Lamar Jackson is almost certain to walk across the stage at the NFL Honors program in Miami Feb. 1 having been named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player, becoming the second-youngest player in the league to do so.
Considered a long-shot for the award before the season began, there are at least 4,000 reasons Jackson is now the prohibitive favorite to win when the award is announced at the league’s annual awards show on the eve of the Super Bowl.
Jackson became the first player in NFL history to record at least 3,000 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards in the same season, he led the league with 36 touchdown passes and he broke Michael Vick’s NFL record for rushing yards in a single season by a quarterback.
In his second NFL season and first as a full-time starter, Jackson, 23, led the Ravens to a 14-2 record and the AFC’s No. 1 overall seeding for the first time in their franchise history, and operated an offense that set an all-time NFL record for rushing yards (3,296).
It’s hard to simplify Jackson’s accomplishments in a short list given the litany of broken team and league records he left in his wake, but here, in ascending order, are five plays that helped define Jackson’s season:
5. The juke(s).
One thing quickly became apparent this season: If you were a defender and found yourself one-on-one against Jackson in open space, he was going to make you look foolish. Time and again, defenders were left flailing away at nothing as they dove inside because of a quick juke by Jackson, or because they lunged to the outside to beat Jackson to the edge, only to see him stop on a dime and reverse course while they overran or slid past him.
One of his best one-on-one jukes came against the Buffalo Bills on what proved to be an otherwise uneventful 8-yard gain. After Jackson faked a handoff to Gus Edwards, Bills outside linebacker Matt Milano thought he had Jackson lined up for the hit.
Jackson gave a quick fake as if he were going to run inside, and that sent Milano lunging to his right. Except Jackson then quickly broke to the outside, leaving Milano stumbling and grasping at air as he literally fell to his knees.
When it comes to being made to look foolish by Jackson, at least Milano knows he had company this year.
4. The throw.
In the season opener, Jackson torched the Miami Dolphins for five touchdowns in a 59-10 rout, becoming the first player in Ravens history with a perfect passer rating of 158.3. But perhaps his best throw of the season came the next week, with the Ravens trying to hold off the pesky Arizona Cardinals in the home opener.
With the Ravens leading, 23-17, with 3:05 left in the game, they faced third-and-11 at their 44-yard line. They could have run the ball, chewed up clock and punted, putting the game back in the hands of their defense. Instead, Jackson dropped back and dropped a strike down the right sideline into the arms of a well-covered Marquise Brown for 41 yards. From there the Ravens salted the game away.
Given that at this point early in the season, many were still questioning Jackson’s passing acumen, the play call showed tremendous trust in Jackson, and as he did time after time all season, he validated that trust.
3. The record.
Jackson carried 176 times this season, but his 5-yard gain against the New York Jets in Week 15 was one of the most significant. With that run, Jackson broke Michael Vick’s NFL record for rushing yardage in a season by a quarterback, which had stood at 1,039 yards.
Jackson had three 100-yard rushing games in the first seven weeks, so it quickly became apparent that Vick’s 13-year-old record was in grave danger. Jackson finished with 1,206 rushing yards and five 100-yard rushing games, another NFL record for a quarterback, and he didn’t even play in the regular-season finale because the Ravens had already wrapped up the AFC’s No. 1 seeding.
There was much concern that Jackson would be subject to injury as a runner, and the hit he took from the Jets’ Neville Hewitt on the record-setting run was one of the biggest hits Jackson took all season. But the biggest hit he took all year, and led him to sit out practice, didn’t come on a run. It came when Buffalo rusher Jerry Hughes hammered Jackson in the pocket as he delivered a pass to Hayden Hurst. The play, incidentally, went for a 61-yard touchdown.
2. The quote.
In Week 7, The Ravens faced fourth-and-2 at the Seattle 8-yard line after Jackson had been tackled after a 13-yard gain on third-and-15. Jackson had already come off the field when head coach John Harbaugh asked him if they should go for the first down.
“Hell yeah, Coach!” an excited Jackson replied. “Let’s go for it!”
The Ravens put in a jumbo package featuring all three of their tight ends, plus fullback Patrick Ricard, plus reserve offensive lineman James Hurst. Slashing through a huge hole on the right side opened by Marshal Yanda, Bradley Bozeman, Nick Boyle and Hurst, Jackson not only got the first down but scored an 8-yard touchdown, giving the Ravens the lead for good in what proved to be a 30-16 win.
That signature road win suggested this team was headed to much more success.
“He was very confident that he wanted to do it,” Harbaugh said the next day. “Marshal really wanted to do it. Hey, I believe in those guys. I really do. I trust them.”
1. The spin move.
As long as Jackson plays in the NFL, and well after he’s done playing, Jackson’s 47-yard touchdown run against the Cincinnati Bengals will be Exhibit A for his next-level playmaking ability.
The Ravens faced second-and-3 from the Bengals 47-yard line when Jackson faked a handoff to Mark Ingram and kept the ball himself, running left through a hole opened by a good blocks from tight end Nick Boyle and tackle Ronnie Stanley.
But the real fun happened when Jackson got a full head of steam in the open field. He juked safety Jessie Bates, then had linebacker Nick Vigil bearing down on him from the right. Jackson hesitated slightly and performed a spin move that left Vigil flailing and four Bengals practically crashing into one another as Jackson sped toward the end zone.
“Oh! He broke his ankles!” an excited CBS announcer Kevin Harlan proclaimed. “Now he’s got an entourage! And he’s got a touchdown! He is Houdini! What a play!”
After the game, Harbaugh said, “They’ll be watching that run for decades and decades.”
It’s definitely worth another look.
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox