Lamar Jackson: The Future?

In the past six games, the Baltimore Ravens are 5-1, with their lone loss coming to the Kansas City Chiefs in Overtime at Arrowhead. The ten 4-5 Ravens looked like their season was all but lost, as they had a slate of games that would put them finishing at 8-8, if they were lucky. In a game where Joe Flacco didn’t throw for one touchdown against the Pittsburgh Steelers, ultimately ending up with a hip injury (a type of injury that has plagued the Ravens franchise for years), it looked as if all was lost for the Baltimore football club.

And then Lamar Jackson showed up. The complexion of this team changed. The old-school run first mentality that the Ravens had back in the day with Jamal Lewis or Ray Rice popped back up to the top and the defense that had been topping the league for the first half of the season just got even better. As described by many, this is a team doing everything the other 31 teams aren’t – run first, pass second. With stars like Patrick Mahomes, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Jared Goff lighting up the scoreboard through the air, the Ravens are ticking critical seconds off the clock by keeping it on the ground. An offense that was more than pass happy with Flacco had completely changed… and became one of the most dangerous threats to the heavy hitting teams in the NFL.

The offense in 2018, and truthfully since 2013, has been pass heavy under Joe Flacco. In 2016, he attempted an NFL record 672 passes that season, for 4,317 yards (the only time in his career he threw for over 4,000 yards), but in an offense built on screen passes and short throws. In comparison, his first six years with the Ravens, he averaged less than 33 throws per game in each season, averaging over a touchdown per game, and threw in a deep threat type of offense. For those years, he had receiving threats in Derrick Mason, Anquan Boldin, Torrey Smith, and Jacoby Jones; tough and targeted TEs in Todd Heap and Dennis Pitta; and a speedy and gritty running back in Ray Rice. These keys surrounded Flacco and let John Harbaugh run the offense that he wanted: old-school ground & pound football. The Ravens were a balanced team – an AFC North style team. But then in 2013 that all ended; injuries plagued the team just as much as off the field changes. The team lost many of its stars, lost its identity, and had to shift to a pass-first style in order to catch up with these other high-powered offenses that were bursting right through the aging Ravens defense. Rookies tried to fill the defensive holes, but none seemed ready to go at first asking, pushing their limits for years. The offense sputtered as Flacco was forced to throw far more than he should have, with few talented receivers around him and no TEs – he has been his best when he had a TE to throw to. It looked as if the Ravens were on a downward spiral.

Coming out of 2017, there didn’t look to be much hope for the Ravens, but crucial free agent pickups may have been the spark they needed. They added John Brown, Michael Crabtree, and Willie Snead to the receiving core – giving Flacco targets to throw to for the first time in a few years. They had health at the TE position and health in the defense. They had a wealth of defensive backs. Things looked up for the Ravens. They drafted Hayden Hurst with their first pick and then surprisingly went with a QB to end the first round.

2018 started with a perfect pre-season, going 5-0, and then a demolition of the Buffalo Bills to start the regular season. A loss to the Bengals in Cincinnati on Thursday night grounded the team, but they followed it up with wins against the Broncos and at the hated Pittsburgh Steelers. A loss to the newly revived Browns and then a shutout victory in Tennessee put the team at 4-2, and in a good spot to win the division at years end, or at the very least get a wildcard spot. Flacco was on pace for the most passing yards in a season for his career, averaging the lowest interceptions per game in years, and performing at a much higher rate than he did for the years after his Super Bowl title. But then three losses in a row heading into the bye week ended most of those hopes, as a shocking missed extra point by Justin Tucker ended their hopes against the Saints, the offense sputtered against the Panthers, and a late drive ended before it started against Pittsburgh.

The bye week came at the perfect time. Ravens fans spent the next two weeks looking back on what once was, all the success the Harbaugh-Flacco era had, and thinking who next year’s coach should be and is Lamar Jackson the future of the team. No one looked at the playoffs, let alone a division title; hope was all but lost. News broke of an injury to Joe Flacco that could very well put him out for the next game, the revenge game against the Bengals.

On November 18th, 2018 at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, Maryland, the Lamar Jackson era began. If you told me two years ago that he would be a starting QB in the NFL, I wouldn’t have believed you – and I still wouldn’t; he was near the bottom of my QB rankings entering the draft and looked as if he should have entered as a RB, like Christian McCaffrey. Instead, the Ravens switched everything up, running the ball 53 times in that game (as opposed to just 16 times a game earlier) and threw the ball just 19 times. The trend continued game after game, run first, pass second, stay ahead of the sticks. And it worked. The offense was revived with a defense to match.

Yet, what would have happened had this run-first offense been in place with Flacco? While arguably there would be less success on the ground, since Flacco is far from the most mobile QB in the NFL, what would having a passing option have done for this team? Maybe that would have changed the result of the Chiefs game? Maybe blown out teams? Maybe nothing? And while we look at this season and see the Ravens just one game away from the playoffs and a team no one wants to face right now, especially those in the now slipping AFC, is this the future formula for the Ravens, or does there need to be a true downfield passing option that needs to be added into this offense. No matter what, they look to keep winning games, with a defense that stumps offenses and an offense that controls the pace of the game – and until that fails, run, run, run.

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