Location. Location. Location.
Real estate’s most enduring axiom is easily transferable to quarterbacks, as well. The right environment can often times make or break a quarterback, and a lot goes in to that. Coaching, offensive line, consistency in messaging, weapons around him… all of these elements factor in when discussing a quarterback’s “environment.” And all are significant.
Think of the parade of signal callers who destructed at “the place where quarterbacks go to die” in Cleveland in their, let’s say, less-than-competent decades. It’s just mathematically improbable that each and every one of those young quarterbacks was a steaming pile of Boller, as opposed to embracing the concept that general organizational dysfunction played a large role in their undoing. Or consider David Carr, who probably still has yard marks embedded in his back from the brutal beatings he took as a young quarterback in Houston.
On the flip side, organizations like San Francisco and Green Bay drafted, developed and molded stars like Joe Montana, Steve Young, Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers through stable and creative coaching, good supporting casts and a general structure that allowed them to prosper. Kansas City took a patient approach and outstanding veteran coaching to groom Patrick Mahomes, and the Bills have done exemplary work with Josh Allen. And, yes, the aforementioned Browns have seemingly learned from the Groundhog Day-like mistakes of their quarterback-developing past and done all they can to put in a winning formula around Baker Mayfield.
So, let’s talk about the Ravens and Lamar Jackson.
Stuck in The Mud Before Taking a Swing
For years, the Baltimore Ravens have resembled longtime roster-builder Ozzie Newsome and head coach John Harbaugh. They wanted fighters on their team who were physical, unafraid of a challenge and right out of central casting from a grainy 8 mm football instructional film shot on a patchy field in southern Idaho. And they won a lot of games that way. A lot of games.
Quarterback Joe Flacco personified that. The tall, strong quarterback with the big arm was seemingly built to do battle in the rough-and-tumble AFC North, and, as a fan, you suffered along with a few clunkers a year from him because you just knew in your heart he would show up in the big games when needed the most. He was Joe. Who doesn’t like a guy named Joe who would go toe to toe with Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger without blinking?
The Ravens did a great job of sustaining excellence with their defense and special teams over the years, and that kept them in games so Flacco really only had to convert some big third downs and net a big play or two from a bomb or pass-interference flag that they would win more games than they lost. Consistently.
But that defense got older and lost some of its bite. Flacco got banged up a bit and lost a little bit of his underrated mobility, and guys like Anquan Boldin, Torrey Smith and Ray Rice left town. The team probably won more games there for a few years than their talent said they should have, and they fell into that dreaded space of mediocrity in the NFL that prevents you from being a contender and accumulating the high-end draft picks needed to facilitate a fast turnaround. They needed to continue down this floundering road, or take a chance, believe in that chance and throw every bit of energy they had into making it work.
Fortune fell the Ravens’ way in the 2018 draft, and Jackson fell to them at the end of the first round, as the Ravens traded up to nab him. They slowly (and often a bit clunkily) incorporated him into their offense that rookie season before he eventually took over for Flacco with the team sitting at 4-5 and on a collision course with another year of mediocrity. The team responded and won six of their last seven games, with the only loss coming in a spectacular overtime tilt against Mahomes and the Chiefs.
And then, well, the Chargers shut down the Ravens running game in the playoffs, the offense never found a different plan and the team went out with a whimper. The national narrative was that the Chargers solved the league’s Lamar Jackson problem, and it was a fun ride while it lasted.
The Ravens decided to close their eyes and jump into the Lamar Jackson era going into the 2019 season. Greg Roman — the architect behind the best seasons of mobile quarterbacks Tyrod Taylor and Colin Kaepernick — was elevated to offensive coordinator. Speedy receiver Marquise Brown was drafted in the first round, combine freak Miles Boykin in the third round and veteran Mark Ingram was brought in to be the lead dog in the running attack.
The team was going to make the rushing game the very best it could be to avoid being derailed again, and gave Jackson some big-play weapons who could strike quickly on play-action passes against drawn-in defenses. Harbaugh spoke of an offense unlike anything the league had seen before, caught some snickers from football pundits and there were persistent whispers about how hard Jackson had been working on his passing in the offseason.
The effort and commitment were being shown by all parties. How it would play out on the field was the question mark.
It went 14-2. It resulted in Jackson being named unanimous MVP. And it also ended in playoff heartbreak, as the Tennessee Titans dog-walked the Ravens out of their own stadium with their collective tail between their legs.
Jackson produced more than 500 yards of offense that dreadful night, but also was victimized by some drops and turnovers, and a defense that was skull-dragged by Tennessee’s Derrick Henry. They also seemed horribly out of rhythm once their own run game got controlled.
Plug and Build
The Ravens have never liked being run on, and their history shows that to be true. They reacted to what the Titans did to them by adding Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe to their defensive front, and drafting Patrick Queen to be that sideline-to-sideline Tasmanian Devil behind them.
A strange offseason — for every team in the NFL, not just the Ravens — impacted work, and the team never seemed to really find its groove. They finished the season on a good run, defeated the Titans on the road in a playoff rematch and then got stymied by the Bills in the Divisional Round. Again, the offense lost traction when the run game got stuffed. Again, the offense floundered and another season came crashing down around them.
For Jackson, there were some nice signs with his passing, particularly towards the end of the season, but he was never in that MVP discussion. It happens. Roman faced a ton of chatter regarding his inability to adapt the offense to what good defenses were able to do to them, and injuries to Ronnie Stanley and Nick Boyle probably helped slow down the offense, as well.
Bold New Additions
The Ravens made a concentrated effort to rebuild their passing offense this past offseason, drafting Rashod Bateman in the first round, signing free agent Sammy Watkins and adding coaches Keith Williams and Tee Martin to help with the schematic and coaching-up part of that element of the offense. It became obvious in training camp, particularly when Jackson returned from a second bout with Covid, that the emphasis was going to be on throwing the ball downfield, generating offense through the air, and getting those safeties out of the box.
While people were clamoring for the Ravens, and Jackson, to improve his throws to the sideline, the Ravens were thinking bigger picture. They didn’t just want to improve what they were doing to go further in the playoffs. No, they wanted to punish teams who sold out against their historic run game. They wanted to force the action themselves.
And it is playing right into Jackson’s strengths.
The part of Jackson’s game that strikes fear in the heart of opposing defenses is his big-play ability. Yes, the Ravens can grind you to death with physical running and a controlled passing game featuring tight ends and “scramble-drill” passes to Marquise Brown and Boykin. But what makes Jackson, well, Jackson, is his ability to absolutely light you up from any part of the field.
Defenses have become hesitant in sending too many pass-rushers after Jackson because of his rare ability to slip past them and find green grass in their wake. Now he is using that time from tepid defenses to allow his receiving weapons to work free and create explosive plays. If the Ravens, and Jackson, can continue to do this, teams are going to have to adjust their game plans, opening up the Ravens run game to take advantage.
Since he was hired, Harbaugh has talked about his desire to build a team that can beat you any way there is to beat a team. By drafting a superior talent in Jackson, adding weapons and coaches to help his growth, while identifying his strengths, the Ravens might be doing just that. The team has been beaten down by injuries this year, but are currently riding a three-game winning streak and have beaten teams offensively through the air and on the ground. The organization has shown it is all-in for Jackson, and the star quarterback is showing that he is worth the effort.
Have all the moves to help Jackson worked? No. Frankly, that’s the nature of the beast. But Eric DeCosta has continued to stockpile the receiving room with talented bodies, hoping to get the right guys in there, and the coaching staff has identified and highlighted Jackson’s strengths.
That’s about all you can do, and it shows once again that the Ravens are an organization dedicated to winning, and giving their players the best opportunity to compete each and every week.