How Lamar Jackson Will Change the NFL in the 2020s

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterJanuary 3, 2020

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) carries the ball during the second half of an NFL football game against the Buffalo Bills in Orchard Park, N.Y., Sunday, Dec. 8, 2019. (AP Photo/Adrian Kraus)
Adrian Kraus/Associated Press

The NFL has never seen anything quite like Lamar Jackson and the Ravens. But we nearly saw something just like them a decade ago, when Michael Vick became the starting quarterback of the Philadelphia Eagles

"When we signed Vick, the vision was somewhat similar to what the Ravens are doing," former Eagles president Joe Banner told Bleacher Report. "Andy [Reid] had a vision that you could merge college spread concepts with NFL West Coast concepts and create a hybrid in which you got the best of both worlds."

Ultimately, Reid merely added some read-option fins and spoilers to his West Coast offense power train. But it worked: Vick led the Eagles to the playoffs while earning a Pro Bowl berth and Comeback Player of the Year honors.

Vick's success ushered in a decade of tinkering and experimenting with the read-option and other designed quarterback running strategies. Coaches around the NFL spent the 2010s embracing, and then nearly rejecting, new tactics designed to get the most from mobile quarterbacks from Vick to Cam Newton to Robert Griffin III to Colin Kaepernick.

Just when the NFL looked eager to write off the read-option as a fad, along came Jackson. You know the story here: Instead of simply dabbling or creating some "package" of quarterback runs, the Ravens rebuilt their entire roster, playbook and identity to make the most of Jackson's talents, and he rewarded them with 36 passing touchdowns, a 113.3 passer rating, 1,206 rushing yards, home-field advantage throughout the playoffs and an all-but-certain MVP award.

Success like Jackson's always spawns copycats in the NFL. The 2010s were the decade of the read-option in many ways. But the 2020s promise to be a new era of innovation and opportunities for dual-threat quarterbacks. Jackson's success is about to open minds and open doors.

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"People are going to view that there are two paths as opposed to one path to winning big in the NFL," Banner said.

"The Ravens have expanded the narrative," a former AFC general manager told Bleacher Report, speaking on condition of anonymity because of his current position in the industry. "Teams will perform their quarterback analysis through a wider lens. There's no doubt that he has he has changed the discussion."

Ron Schwane/Associated Press

           

The Option Decade

There has always been a place for "mobile" quarterbacks in the NFL. Vick had success in the 2000s, Steve Young in the 1990s, Randall Cunningham in the 1980s, Fran Tarkenton in the 1960s and '70s. There were also some experiments and one-hit wonders throughout the decades: Bobby Douglass, Kordell Stewart, Vince Young and others. And dozens of successful quarterbacks from Roger Staubach through John Elway to Donovan McNabb started their careers as daring scramblers before settling in to the pocket.

For most of modern NFL history, running was something a great quarterback grew out of as he matured. Coaches feared that designed quarterback runs (other than the occasional one-yard sneak or goal-line bootleg), per conventional wisdom, would only lead to fumbles and injuries. Meanwhile, college football became dominated by wide-open, option-heavy offensive systems by the mid-2000s. Top college quarterbacks won bowl games and awards by both passing and running the football, only to be forced to abandon half of what made them special the moment they turned pro. 

NFL attitudes about running quarterbacks began to change after the Dolphins enjoyed success with the Wildcat in 2008. That fad faded quickly, but coaches realized that the quarterback himself (as opposed to a moonlighting running back) could surprise the defense with the occasional read-option without immediately shredding both of his ACLs.

Starting with Vick's comeback season in 2010, the humble read-option would launch the careers of both superstars and brief sensations, propel teams to playoff victories and the Super Bowl, and intersect with some of the biggest controversies of the decade.

Here's a brief refresher course:

  • April 28, 2011: The Panthers make spread-option quarterback Cam Newton the first overall pick, even though questions about Newton's maturity, character, accuracy and intelligence swirled for months prior to the draft. 
  • November 2011 to January 8, 2011: Tebowmania reaches its zenith, culminating with a 29-23 Broncos overtime playoff victory against the Steelers
  • August 26, 2012: Third-round draft pick Russell Wilson, an undersized scrambler who lingered on the draft board until after the statuesque Brandon Weeden and Brock Osweiler were selected, takes the Seahawks' opening-day starting job from veteran Matt Flynn.
  • September 9, 2012: Griffin, the second overall pick in that year's draft, throws for 320 yards and two touchdowns while rushing for 42 yards in an option-flavored scheme. Griffin becomes an instant sensation in Washington.
  • January 6, 2013: Griffin tears his ACL on a chewed-up field in a playoff loss to the Seahawks. Thanks to a "superhuman" (in Dr. James Andrews' words) rehabilitation effort, he would return in time to start on opening day the following September. 
  • January 12, 2013: Kaepernick throws for 263 yards and two touchdowns and rushes for 181 yards and two more touchdowns as the 49ers crush the Packers 45-31 in the divisional round of the playoffs. A few weeks later, Packers coach Mike McCarthy sends his defensive staff to Texas A&M for a tutorial from college coaches on how to defend the read-option. 
  • January 16, 2013: Eagles hire Chip Kelly to bring a no-huddle, option-friendly offense to the NFL.
  • February 2, 2014: Having defeated Kaepernick's 49ers in the NFC Championship Game, Wilson and the Seahawks crush Peyton Manning and the Broncos 43-8 in the Super Bowl. This was the high-water mark in the history of the modern mobile quarterback before the start of the 2019 season. 
  • August 31, 2015: Griffin was officially benched by Washington in favor of Kirk Cousins for its season opener. Griffin was never the same after his "superhuman" rush to return from injury.
  • September 5, 2015: Eagles release Tebow after failed stints with the Jets and Patriots, marking the end of his NFL career. 
  • December 29, 2015: Eagles fire Kelly. After an impressive inaugural season, his system (and personnel style) proved ill-suited to the NFL.
  • February 6, 2016: Newton named NFL MVP after leading the Panthers to a 15-1 record and the Super Bowl. Newton threw 35 touchdown passes while rushing for 636 yards and 10 touchdowns in the regular season.
  • February 7, 2016: The Broncos defeat the Panthers 24-10 in the Super Bowl. A frustrated Newton storms off from his postgame press conference
  • August 26, 2016: Kaepernick begins his social justice protest during the national anthem. Being a dual-threat quarterback suddenly has a sociopolitical component, though you never had to read too carefully between the lines—questions about Newton's intelligence and character, Tebow's instantaneous megastardom, the Griffin-Cousins dynamic, decades of general NFL skepticism about mobile (predominantly black) quarterbacks—to realize it always did.

A read-option backlash set in after the 2016 season. The Bears signed lead-footed backup Mike Glennon—the polar opposite of a mobile quarterback—to a three-year, $44 million contract to be their starter in March 2017, as if to signal the end of the era. Albert Breer's Sports Illustrated feature "The Decline of the Read Option Offense," a near-obituary for the mobile quarterback era, appears in September, just before the start of the season.

Breer's sources sounded almost gleeful in their condemnation of quarterbacks who dared to leave the pocket. But with Griffin out of football for a year at that point, Tebow playing minor league baseball, Newton coming off a humbling Super Bowl, Wilson gradually becoming a more traditional passer and Kaepernick entering his political exile, their skepticism was justified.

Reports of the read-option's death turned out to be greatly exaggerated. Jackson had just won the Heisman Trophy and would soon enter a quarterback-rich draft class. General manager-turned-ESPN analyst Bill Polian wrote Jackson off as "short," "slight" and "clearly not the thrower the other guys are." NFL teams reportedly wanted Jackson to work out as a receiver at the 2018 scouting combine. But on April 26, 2018, the Ravens made him the final pick of the first round, despite questions notably similar to the ones that haunted Newton in 2011. 

The rest isn't history. It's current events.

          

Evolution as Revolution

There's little doubt that teams around the NFL will try to copy some components of the Ravens' success. 

Baltimore offensive coordinator Greg Roman and his lieutenants will be lured away to other teams over the next few days or years. College coaches with option-friendly systems like Urban Meyer are likely to get NFL offers. And when prospects like Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa, who can both throw and run, are labeled the "next Lamar Jackson" in the years to come, it won't mean that they are due for a career change to wide receiver.

But that doesn't mean we are going to see 31 Ravens impersonators led by Jackson cosplayers come next September. "I don't think it's going to take over the league," Banner said. "Will there be five or six teams? That may be a little high."

"It's going to happen on a case-by-case basis," a former team executive said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he didn't want to go public with his perspective. "It's hard to put a number on it. I would have to reverse-engineer it and see who the head coach and GM are. It's more of the mindsets of the people who are running the teams."

Doing what the Ravens did this year takes much more than simply drafting a fast college quarterback and drawing up some options for him. Jackson is a rare talent, on par with Vick or the pre-injury Griffin. And his development into a consistent pure passer is what makes the Ravens offense so successful: Take that away, and Baltimore would be running some Tebow-esque gimmick that opponents could quickly figure out. (See last year, when the still-developing Jackson was stymied in the playoffs).

Michael Vick and Robert Griffin III.
Michael Vick and Robert Griffin III.Mel Evans/Associated Press

Even if a team finds a Jackson-caliber talent and develops him properly, it takes organization-wide buy-in to replicate the Ravens' success. The personnel and scouting departments must commit to prioritizing tight ends over receivers and athletic offensive linemen over widebodies. Assistant coaches must adjust their offseason drills to perfect subtleties like the option mesh. Even the cap guru must be on board, say, to offer a tight end like Nick Boyle and extension when two other quality tight ends are already on the payroll.

That sort of organization-wide paradigm shift can be hard to accomplish. "The NFL is so slow to change," Banner said. "Coaches tend to be creatures of what they were trained to do and what they know."

Also, the fear still lingers around the league that a running quarterback is always just one hit away from a catastrophe. "When you see somebody like RG3 get hurt, that's what keeps you up at night," the former AFC general manager said. 

So we probably won't see a league dominated by Ravens imitators. But Jackson's success will still change the NFL in subtle ways, starting with a change of mindset. Evaluators in both the media and scouting departments will think twice about dismissing a dual-threat quarterback as someone who should move to wide receiver just because his footwork or comfort with playbook jargon needs work.

"I think it will change the way teams are evaluating and building," Banner said. "I still think we're overwhelmingly going to see what we've seen forever. But some talents will come along and make teams realize that there's not only one way to do this."

Banner and other experts also believe that some NFL teams will find a middle ground somewhere between remaining traditional and becoming full-fledged Ravens copycats. We may see some read-option packages like the ones that proliferated from 2011 to 2015, for example. Other teams might opt for a different brand of option-friendly offense: Kliff Kingsbury's Cardinals scheme, for example, looks nothing like what the Ravens ran this season, but it still helped rookie Kyler Murray enjoy some success as a runner and thrower. 

And Reid's old experiment to mix the West Coast offense with college spread tactics is alive and well in Kansas City. Patrick Mahomes runs the occasional zone read in the wide-open Chiefs attack and could run more if he also didn't happen to be the NFL's most gifted young passer. As Reid's proteges continue to get head coaching jobs, they will bring with them schemes that provide a welcoming environment for the type of college quarterback the NFL used to reject.

Jackson's success is the continuation of an evolution that began at the dawn of the 2010s with Vick, Kaepernick and the others. It points the league forward to a new era of innovation and acceptance after the premature, reactionary grave-dancing over the read-option era in 2017 and 2018. According to the former AFC general manager, this revolution could even morph into something the NFL hasn't seen since the days of leather helmets.

"What happens if Baltimore drafts Jalen Hurts? Is that what we will be looking at in 10 years? Are we going to have two people in the backfield who can throw it? Can you imagine what could be done with that?"

Yes, we can imagine it. And frankly, we cannot wait for it.

         

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