We’ve reached a point where it’s almost impossible to truly be surprised by Lamar Jackson.
It’s not because what the Ravens quarterback continues to do isn’t “surprising,” per se. It’s because we’re so used to him pulling off the impossible by now that it all feels so routine. There’s almost no run OR throw he can pull off at this point where my reaction wouldn’t be, “OK, wow, that’s incredible, but also … yeah, that’s about right.”
This dominant season has largely been lacking in true drama. There have been so few occasions when Jackson has been anything less than historically brilliant that every otherwise remarkable play feels like birthright. It takes absolutely nothing away from what this young man is accomplishing. In fact, it’s a testament to just how unbelievable it all is.
That’s why what happened in the Jets game Dec. 12 stood out so much to me. At a time when it is essentially impossible for me to truly be surprised by anything the soon-to-be NFL MVP does, he really surprised and wowed me in a prime-time showcase.
It wasn’t him breaking Michael Vick’s record for rushing yards in a season by a quarterback. That had been locked up weeks ago. It was merely a question of which rush would get him there. It wasn’t necessarily his five touchdown passes, either. I mean, we’ve seen him do that before. Twice.
No, what truly surprised me and impressed me was what happened after the Ravens had the game totally in hand, leading 35-7 going to the fourth quarter. It’s when he stopped REALLY trying.
Before we move forward, let’s move back. When Jackson put together a spectacular would-be touchdown run (it was called back due to penalty) during the preseason, it didn’t take me more than a second to react strongly. I wasn’t wowed by Jackson’s amazing athleticism; I was disappointed that the Ravens were allowing such a play in a situation as meaningless as a preseason football game.
While many of us have come to accept that downfield running isn’t that much greater of a threat than unprotected hits in the pocket, it’s that any unnecessary additional threat is senseless in the preseason because there is absolutely nothing to be gained.
Now we fast-forward back to “Thursday Night Football.” With the Ravens up by four touchdowns and only 15 minutes remaining, fans clamored for John Harbaugh to take Jackson out of the game, particularly after the quarterback had appeared on the injury report during the week because of a low hit in the Bills game Dec. 8.
But Harbaugh, of course, knew that 15 minutes is an eternity in the NFL. If we played out the same circumstance 100 times, these Ravens leading those Jets by four touchdowns at home with one quarter to play, there’s little chance New York would rally even once, but there is a nonzero chance of something bizarre happening.
Sometimes a defense playing on short rest suffers an inexplicable lapse. Sometimes a nearly flawless punt unit gives up a block and a free touchdown. Sometimes in coverage Anthony Levine has a ball glance off his leg ever so slightly before it is recovered by the kicking team, in fact SO slightly it can’t even be totally proven on replay and so the Ravens catch a break.
Sometimes those crazy things happen in the span of 15 minutes, and when combined with an inexperienced quarterback being on the field who is perhaps apt to make mistakes, a game that should have been a laugher somehow ends up being anything but. Harbaugh wasn’t going to open the door even slightly for that to unfold. He left Jackson in the game for a little while longer.
And in those moments, Jackson showed me something that truly surprised and wowed me. He showed me that despite being the ultimate competitor, he’s capable of knowing when to turn things down a notch. In that fourth quarter, Jackson didn’t take off running in the middle of the field. He didn’t extend plays trying to battle for an extra yard. He didn’t take on any contact. He ran plays, alternating handing the ball off and hitting open receivers in early reads. He took the risk out of his game. If yards weren’t there when he ran to perimeter, he simply went out of bounds. He truly understood that a 35-7 game in the fourth quarter wasn’t a time when he needed to be a hero. It was merely a time when the game needed to progress toward the final horn.
That’s a huge step forward for a young quarterback who is still learning the ins and outs of various NFL circumstances. And it could have an even bigger impact.
While NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo reported that if the Ravens have the No. 1 seed locked up before their Week 17 game against the Steelers then we can expect Robert Griffin III to start, there is still room for debate about what is best for a team gearing up for the postseason. The eternal “rest vs. rust” conversation is a worthy one, as Jackson in particular would play an AFC divisional round game after two full weeks without even going through the motions of NFL-level competition. Clearly, there is absolutely no reason to want to risk Jackson getting hurt in another meaningless game, though.
But what happened in the fourth quarter against the Jets sort of dispelled those fears for me. Jackson proved that he can be on the field and yet not be the hyper-competitive machine that has made him so great. There’s something between the “on” and “off” switch.
If the Ravens want to have him go with a sharp week of practice, they could potentially put him on the field for a couple of drives in Week 17, ask him to run the offense like he did in the fourth quarter against the Jets, mitigate risk and we won’t have to worry about hearing the word “rusty” unless we’re trying to figure out if he’s still in the Navy.
Or maybe Jackson is so good that he can beat the Steelers, Seahawks, Patriots, Texans, Rams, 49ers, Bills AND rust AND a playoff opponent.
I sure as hell wouldn’t be surprised.
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox