Down 23-3 against the Los Angeles Chargers in his first playoff game Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens looked dead and buried. The rookie quarterback looked like he had not only hit the rookie wall, but was simultaneously throwing up bricks and running in quick drying cement.
Then something clicked, as Jackson mounted a furious comeback in the last six minutes, tossing two touchdowns to veteran wide-out Michael Crabtree.
The Ravens lost the game 23-17, but this was the day that the entire set of keys to Baltimore’s castle were formally handed to the former Heisman Trophy winner.
John Harbaugh had the option to bring on Super Bowl-winning quarterback Joe Flacco from the bench at pretty much any point in the second half of that game, but wisely he let Jackson finish what he started, and the two late scores soaked up the majority of the bitter taste in Ravens fans mouths as their season ended.
L-Jax as a rookie
Jackson had a pretty incredible rookie season considering he was used as a gimmick for the first half of the season. Between Week 1 and Week 8 he attempted 12 passes (completing 7) and ran for 139 yards on 28 carries, scoring one rushing and one passing touchdown over that span.
By Week 9 the Ravens were 4-5 and in a larger hole than the middle of the world’s largest Polo mint. Coach Harbaugh decided that, after the Week 10 bye, he would shake things up at signal-caller to try and rescue the season, and gave the 22-year-old Jackson his first NFL start.
L-Jax responded with an eye-popping performance on the ground – rushing for 126 yards on a majority of pre-determined rushing plays. His passing game was steady but in no way spectacular (13 of 19 150 yards 0td 1int), but the most important stat was notched, the win against the Bengals 24-21.
With the exception of a tough 3-point loss to the Chiefs, L-Jax led the Ravens to six wins in his seven starts, and secured Baltimore a very unlikely playoff spot.
Jackson finished the regular season with 1,201 passing yards and six touchdowns, but only three interceptions. Far more impressive was his ground total – 695 yards and five scores. Where his real Achilles heel was revealed was the fumbles. The vision of Jackson meant he was only sacked 16 times in his 7 starts, but 12 fumbles (four lost) is not going to install confidence.
Projected into a full season L-Jax is on target to produce around 2,500 passing yards and 1,270 rushing yards, the latter would blow away the all-time rushing yards by a quarterback in 16 games.
The top 5 rushing regular seasons by a quarterback:
1) Michael Vick – 1,039 yards (2006 Falcons – season record 7-9)
2) Bobby Douglass – 969 yards (1972 Bears – season record 4-9-1)
3) Randall Cunningham – 942 yards (1990 Eagles – season record 10-6, lost Wild Card game)
4) Michael Vick – 902 yards (2004 Falcons – season record 11-5, lost NFC Championship)
5) Russell Wilson – 849 yards (2014 Seahawks – season record 12-4, lost Super Bowl XLIX)
Interestingly the number six all-time performance is held by L-Jax’s current backup Robert Griffin III who ran for 815 yards in 2012 as a rookie.
Quarterbacks rushing over 900 yards in a season have won three playoff games in the Super Bowl era, so hardly a significant indication of success.
L-Jax arguably is the weakest (or is that unproven) passer amongst this group of dual-threat quarterbacks, but unlike Vick or Cunningham, his rushing is and will continue to be a fundamental part of the game-plan.
Any of you who have watched on YouTube the way L-Jax destroyed college opponents playing for Louisville will have had visions of RG3 or Vick, but questioned would this work at the NFL level.
His 4,132* rushing yards in college ranks 109 all-time for ALL players, including running backs, just 20 yards over Colin Kaepernick’s total, but sits well behind the record holder, former Navy passer Keenan Reynolds, who ran for 4,559* yards (*= including Bowl Games).
Reynolds had his #19 shirt retired by his alma mater, but unlike L-Jax who refused to be viewed as anything but a quarterback, he was worked out by three NFL teams as a wide receiver. Reynolds failed to make any impact as a pro.
Strangely enough Reynolds was drafted by the Ravens in 2016, but did not register a single regular season down, before bouncing around on two additional NFL practice squads. Reynolds is currently a Seahawks player, having signed a futures contract in January.
Projections for the 2019 Ravens
L-Jax now has a completely clear runway after the Ravens jettisoned 11-year starter Joe Flacco to the quarterback-needy Denver Broncos.
Having recently re-signed backup RG3 the Ravens have put L-Jax in an ideal environment to flourish. RG3 is the perfect mentor. He was projected to be a superstar with the Redskins, but injuries forced him to go from rookie sensation to eventual clipboard holder.
The Ravens have made one marquee defensive signing adding All-Pro safety Earl Thomas to counter some huge losses on the defensive side of the ball (CJ Mosely, Terrell Suggs, Eric Weddle).
The biggest fantasy impact signing has been former Saints superstar running Mark Ingram. Ingram has the potential to go over 1,200 rushing yards in 2019, with Gus Edwards and Kenneth Dixon backing him up.
Ingram’s age (29) is against him, but he is a red-zone monster and a vocal leader. L-Jax and Gus Edwards were a powerful pairing in 2018, so the upgrade to Ingram will make the Ravens run game hard to stop.
What the Ravens truly lack is quality at wide-receiver, and it does not take Mel Kiper to tell me the Ravens will be targeting this position both highly and often. They will likely pull a 2018 Packers type WR draft. The free agency signing of Seth Roberts is not the answer to this problem.
One position the Ravens do have both depth and quality is tight-end. They re-signed Nick Boyle, an excellent blocking back, and the class of 2018 Hayden Hurst and Mark Andrews will be critical to the development of L-Jax as a passer.
Andrews outperformed first rounder Hurst by a wide margin, snagging 34 balls for an impressive 16.2 yards a catch. With Hurst fully fit we could get to see a large amount of two tight-end sets.
So the rushing prowess of L-Jax is no longer a surprise, and judging by his performance against the Chargers in the playoffs he can be neutralized, but this was a high-caliber defense and not the standard of all the teams he will face.
L-Jax can not only break 1,000 yards rushing, but he can also obliterate the all-time record. If he averages 70 yards a game, that’s 1,120 yards. 75% to 80% of this yardage will be from planned rushes and the rest from improvisation on broken plays.
Where L-Jax needs to improve is pass accuracy and curing himself from fumbilitis (yes that is a word). If he gets over 3,000 in 2019 that will be enough to get the Ravens back in the playoffs, but not without someone breaking out at wide receiver. And that someone is likely not on the Ravens roster now.
by Lawrence Vos – @NFLFANINENGLAND