Could Lamar Jackson Have Mahomes-Like Breakout? Ravens Are Trying to Find outJune 18, 2019
OWINGS MILLS, Md. — If this year's minicamp is any indication, the Lamar Jackson the Ravens are getting this fall looks a lot better than the one they had in training camp last year.
Jackson didn't look phenomenal, mind you. There's a lot of work to be done if he hopes to have a Patrick Mahomes-caliber second-season breakout. There are still errant passes, routine throws with a Tim Tebow wobble instead of a tight spiral and more interceptions than anyone but a defensive coordinator wants to see in June. But Jackson looks and sounds sharper and more accurate, decisive and confident than he did last offseason.
Just as important, he looks comfortable in a newfangled offense that, according to Ravens coaches, has been completely rebuilt to suit Jackson's talents.
"We had to go back and look at everything from the ground up," new offensive coordinator Greg Roman said last week. "Look at where football is, where we are, the vision we have for ourselves and really start from square one: how we call everything, the terminology we use, how can we best utilize Lamar and the entire offense's ability.
"A real thorough housecleaning took place, starting in early January."
Head coach John Harbaugh echoed the start-from-scratch theme. "They don't change the iPhone, but they add another number on it, and they fix something," he said. "But we probably did that, from the offense, ground-up.
"We're probably doing iPhone 1 now. We have a whole new idea."
And what does Jackson like about this new smartphone of an offense?
"Everything," Jackson said Thursday. "Everything."
It's hard to get a feel for what an offense will look like while watching spring practices in shorts. But the Ravens appear to be doing many non-traditional things on a fundamental level. It goes beyond the occasional read-option drill. The square-one, iPhone 1 Ravens offense will probably look a little like Roman's Colin Kaepernick-led 49ers offenses, a little like his Tyrod Taylor-led Bills offense, a little like what Jackson ran for the Ravens in December and a little like something totally new.
It will also sound different. As part of his housecleaning, Roman simplified much of the overcomplicated West Coast offense verbiage the Ravens used when Marty Mornhinweg was the offensive coordinator.
Roman feels that the streamlined language will be easier to teach and install in a modern era when players don't have years to master a system. Roman said it will also facilitate "quicker communication, the ability to play more quickly at the line of scrimmage."
The fact that the Ravens have three mobile quarterbacks in camp should also make the new option-flavored software easier to install. Jackson, Robert Griffin III and rookie Trace McSorley can all run, so the Ravens don't have to shift gears and schemes when they change quarterbacks.
Terminology that doesn't date back to the days of Bill Walsh? Backup quarterbacks with the same general skill set as the starter? An offense that embraces mobility instead of slapping an option "package" atop a conventional offense like a spoiler on a family sedan? The Ravens may finally be the NFL team that has figured out how to maximize the potential of a multidimensional quarterback like Jackson.
It's all a far cry from last year, when Joe Flacco was the established Ravens starter and Jackson mixed backup reps with cameo roles as a wide receiver and Wildcat, both in camp and in the first few months of the regular season. Jackson was still a gadget quarterback when he replaced an injured Flacco in November, running the ball 26 times and throwing just 19 passes in his first start, then often scrambling before the first sign of peril in subsequent starts.
The late-season Jackson experiment was fun to watch and yielded some impressive short-term results: six late-season victories and a playoff berth. But there's no way that the Ravens want Jackson running the ball as often as Ezekiel Elliott, and limiting Jackson to a package role last season likely slowed his development.
As I reported in August, Jackson sometimes clanged routine passes off the girders in the Ravens practice facility in his rookie training camp. He was adjusting to new footwork, a new delivery, the ancient Sanskrit of West Coast offense verbiage and a scheme designed for one of the league's most stationary pocket passers. Oh, and playing some slot receiver as a side hustle.
No wonder Jackson lacked both refinement and confidence when he took over as the starter.
"There were games when I wasn't in command," Jackson told Jarrett Bell of USA Today. "I'd come in last year kind of nervous, because there are grown men looking at you, depending on you to help them feed their family.
"Now I'm a lot more comfortable just saying different things on different plays to let my guys know where they need to be."
Offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley is one of several veterans who noted the difference in minicamp, saying that Jackson now communicates more clearly in the huddle and knows "what he wants from his players and what he wants to see out of each play. And if things don't look right, he's going to fix it."
Most quarterbacks gain greater command of the huddle and the offense in their second seasons; those who don't never get a third season. What's unique in Baltimore is just how far Ravens coaches are going to meet Jackson by incorporating his strengths into the team's core philosophy.
Most of the option concepts you see on NFL Sundays are still spot-welded onto old-fashioned offenses, which is why they are often as well-executed as the sushi at a pizza parlor. Even mobile veterans like Russell Wilson and Cam Newton get shackled to the oldest of the old-school coordinators (Brian Schottenheimer and Norv Turner), who awkwardly shoehorn designed quarterback runs into systems designed for pocket passers. The NFL establishment swears that designed runs are just gimmicks and then makes sure that remains true by never committing fully to embracing them.
But the Ravens finally appear to be making quarterback mobility a fundamental principle of both their roster and playbook. That may not mean 25, or even 10, Lamar Jackson rushes per game. But it appears to mean that conventional running plays, play-action passes, the screen game, blocking concepts and even the terminology will be built around the quarterback as a potential running threat.
Jackson still has a lot of work to do. But the Ravens have finally figured out that the best way to get the most out of a quarterback like Jackson is to create a system where he can be himself, not some Troy Aikman impersonator spouting outdated gibberish in the huddle.
It's about time.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.