Plan to Make Lamar Jackson a Gimmick QB Sure to Fail Ravens, and Jackson Too

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterJune 14, 2018

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco (5) watches quarterback Lamar Jackson throw a pass during an NFL football organized team activity at the team's headquarters in Owings Mills, Md., Thursday, May 31, 2018. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

The Baltimore Ravens are apparently tinkering with some sort of two-quarterback, Joe Flacco-and-Lamar Jackson-on-the-same-field, Wildcat-option-gadget-wrinkle-trickeration package for this season.

Sounds exciting! It will baffle some opponents. It will get Jackson on the field quickly. It will make the Ravens offense more interesting, though showing commercials instead of the game would also make the Ravens offense more interesting.

It's also a terrible mistake. A specialized Jackson package likely will trade a few highlights for clubhouse discord and a wasted opportunity for the rookie to quickly develop into Flacco's not-too-eventual replacement. It could even slap Jackson with a label the Ravens' first-round pick may never be able to peel off.

John Harbaugh and his offensive assistants have a long history with package quarterback experiments. So they should know better. Unfortunately, many of their past mistakes have been retconned into successes, making the Ravens eager to try again.

Ravens offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg was former Philadelphia coach Andy Reid's assistant in 2009, when the Eagles signed Michael Vick. Fresh from prison and two years removed from the NFL, Vick was used strictly as a trick-play specialist behind Donovan McNabb that year. He then reached the Pro Bowl and earned the Comeback Player of the Year award after McNabb was traded in 2010.

So everyone lived happily ever after, and the Vick package experiment was a great idea, right?

Wrong. The Eagles had groomed Kevin Kolb, not Vick, as McNabb's replacement. Had Kolb not gotten injured in the 2010 season opener, the Eagles likely would have noodled with him as their starter all year. Vick's comeback story happened almost by accident.

Eagles starting QB Kevin Kolb, with backup Michael Vick, in the 2010 offseason.
Eagles starting QB Kevin Kolb, with backup Michael Vick, in the 2010 offseason.Matt Slocum/Associated Press

That's one of the biggest problems with the package role. It's sticky. Once NFL coaches see a package quarterback, they have a hard time seeing a "real" quarterback, even if Vick is the package guy and someone like Kolb is the traditional guy.

Mornhinweg and Vick reunited with the Jets in 2014, when Vick became a package quarterback behind Geno Smith. Vick typically entered the game for just one play, where he rushed for a few yards, threw an incomplete pass or took a sack. It did nothing for the Jets offense or Smith's forever-battered confidence.

McNabb ripped the Vick Wildcat wrinkle from the broadcast booth that year. "In the situation now, I think it takes away from what Geno Smith can do," he told Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News. "It's a maturity process for him to try to develop into an NFL quarterback. Now you're taking him off the field or splitting him wide to bring in a 34-year-old quarterback?"

Replace the 34-year-old Vick with 33-year-old Flacco and the same complaint can be leveled at the Ravens' plans. A rookie quarterback's practice reps are precious. Jackson needs as much work as possible on his footwork and delivery, not to mention dozens of other adjustments and ramp-ups from college to the NFL. Learning how to run receiver routes or concentrating on some single-wing tomfoolery will just take away from that development.

The Jets had a package-quarterback history when Mornhinweg arrived. Rex Ryan loved the concept, so he united Wildcat guru Tony Sparano with a fellow named Tim Tebow in 2012.

Tebow often entered the game just as Mark Sanchez looked like he was establishing some rhythm so the Jets could run some halfhearted option. The forced cameos became drive-killers and momentum-busters. By November, Sanchez was in butt fumble territory, and Tebow was behind someone named Greg McElroy on the real quarterback depth chart.

So add "disrupting the timing of the offense" to the list of package-quarterback problems; if you thought the Ravens offense was flat soda when it was in sync, imagine how it will taste when various quarterbacks are shuttling on and off the field.

And whatever you thought of Tebowmania in 2011, his NFL career didn't really derail until he went from being a wobble-armed starter for the Broncos to a guy who spent half of training camp practicing goal-line gimmicks and fake punts for the Jets.

The early 2000s were a simpler time.
The early 2000s were a simpler time.Julio Cortez/Associated Press

Ryan brought his love of the Wildcat to Buffalo with him, where he hired read-option architect Greg Roman—now the assistant head coach of the Ravens—as offensive coordinator and plucked Tyrod Taylor off the Ravens bench. When Taylor won the starting job in 2015, it didn't mean the end of package experiments: The Ryan-Roman Bills loved to trot EJ Manuel onto the field for isolated gadget plays. The tactic is not well remembered by history, largely because it involved EJ Manuel.

Taylor became a capable starter but caused Bills decision-makers to start mentally short-circuiting the moment Ryan was gone, and there is not yet any conclusive evidence they have stopped. (See: Bills minicamp reports). To restate: Once some NFL types see a package quarterback, that's all they see.

Taylor initially caught Ryan's eye because he was a package quarterback under Flacco for four years in Baltimore; Harbaugh has been fiddling with two-quarterback concepts since Flacco caught a bomb from Troy Smith as a rookie.

Running the same concept back this year won't be an easy sell. Flacco has never been a fan of sharing quarterback chores. Jackson, who has dealt with a "switch to receiver" controversy since the draft run-up, is also on the record as wanting to just be a plain old quarterback. McNabb still sounded pretty raw about his Wildcat experience five years later in the conversation quoted above.

That's one more problem with package quarterbacks: No one likes the arrangement. And the last thing the Ravens need is one more reason for the Flacco-Jackson arrangement to be chilly.

Before working with Ryan in Buffalo, Roman put the read-option on the NFL map as Jim Harbaugh's coordinator when he began using Colin Kaepernick as a package quarterback in relief of Alex Smith in 2012. Kaepernick led the 49ers to the Super Bowl and a narrow defeat at the hands of the Ravens that season. Another unqualified package-wrinkle success story, right?

Colin Kaepernick has yet to shed the "package quarterback" label he acquired in subbing in for Alex Smith in 2012.
Colin Kaepernick has yet to shed the "package quarterback" label he acquired in subbing in for Alex Smith in 2012.Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Except that Kap's career as a package quarterback lasted just nine games in 2012 before Smith suffered a concussion and Kap took over as the full-time starter. As with Vick, Kaepernick's real success only came when he was a real quarterback, which only happened because a starter got injured. And like other package quarterbacks, Kap is still viewed as some sort of gadget player; some folks may be using that perception as cover for something more sinister now, but that only works because the perception is so easy to accept.

You may have noticed that names like Ryan and Harbaugh keep popping up in our tale like this is some old William Faulkner novel. Well, the granddaddy of all package quarterbacks, Randall Cunningham, played for Rex Ryan's daddy in the 1980s.

Cunningham started his career as a third-down specialist, enduring 72 sacks as Buddy Ryan used him as Ron Jaworski's stunt double in 1986. Cunningham went on to be more of a folk hero than a great quarterback; he succeeded despite Ryan's negligence of his development, not because of it, and his career established the "athlete playing quarterback" template that has hounded his successors.

Kaepernick. Vick. Tebow. Cunningham. Package quarterbacks are the guys who get "othered," the guys with the stigmas and asterisks next to their names.

Sure, some of it is sociopolitical or (in Vick's case) self-inflicted, but the sociopolitical stuff has a way of finding these guys, just as Jackson was the only major quarterback prospect this season forced to justify the title of quarterback prospect.

It's no coincidence that most package quarterbacks are African American; "package" strategies take all of the preconceptions and prejudices about black quarterbacks and circle them in thick Magic Marker. White quarterbacks are far less likely to get caught in the dragnet, because Alex Smith/Andrew Luck/Ryan Tannehill types are rarely asked to learn some wide receiver as rookies to take advantage of their athleticism.

So let's not pretend that Jackson's quarterback career will be helped if he catches a touchdown pass or runs a few options off the bench. It will just reinforce the perception that Flacco is one thing and Jackson is another, and that Flacco's thing is the one the NFL really covets.

Jackson deserves the same chance every other rookie quarterback is getting: the chance to compete for a starting job, not take part in a sideshow. Even if that means sitting on the bench like every other rookie quarterback waiting his turn instead of playing a few snaps that won't serve anyone well.


Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.


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