The first revolutionary whispers were uttered in July. Long before Lamar Jackson became the most celebrated player in football, before the broken records and weekly accolades and boundless fun, John Harbaugh stood at the front of the room. Baltimore Ravens headquarters provided a reprieve from the Maryland heat.
Harbaugh was entering his 12th season as an NFL head coach. And with training camp still nascent, he’d admit, he wasn’t sure what his 12th NFL offense would be. What he did know was that it would look nothing like the others. He had a vision, one that had thus far guided the Ravens’ offseason. And on this midsummer evening, he relayed it to his players.
We know all this because of how much it excited his quarterback. “He was getting me pumped up talking about the new revolution,” Jackson said the following day. About “changing [everything] and stuff like that. … I was like, ‘OK, coach. I’m all in!’ The whole team was all in.”
We also know because Harbaugh wasn’t secretive or bashful. He’d already spoken of “chang[ing] the way offensive football is played in the National Football League.” On another late-July morning, sporting khakis and optimism, he stepped to an NFL Network set and clarified: “We’re not inventing offense. We’re just probably reinventing a little how it’s put together.”
The entire NFL, he explained, had spent decades in pursuit of a single ideal. “The game was probably revolutionized with Bill Walsh and Joe Montana,” he said of the 1980s San Francisco 49ers and the West Coast offense. “That’s been the model for the last 25, 30 years. And we’ve all been chasing that model, trying to find that quarterback and trying to find that rhythm.” Last winter, he’d stepped back and plotted a different path. The West Coast era had brought him one Super Bowl and the Ravens two. But he wondered whether there was another way.
“What’s the next era going to be?” he pondered into a microphone that day after Ravens practice.
“Well,” he concluded, “we’re about to find out.”
All of which contextualizes the conversation he had with Jackson four months later, on a sideline in Cincinnati, after that sorcerous spin move and another undressing of a helpless defense.
“I love the way you play,” he told Jackson, his voice almost entranced. And then he made the grand proclamation, the one toward which everything the Ravens had done since March had been building.
“You changed the game, man,” the head coach told his quarterback.
What Harbaugh may not have realized in that moment is that Jackson might actually be too unique to change anything.
That while others might want to follow the Ravens’ lead, finding another “Barry Sanders [who] can throw the football,” as one former NFL scout puts it, won't be so simple.
Flipping the offensive script
The game, to be clear, needed changing. Specifically, the NFL did because the sport, everywhere below its top pro league, had evolved. At every amateur level, in every state, innovators had torn up football’s fabric and re-designed it. And the NFL wasn’t keeping up.
What the league didn’t realize is that it had misinterpreted Walsh’s teachings. As Michael Lombardi, a former scout under Walsh, wrote last year, “What Walsh knew better than anyone in the game was that the key to success in the passing era of the NFL was to marry the right quarterback to the right scheme.” Where NFL teams erred was in assuming the right scheme was Walsh’s. They sought quarterbacks who suited it – and failed to consider that other successful schemes could be built around talented quarterbacks who didn’t.
When colleges ditched the West Coast offense in favor of the simplified “spread,” the NFL, rather than follow along, moaned and groaned. This exciting amateur offense, some NFL coaches felt, was a “disservice” to them rather than an instruction manual.
“It was West Coast no matter what. ‘I don’t give a sh- - what quarterback you give me, we’re running the West Coast,’ ” says a former NFL GM, paraphrasing most coaches’ approach. “ ‘You want to draft a run-around quarterback? That’s fine, but he ain’t playing for me. He’s gonna be on the bench watching.’ ”
Top college QBs, the former GM says, would “have undefeated seasons running the spread, they’re having success running the spread. And then all of a sudden you bring ‘em to the NFL and say, ‘Great, it’s fun to watch – we’re gonna run the I [formation], you’re gonna be a dropback quarterback.’ ” A few spread maestros were able to adapt. Others, such as Marcus Mariota, were misused and ruined.
“But,” the former GM continues, “that’s changing now.”
Around the time Cam Newton and Robert Griffin III entered the league in 2011 and 2012, attitudes began to shift. Slowly, one by one. The Redskins flipped the script, installing portions of RG3’s Baylor offense. The 49ers did likewise with Colin Kaepernick’s at Nevada. In recent years, a league that was once dead-set on fitting quarterbacks into schemes began instead molding schemes to quarterbacks.
Which brings us to Jackson. The 2019 Ravens are as much a product of this evolving league as they are revolutionary torchbearers. They’re less the reason for a sudden change, more so the most extreme example of a gradual one.
The question is whether they will push the NFL even further; open more minds; establish scheme-to-QB overhauls like theirs as the norm.
And to that, former NFL scout John Middlekauff responds: “How many Lamar Jacksons exist?”
Good luck finding another Lamar
The Ravens, as Harbaugh said, haven’t invented anything. They haven’t conjured an offense out of nothing. The read option had already been popularized. The pistol formation had already been developed. In fact, its pioneer watches the Ravens regularly. And when he sees how they line up, former Nevada coach Chris Ault thinks to himself: “They’re running exactly what we ran. Exactly.”
The pistol – with the quarterback in a shortened shotgun and the running back directly behind him – traveled from Nevada to the 49ers with Kaepernick. From there, it traveled to the Buffalo Bills and eventually to Baltimore with offensive coordinator Greg Roman. What Roman and the Ravens have done is package concepts and counters within it in new, multidimensional, brilliant ways. Out of the neutral formation, often with three tight ends who can block or run routes, the extent to which these Ravens are multidimensional is unprecedented. They can run left, right or middle; they can do it with Jackson or Mark Ingram; they can pass short or long; they can fake one and do another, and often have multiple post-snap options on a given play.
But their dynamism is unprecedented because of Jackson.
“The majority of quarterbacks,” Middlekauff says, “can’t even think about [running this offense].”
So the question is not whether other NFL teams will follow their lead, but rather: Can they?
The former GM believes some will try. “‘They did it, we can do it, we just gotta find this quarterback,’” the thinking will go. To which he’d respond: “Well good luck finding a Lamar. … They don’t come along very often.”
“It always comes back to the players,” says former NFL scout and GM Billy Devaney. “Scheme is great, and the ideas are great, and the play-calling is great, but if you don’t have a kid like [Jackson] that is this athletic, this strong, and – I can’t stress this enough – that can throw … That’s what makes them so unique and such a problem.”
That word “unique” comes up a lot in conversations about Jackson. Some scouts believe Michael Vick was comparable as an athlete, but not as an accurate thrower or thinker. Others mention peak Kaepernick, but even Ault, Kaepernick’s college coach, admits: “Kaepernick was fast. He had those looong strides. [Jackson] is fast and quick.” As former NFL QB and current ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky says: “Lamar is way more laterally twitchy. … I don’t know if there’s anybody that’s twitchy like him.”
They all agree: There has never been an NFL QB like Jackson. But are there any analogous talents currently in college?
Devaney, who now consults for NFL teams, doesn’t see any. Neither does Orlovsky. And the other former GM, who still does consulting work and watches hours of tape every day? Has he seen any young replicas?
“No. No. He’s a freak of nature,” the former GM says of Jackson.
Anybody even close?
“No. I can’t picture anybody. I really can’t.”
Jackson, in this sense, is too unique to incite a revolution. “I play Lamar Jackson ball,” he said in November. “I don’t play nobody else ball.” And nobody else plays Lamar Jackson ball either.
“I think it’s all dependent on the funnel of talent coming through,” Middlekauff says. “Unless five more Lamar Jacksons come up through college in the next handful of years, I don’t think you’re gonna see this offense all over the league.”
And the prospect of five more Lamar Jacksons appearing seems unlikely. Is there a chance, though, that Lamar Jackson’s success could create more Lamar Jacksons?
Lamar Jackson’s true impact
Along with the West Coast offense came a quarterback prototype. It was, essentially, the man who first mastered it, the one it was built for, Joe Montana. The statuesque gunslinger who could sit in the pocket, see over the line and make every throw. Prototype morphed into stereotypes. The vast majority of QBs drafted between 1980 and 2015 were, like Montana, unexceptional athletes and white. Athleticism, especially for black players, was less a QB asset, more a trait better utilized at another position. If you were 6-2 and agile, and ran a 4.34 40, coaches likely taught you how to run routes and catch instead of how to throw.
Lamar Jackson is 6-2 and agile, runs a 4.34 40, and made it very clear at every step of his development that he would have none of that. When Louisville coaches had Jackson field punts one day, his mom called minutes after practice to reprimand them. When, according to Jackson himself, the Los Angeles Chargers wanted him to work out at wide receiver, he refused and also pulled out of the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine. He very openly and defiantly opted against the route that players who look and move like him are often told to take.
Perhaps this will be Jackson’s true impact, on the current high school quarterbacks whom recruiting services tab as “athletes,” and who often switch positions in college or beyond. Could he inspire the next generation to follow his determined lead? Might coaches see the 2019 Ravens and give run-first signal callers a longer look?
“They should. They should,” Jackson said earlier this month. “Give ’em a try. You never know what’ll happen. That’s what the Ravens did, and we havin’ a lot of success, so probably in the long run it’ll help [those] players out.”
It is far too early to tell – both because those players are still in high school, and because of a question that will likely trail Jackson for the foreseeable future, even as he sprints toward an MVP. Orlovsky sums it up: “We don’t know what the end result is yet.”
Says the former GM: “We’ll see if it lasts.”
‘You only have so many shots’
The Monday after Jackson led the Ravens to their ninth straight win, he showed up on the injury report. He’d sustained a minor quad knock in Buffalo. Back at a podium in Owings Mills, Maryland, for his weekly news conference on Tuesday, he was asked when, exactly, the injury happened.
His chin jutted a half-inch forward. A twinkle crept into his face.
“Throwing the ball, not running it,” he said without hesitation and with a half-smile. Laughter filled the room.
Jackson is very aware of the narrative. Very aware of the stigma attached to running quarterbacks. He reads social media. He knows that the entire football world is ready to slap the “injury prone” label on him at the first hint of weakness.
So he fights it, preemptively. Later in the news conference, he’s asked about defenses targeting his legs. He confirms it’s a tendency he has noticed. But then he specifies: “Especially when I’m inside the pocket. When I’m out on the edge, I kinda avoid it all the time.”
Still, the worry persists. All but one person interviewed for this story mentions it. “Lamar is unique, but he still takes shots,” the former GM says. “And you only have so many shots.”
“Injuries are injuries,” he continues. “The [Ravens offense] is cool right now, and everybody’s on it … and fans should be on it, and they should like it. But the real football guys are just sitting back, waiting to see. ’Cause it’s not gonna last. I mean, it can’t.”
That, of course, is not a scientifically proven claim. It’s a conclusion based on several high-profile case studies. Vick, both before and after his arrest, was plagued by injuries. Griffin tore his ACL before making it through a full season, and hasn’t been the same since. Newton’s body, which once seemed indestructible, now seems broken. One of their predecessors, Randall Cunningham, started only 54 percent of his teams’ games.
Yet the sample size remains tiny, and the narrative always seems to ignore Russell Wilson, who ran the ball 462 times his first four years in the league, won a Super Bowl, nearly won two, and hasn’t missed a single NFL start.
Nonetheless, skepticism reigns. “The more hits they take, the better chance they have of being hurt. That’s just common sense,” the former GM says. “You’re exposing them to more contact. Anytime you expose somebody to more contact – it’s not just the [possibility] of getting hurt on that play, it’s the longevity of their careers too.”
Multiple sources point to the average shelf life of a starting quarterback, which is double-digit years and rising, versus the average shelf life of a running back, which is less than half that and seemingly falling. More hits equals shorter career. Jackson’s unmatched agility has allowed him to evade many, but not all. Scouts say he’s far more responsible outside the pocket than Vick, but nowhere near as under-control as Wilson. Says Devaney: “He’s putting himself in harm’s way more than he needs to.”
How you view Jackson’s staying power, in the end, is a personal choice. None of us can predict the future. What we can do is either worry about it or cherish the present. And the Ravens, for many reasons, are uniquely positioned to do the latter.
Why draft night was worth the wait
Lamar Jackson arrived well before 8 o’clock. And then he waited. Waited and waited, his mom by his side. At 11:33 p.m. on April 26, 2018, he finally rose, green Gucci suit and bowtie as fresh as ever, to stride across AT&T Stadium’s makeshift stage. And then he had a few things to say. About the Ravens, the team who’d just drafted him with the last pick of the first round. About having chips on both his shoulders. And about the 31 reasons for them. “All the teams that passed me up … there’s a lot that’s gonna come with that,” Jackson said.
The wait was agonizing, and also galvanizing. Jackson hears criticism and internalizes it, converting slights into fuel. Draft night in 2018 was one of many. In hindsight, it was also the best thing that could’ve happened to him.
The 2019 Ravens are not only irreplicable because he is; he is irreplicable because of who they are. Because their coach, with over a decade of tenure and a Lombardi trophy, could afford to go all in on Jackson and risk failure. Because the organization behind him, one of the NFL’s best, was willing to offer unequivocal support. Because Roman, who was promoted to offensive coordinator this past offseason, was the single most qualified coach in the league to weaponize Jackson. And because the Ravens were able to put a terrifying offensive line in front of him.
The list goes on and on. The situation checks every box. Baltimore has finished below .500 just once under Harbaugh for a reason. The defense, when Jackson arrived, was already playoff-caliber, the culture already strong, the front office already in search of tight ends and running backs to complement him.
“There’s been a lot of things that have afforded that success,” Orlovsky says. A lot of things that likely wouldn’t have been in place had Jackson’s wait been shorter 20 months ago.
Take Kyler Murray with the Arizona Cardinals as the contrasting example. “And Kyler’s had a really good year,” Orlovsky says. “Like, really impressive year. But – there are buts, right? – their offensive line stinks. Their defense isn’t very good. They lack good players.”
His point: “Not a lot of teams have the infrastructure and the support system to try to replicate” what the Ravens are doing, much less the quarterback. The Cardinals could try to craft similar infrastructure around Murray. But by the time it’s in place, Murray’s treasured rookie contract would likely be running out. And as the former GM points out, calling hundreds of read options for a quarterback making $2.2 million – like Jackson – is much different than exposing a quarterback making $30 million to hit after hit.
With a dual-threat quarterback on a rookie deal, teams, the former GM says, can “strike while the iron is hot,” unbothered by long-term consequences. That’s exactly what the Ravens are doing, in every which way. They are Super Bowl favorites, and likely will be again next year if Jackson stays healthy.
But changing the game? To say they are would be to underestimate their comprehensive excellence, and undersell the talents of the 23-year-old QB at the helm.
“Everybody’s gonna be sitting around waiting to see what happens,” the former GM says. “And especially if they keep winning, there’s gonna be copycat teams that are looking for the next Lamar. And, good luck. You’ll be looking a long time. You’ll probably be looking for another job, too.”
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