on Jackson now, he was perhaps even more indispensable in Louisville’s offense. And over Jackson’s 38 games there, his usage was never higher than it was in that back-and-forth battle with Clemson. He attempted 44 passes, tied for the third most of his college career, completing 27 for 295 yards and a touchdown, along with an interception. He also rushed a career-high 31 times for 162 yards and two touchdowns.

Watson was no bystander. He finished 20-for-31 for 306 yards, five touchdowns and three interceptions. Even with future fourth-round pick Wayne Gallman lined up at running back, Watson had 14 carries for 91 yards.

The quarterbacks were as prolific as the night was predictive. Jackson lined up almost exclusively in the pistol, the same formation the Ravens have standardized in both of Jackson’s seasons in Baltimore. Louisville ran zone-read plays and option plays. There were designed quarterback runs and deep throws. And when Jackson scrambled, he made All-Atlantic Coast Conference-quality linebackers look like they were running in cement.

The Texans’ embrace of Watson’s college tendencies has been more gradual. At Clemson, he operated almost exclusively out of the shotgun. In his first two years under O’Brien, the Texans took 68% of their snaps out of the shotgun, according to Sharp Football Stats. Now they’re up to 79%, the third-highest rate in the NFL, behind only the Ravens (95%) and Arizona Cardinals (88%).

Against Louisville, three of Watson’s five touchdowns came off play-action, and another on a run-pass-option play. Houston has not messed with success there, either. Last season, Watson recorded the sixth-most play-action drop-backs, according to Pro Football Focus. Through October, only the Los Angeles Rams’ Jared Goff had more.

“You’ve seen both those guys be put in very similar structures and similar offenses to what they ran in college,” NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said in an interview Thursday. “I think that was kind of more new with Deshaun. And then I think you saw with Lamar, I think that was kind of the expectation. Whoever took him, they were going to really kind of overhaul things and craft it to make it fit. “

With the migration of college-style schemes to the NFL, a youth movement is underway at what Ravens coach John Harbaugh has called probably the toughest position in sports. Jackson, 22, and Watson, 24, are among 15 starting quarterbacks age 25 or younger. ESPN analyst Tim Hasselbeck said the emergence of RPO plays — “simple this-or-that reads” — and receiver-friendly rule changes have eased the learning curve for passers.


“Would they have totally fit in another era of football ... when they weren’t running RPOs and you could mug receivers?” Hasselbeck said in an interview Wednesday. “I don’t know, but it really doesn’t matter. Because they’re playing in today’s game, and so I think it starts with their ability.”

Arm strength and pocket presence can take an offense only so far. The league’s best quarterbacks come from organizations that have married superstar potential with a franchise-wide commitment to harnessing it, from the general manager’s roster building to the offensive coordinator’s play-calling. Sometimes it can be tough for everyone to find the same page.

Hasselbeck recalled that after the New York Giants promoted Kevin Gilbride to offensive coordinator in 2006, Gilbride would often call a play, Streak X Shallow, that had worked years before. But whatever early-’90s magic it had for the Houston Oilers’ Warren Moon and Webster Slaughter did not adequately convey to Giants receivers Plaxico Burress and Amani Toomer. “Eli Manning hated it,” recalled Hasselbeck, his backup.

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“We called it a bunch at first — a bunch,” he said. “And it stunk. I think, eventually, Eli basically was like, 'Hey, just FYI: I don't like that play.' And I think it bothered Kevin. It was almost personal. It was like insulting one of his kids or something. It was like, 'Hey, I love this play. It works.' And it's like: 'Well, yeah. It works for other people.' ”

The Ravens have let their quarterback be their muse. After last season, Greg Roman, the architect of the team’s Jackson-centric run game, was promoted to offensive coordinator. In the offseason, the offense was rebuilt around Jackson’s unique skill set. In training camp and then the preseason, the coaching staff started to reckon with the offense’s identity, knowing it would evolve with Jackson’s successes and failures.

Harbaugh said he didn’t consider the offensive teardown a “sacrifice” necessary for Jackson’s development. “It’s just a commitment and being willing to look at all the options,” he said. Jeremiah, a former college scout for the Ravens, said he’d rather ask an offense to adjust to a new quarterback’s strengths than ask the quarterback to adjust to the existing offensive infrastructure. “I think that’s a lot more difficult thing to do,” he said.


For the quarterback-needy teams eyeing the dual-threat talents eligible for next year’s draft, the Ravens and Texans have perhaps created not only a blueprint but also unrealistic expectations. If Watson and Jackson’s transformative potential had been so obvious in college, they would not have fallen to the Nos. 12 and 32 picks in the NFL draft, respectively. Mitchell Trubisky was taken 11 spots before Watson in 2017. Sam Darnold went 29 spots ahead of Jackson last year.

To build an offense around a quarterback, you have to find the right one first.

“The challenge is just — I mean, both these guys are just so rare and so special,” Jeremiah said. “The assumption that you're going to get a guy like this every couple of years is not accurate. We might not see two quarterbacks like this for a decade that can do these things at this level that they do.

“But I think, yeah, you have your system. And you believe in your system — I get that. But you’d be foolish not to try and take the best available player and adjust to what they do.”