OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Over the past eight months, Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson was unanimously selected as NFL MVP, got feted as the No. 1 player in the game by his peers and saw his face splashed across the cover of the Madden video game.
Starting with the regular season opener Sunday, Jackson goes from being the toast of the football world to the top target, looking across the line at defensive game plans devised all offseason with the sole purpose of containing and frustrating the league’s most unpredictable playmaker.
“Just like they’re trying to prepare for me, I’m preparing for them as well,” said Jackson, who kicks off his season against the Cleveland Browns. “We’re going to be ready when the game comes.”
What exactly does Jackson have in store for his MVP encore?
In talking with more than 20 of Jackson’s current and former teammates, coaches and his personal quarterback tutor, Jackson wants to follow up a record-setting season by reading defenses like Tom Brady, beating them over the top like Patrick Mahomes and, most importantly, winning a Super Bowl title like the both of them.
Repeating success at such a high level has proven difficult in recent history, especially when dealing with the league’s highest individual is new. In the last 20 seasons, there have been eight quarterbacks who have won NFL MVP for the first time. Five of those quarterbacks failed to reach the Pro Bowl the next season: Rich Gannon, Steve McNair, Brady (who was injured), Cam Newton and Matt Ryan.
“This is the critical year for [Jackson] now because everybody has a bull’s-eye on him,” said Mike Tannenbaum, ESPN’s front-office insider and former NFL executive for the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins. “If he plays well this year, look out, his trajectory is truly limitless.”
Jackson is going to have to figure out a way to win left-handed, as Tannenbaum put it. Every defense’s focus is to take away what he does best.
Teams are going to try to keep him in the pocket. They’re going to try to make him throw the ball downfield to his left, which is the hardest pass for any quarterback to make. They’re going to overload blitz to his right. They’re going to set the edge to his left to try to push the pocket.
“There’s always times, especially early in guys’ careers, where they have to prove that they can do everything their team needs them to do, no matter what the situation. That’s where Lamar is,” said Kurt Warner, a former NFL MVP and current NFL Network analyst. “I don’t think he has to prove he can play in this business. I think the next step for him to prove is that, OK, when somebody takes away his strengths, can he beat them in those other areas of the game? That’s what we’ve seen in the playoffs the last couple of years. Teams have been able to stymie what they do really, really well and force it more into Lamar’s hands to drop back and throw the football. He hasn’t been quite as successful.”
Jackson delivered shock and awe in his first two NFL seasons, throwing touchdowns at an NFL-best clip in the red zone and breaking ankles, so many ankles in the open field that there are YouTube compilations devoted to it (look it up). He became the only player in NFL history to produce more than 3,000 yards passing and 1,000 yards rushing.
Part of the challenge in defending Jackson is no one can simulate his speed or moves on scout teams. You have to chase, pressure and — if you’re lucky — hit Jackson to understand what it takes to play against him.
This season, 10 of Jackson’s 16 games are against defenses that already have faced him, including three of the four teams to have ever beaten him. As teams learn ways to limit his running, the best way for Jackson to stay one step ahead of everyone is to become more consistent with his arm.
“You are going to see an even more polished and an even more ready Lamar than you saw last year,” tight end Mark Andrews said. “That almost sounds unbelievable, but the guy is incredible.”
Break defenses like Brady
If Jackson didn’t return your phone call this offseason, you’re not alone.
Trying to contact Jackson can be as frustrating as trying to get contact on him when he unleashes a spin move. In a team-produced video, many players pointed at Jackson, including the quarterback himself, as the teammate most likely to ignore a phone call.
“Everybody knows I like to sleep,” Jackson said, “so I’m probably going to miss that call.”
The Ravens didn’t really get to connect with Jackson on the field until late July, a handful of weeks before the season opener. With all the spring workouts and minicamp canceled due to the pandemic, Jackson didn’t have the same practice time that proved valuable last year to get his footwork and fundamentals in place.
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Even though Jackson might have lost reps to fine tune his mechanics, quarantine helped him in another area. When his eyes were open, they were fixated on tape.
“I actually think this could be a benefit for him. One of his goals was to focus on the mental aspect of the game,” said Joshua Harris, Jackson’s personal quarterback coach. “Us being on lockdown, you’re isolated. What can you do but focus on the mental part? It could be a blessing in disguise.”
Team officials took notice this offseason when Mahomes acknowledged he didn’t understand how to read defenses until the middle of last year, which was his third NFL season. He grasped the concepts of coverages, but he didn’t pick up the little tendencies of defenses until after a full season of starting in the league.
Like Mahomes, Jackson is entering his third NFL season and coming off his first full season as a starter.
“I just want my mind to grow even more, get in-depth with just learning the ins and outs of the game even more like Tom Brady,” Jackson said. “That’s all I want to do right now is focus more on that.”
Those close to Jackson say he doesn’t act like the reigning NFL MVP. He still carries the chip on the shoulder from being fifth quarterback taken in the 2018 draft.
Jackson also doesn’t act like the youngest starting quarterback in the AFC North. There’s a maturity about him despite being 23 and one month younger than Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow, the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s draft.
“He’s really a realist,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “He really understands what’s required and what he needs to do to take his game to the level that brings our team to a championship. That’s what he wants to do. That’s his whole focus and goal, and that’s what I always admire about him, and that’s why I always respect him so much.”
Over the top
Jackson shattered the NFL single-season record for most rushing yards by a quarterback and led the league with 36 touchdown passes. He ranked in the top 10 in passer rating and completion rate along with passing on third downs and the fourth quarter.
“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,” Ravens wide receiver Willie Snead said. “I think when he starts doing that, people are going to really respect him as a passer.”
The weakest part of Jackson’s game was consistently throwing deep to his wide receivers. On throws that traveled at least 15 yards in the air, Jackson ranked 27th in completions (35) and 22nd in completion rate (43.8%).
In working a week with Jackson in South Florida, Harris noticed Jackson would stand on his toes and flick the ball downfield. He wasn’t driving the ball with his lower body, which caused the ball to flutter too often.
“It is short of an obsession, but it’s an obsession. This is what his goal is – to lead this franchise to a Super Bowl. That’s the way he views it. That’s just what he wants to do.” Ravens quarterbacks coach James Urban on Lamar Jackson
“The term is ‘keeping your cleats in the ground,'” Harris said. “If you’re on your toes, then it becomes an all-arm throw. That’s a hard throw.”
To be fair, Jackson jumped out on teams so often he didn’t need to stretch the field. But, in the divisional playoff loss to the Tennessee Titans, the Ravens fell behind 21-6 in the third quarter and Jackson was 6-for-17 (35.3%) on those deep throws.
“You got to continue proving you can do everything until you become a franchise guy where everybody is convinced, ‘OK, this guy can do whatever he needs to do to help his team win and then primarily to be a championship-type quarterback and take his team to the Super Bowl,” Warner said. “So, from one standpoint, I don’t think he has anything to prove in terms of being a franchise guy at this level. But there are other checks he has to make and boxes that he’s got to check for us to believe, ‘Hey, no matter what this team needs, he can do that and he can do it at a level that can take this team to a championship.'”
Super Bowl obsession
Minutes after being drafted by Baltimore, Jackson promised to deliver a Super Bowl to the Ravens. Now, 29 months later, Jackson’s drive to hoist the Lombardi Trophy has been unceasing.
“It is short of an obsession, but it’s an obsession — if you get what I’m saying,” Ravens quarterbacks coach James Urban said. “This is what his goal is — to lead this franchise to a Super Bowl. That’s the way he views it. That’s just what he wants to do.”
The lack of a postseason victory is the only disappointment in Jackson’s short run as the Ravens’ starting quarterback. He’s led Baltimore to two home playoff games and lost by a combined score of 51-29. While no one should put all the blame on Jackson’s shoulders, his five turnovers have fed the narrative he can’t win when it matters the most.
After the Ravens lost to the Titans on Jan. 11 — a defeat where Baltimore got away from its vaunted rushing attack — Jackson talked that night to Brown about what Baltimore could have and should have happened against Tennessee. Jackson became the first NFL MVP to go one-and-done in the postseason since Adrian Peterson in 2012.
“I feel like he’s more hungry,” Brown said. “That’s his No. 1 goal — he wants to win a Super Bowl, and he wants to win more than one.”
It’s not a Super Bowl-or-bust scenario yet for Jackson. The pressure is certainly on for him to win in the playoffs, which puts him in a predicament for the next four months.
He could become the fifth player ever to win consecutive NFL MVP awards. He could break new ground by leading the league in rushing or become the first quarterback to top the NFL in touchdown passes in back-to-back seasons since Drew Brees did so in 2011 and 2012.
“It’s not going to matter until playoff time,” said former safety Eric Weddle, who played alongside Jackson in 2018 and against him last season. “He knows that. We all know that.”