It’s a day ending in “Y,” and a year ending in a number, so there’s somebody in the NFL more than willing to tell you: Lamar Jackson ain’t all that. Even after his MVP season of 2019, and even as he dramatically improved his pure quarterbacking from the pocket, the guys all the way back from when Bill Polian was telling us that Jackson should become a receiver were happy to spout off with their own perceptions of Jackson’s game. Something Polian later had to recant, by the way.
There is a schism between Jackson the athlete and Jackson the quarterback in the minds of many who make their money in the NFL. There’s some legitimacy to that after Jackson’s 2021 season, when regression reared its ugly head.
When Mike Sando of The Athletic put together his annual Quarterback Tiers piece, speaking with 50 NFL coaches and executives, that schism was out in full force.
“You cannot go into a game and not account for this guy — like, we are meeting with people every offseason to find out how they would defend this type of offense,” one defensive coordinator told Sando. “At the same time, I can totally see why you can go anywhere from 1 to 3 on him. If he has to drop back and throw the ball, it is not the same, but if he is on rhythm and they are running the ball and they are running the play-action off it, if you can’t account for that dude, he is going to kill you.”
More common were the slings and arrows regarding Jackson as a quarterback.
“If he has to pass to win the game, they ain’t winning the game,” another defensive coordinator said. “He’s so unique as an athlete and he’s really a good football player, but I don’t [care] if he wins the league MVP 12 times, I don’t think he’ll ever be a 1 as a quarterback. He’ll be a 1 as a football player, but not as a quarterback. So many games come down to two-minute, and that is why they have a hard time advancing even when they are good on defense. Playoffs are tight. You have to be able to throw the ball, and he is just so inconsistent throwing the ball. It is hit or miss.”
Well There’s cogent analysis of the player, and there’s stuff like “I don’t [care] if he wins the league MVP 12 times,” which seems a bit more personal — as if this particular coach came into the picture with a specific idea of what Jackson is and isn’t, and he’s not going to change that for anything.
One offensive coach had a more balanced interpretation, though there are layers to the truth here.
“I think what we saw with Lamar, starting with the Miami game and carrying through the rest of the season, was someone who struggled to identify coverages and make pre-snap reads. He is still a really dynamic player, brings something different to the group, but by and large, is going to have to continue to improve as a passer in order go deep in the playoffs and put himself in the Tier 1 group.”
The Week 10 game against the Dolphins is a good place to start for our discussion purposes. Did Jackson struggle to comprehend what he was seeing against Brian Flores’ defense? Absolutely. But the Dolphins also gave Jackson some thing he had not seen — and no other NFL quarterback has seen in recent years.
How the Dolphins upended the Ravens with Cover-0 (and other things)
Jackson finished that game with 26 completions on 43 attempts for 238 yards, one touchdown, one interception, and a passer rating of 73.8. He was sacked four times, and was pressured on 19 of his 53 dropbacks. When under pressure, per Pro Football Focus, Jackson completed five of 13 passes for 50 yards, one touchdown, one late desperation interception (the first regular-season pick he’s thrown in the red zone in his career), and a passer rating of 45.4. Through the first nine weeks of the season, Jackson had completed 36 of 75 passes under pressure for 517 yards, four touchdowns, two interceptions, and a passer rating of 77.5, so it wasn’t just pressuring Lamar. There were other things afoot.
How different was the game plan put together by Miami defensive coordinator Josh Boyer? Per Next Gen Stats, safeties Jevon Holland and Brandon Jones were all over the field, and they blitzed at a rate Next Gen Stats had never seen before.
So… when we say that Lamar Jackson is or is not this or that, maybe we need to see the situational context.
The 30,000-foot view tells us that Jackson has some things to work on. Certainly before he can be in anybody’s first tier as a pure thrower of the football as opposed to an unprecedented athletic threat, which he has already been for a while.
Back to the alleged disrespect…
Jackson also didn’t make ESPN’s recent list of the NFL’s top 10 quarterbacks — a list complied by Jeremy Fowler, who also spoke with a range of coaches and executives.
“Hard to stay healthy when you run that much; he’s actually gotten a lot better as a passer,” an offensive coach told Fowler. “But if you play that way [with a run-heavy attack] and it’s a close game and you’re down, it’s really hard to win, because you’re asked to do what you only minor in, not major in, and that’s passing the ball when they know you are gonna pass it.”
Full disclosure: Jackson ranked ninth on our own Mark Schofield’s recent list of the NFL’s 12 best quarterbacks. Mark pointed out in his analysis that early in the 2021 season, Jackson was punishing defenses as a pocket passer, and as a runner in designed and second-reaction concepts.
The NFL’s top 12 quarterbacks
Jackson and the rest of the Ravens team dealt with a nasty streak of injuries last season, especially down the stretch. That has something to do with the regression that did show up both in the metrics and on tape.
So now, with Jackson coming into his fifth NFL season, and looking for the kind of ginormous contract extension given to the league’s elite (and at times, not-so-elite) quarterbacks, there is the question: How can Jackson not only silence the doubters, but also make that extension a fait accompli –– the kind of thing a franchise simply can’t afford to refuse?
We have a few thoughts on how Lamar Jackson, Quarterback, can become just such a force on a more consistent basis.
(All advanced metrics courtesy of Sports Info Solutions, Pro Football Focus, and Football Outsiders unless otherwise indicated).