Guess who’s back? The Real Lamar Jackson and that is a scary thought for the AFC

He’s taken everyone’s best punch in 2020, he overcame Covid and, now, the Ravens quarterback has returned to MVP form. Here is how.

Most consumers of pro football surely view Lamar Jackson as certifiably solved because that’s how our football brains are wired.

It’s subconscious, even. We’ve seen this story before. We anticipate a fade to irrelevancy because the running quarterback has faded before.

Doubt was first planted that playoff night in Baltimore when the Tennessee Titans blistered the Ravens, 28-12, and Jackson’s inflated stat line didn’t tell the tale. Tennessee forced Jackson to pass the ball, raced to a big lead and Jackson could never catch up. Inside the visitor’s locker room, the Titans players celebrated like conquering heroes. They stopped the unstoppable. They solved Lamar. They broadcasted the blueprint on national TV. Music blared and players shouted and, once things started to wind down, I was able to catch the ultra-engaging Logan Ryan — then the slot corner for those Titans — in an honest moment. Ryan was as critical as any player could be toward a league MVP in saying the Titans essentially employed the “Engage Eight” defense we’ve all ran on Madden.

You know, the defense where you desperately load up the line of scrimmage and (easily) get burnt through the air.

That’s how much the Titans regarded Jackson as a passer.

Into 2020, that loss lingered. Lamar still wasn’t Lamar.

That utter domination of a year ago? Nonexistent. The team that won by an average margin of 19.2 points per game? Nothing came easy anymore.

Yet here we are, on Dec. 23, and Lamar Jackson is back.

He is his MVP self again. He is the scariest football player on the planet this side of Patrick Mahomes and that’s no knock on Josh Allen or Derrick Henry or Aaron Rodgers. All are talented, all have MVP cases to make. But out of freakin’ nowhere — as if shot out of a cannon — the ’19 version of Lamar Jackson, the version we also all declared was changing the game is tearing through NFL defenses once again. If the Ravens claw their way into the playoffs, they’ll have as good a shot as any team at dethroning the Chiefs.

Jackson will get that chance to counter your “Engage Eight” strategy again.

Our eyes have justifiably shifted to different storylines this season. Jackson is essentially what Mahomes was in 2019. Everyone forgot about Mahomes as Jackson threw for 3,127 yards, ran for 1,206 yards and scored 43 touchdowns because Mahomes missed 2 ½ games with a dislocated kneecap. Now, everyone seems to be sleeping on Jackson with Mahomes on an MVP tear. Jackson is the one who was hit hard by Covid-19, searched for his post-Titans counterpunch, saw the receiver he told Baltimore to draft (Marquise Brown) rip him publicly before, suddenly, peaking at the perfect time.

Just like Mahomes last year.

The man who knows Jackson best, his private QB coach Joshua Harris, sees a parallel.

“So hopefully,” Harris says, “Lamar wins the Super Bowl this year.”

If any player in the game can strip this sport down to its essence in January — blocking and tackling and backyard jukin’ — it’s Jackson. And when he does this, he is impossible to defend. Jackson just may flip everyone’s script on this 2020 NFL season. So, this week, Go Long caught up with Harris. Don’t call Jackson a mere weapon to him.

“You say ‘weapon.’ I say ‘ultimate weapon,’” Harris says. “His expectation is to do whatever it takes to win. And that’s just the type of guy he is. For him, it’s ‘Hey, if running will help us win then I’ll run the ball 18 times. If passing is what it takes to win, I’ll throw the ball 50 times.’ So going into every week saying, ‘Hey, Lamar is going to run this…’ you’re going to be wrong. If you’re going to say, ‘Lamar is going to sit in the pocket and throw it…’ you’re going to be wrong. Lamar is going to do whatever he thinks it takes to win. He is a weapon. How can I win? That’s it.”

There aren’t many human beings busier than Harris these days. He has four kids of his own — ages 20, 16, 14 and nine. He’s a high school English teacher who’s simultaneously teaching students live and remotely. And each week he’s still dissecting the game with Jackson, whom he’s worked with since high school.

Harris had a feeling his quarterback would face adversity in 2020. This past offseason, he even warned Jackson, “You’re the MVP now” and the QB gave him a funny look. They never even mention awards to each other, so Jackson was taken aback. Harris’ point was that there would be a target on his back this season, to which Jackson said that if teams were preparing for him, well, “I’m preparing for them.” Still, defenses took that Titans blueprint and slowed him down. They crept a DB down into the box to spy on Jackson. And the retirement of guard Marshal Yanda stung more than anyone could’ve anticipated. And the Ravens were breaking rookie running back JK Dobbins into the rotation. And Jackson never really did train with Brown as much as we all assumed in South Florida. And, of course, the coronavirus ravaged the team.

These may sound like excuses. This is also reality.

Harris knew it was only a matter of time before this Lamar rose again.

Nothing anybody ever says — be it Logan Ryan or a fan on the couch — ever bothers him, either.

“He knows who he is. He knows what he can do. He knows he can throw,” Harris says. “The numbers state that since college. When you lead the league in passing touchdowns, the proof is in the pudding. What took place, looking at their offensive strategy, they came out and it didn’t work. We looked at it like a learning experience. One thing I try to keep intact is the holistic picture. You’re going to go through adversity as you continue to grow and become the player you want to be in your career.

“So when you have a storybook season — you’re the MVP, you’re the best team in the league — there’s going to be a roadblock. Maybe you weren’t ready for the Titans bringing you their best game. That’s what we talked about. And the great thing about him is that’s how he is wired. He understands there’s a process. There’s peaks and there’s valleys.”

There was nothing Jackson wanted more than to play in a Super Bowl in his own backyard: Miami. Since the Titans destroyed that dream, that playoff defeat is absolutely motivation. Maybe all that doubt doesn’t bother him but it absolutely drives him. Harris knows it sounds cliché but Jackson, he insists, is “the ultimate competitor.”

“I’ve never met a person,” Harris says, “where if you tell him he can’t do something or you’ll get this wrong, the very next rep is perfect. He’s really motivated by doubters.”

So, Jackson’s focus as a passer has been two-fold.

One, Harris wants him comfortable. Harris wants Jackson to make the defense move at his pace. Even if there’s a 300-pounder barreling in at full speed — “wanting to hurt you,” as Harris tells Jackson — the QB still needs to move at his own pace. Secondly, the discipline of his fundamentals is paramount. That alone can improve accuracy as Allen is proving in Buffalo.

Against the Indianapolis Colts, Jackson went a perfect 10 of 10 in the second half.

Against the (albeit lowly) Jacksonville Jaguars, last week, Jackson went 17 of 22 for 243 yards and three touchdowns with another score on the ground.

And yet it’s crucial for Jackson to never, ever water down what makes him special. Who cares if skeptics call him a glorified running back? He can make that a compliment. He can juke and spin and leave defenders in the dust with his 4.2 speed. He can embarrass anyone on a football field. Harris never wants to zap Jackson’s “gift of creativity.” As much as Jackson wants to prove he is a quarterback (let’s not forget the motivation Bill Polian supplied), it is his stunning running ability that’s generational.

He can be Barry Sanders with an arm and that’s a good thing. Not criticism.

Early this season, Harris admits, Jackson strayed away from the most dangerous element of his game.

“To be honest,” Harris says, “I felt like he got away from that a little bit, of getting that ‘X’ component in there. Give this play its just do but when it’s not there? Let’s get outside that pocket and let’s get busy. We’ve seen that the last three weeks. That’s where you’ve seen the comfortable, confident Lamar. That’s where you see the MVP. That’s all a part of the growth process a young man goes through — ‘Let me get through this adversity and let me get back to my identity.’ Because if you’re going to be comfortable in the pocket, if you’re going to control the pace of the game, you have to be you. You have to have your identity. And there’s nobody else on the planet like Lamar Jackson. He’s starting to figure that out.”

The knee injury didn’t help, no. That affected mobility. And Covid? That took a toll on Jackson. He lost his sense of smell and taste and was tired all the time. He slept all the time. Harris is frank: Jackson was in “survival mode” for a good stretch this season.

Now, he’s himself. He’s back in control.

He is, Harris declares, back “at that MVP level.”

Appreciating Jackson does require looking at the position through a totally different lens.

No doubt, there is merit to how Kurt Warner broke the position down in Part II of our Josh Allen series. The Hall of Famer has never seen a quarterback who relies primarily on athleticism — like Jackson — ever win a Super Bowl. He may be right in saying a quarterback absolutely must decode defenses as a passer in January and make clutch throw after throw after throw to go the distance. But if anyone can buck that theory, if anyone is so fast, so athletic, so phenomenally gifted physically to smash that convention, it’s Jackson.

It’s the guy who mystified the Cleveland Browns in the game of the year on Dec. 14.

The league is taking notice. One team’s quarterbacks coach does not believe that defenses have come close to solving Jackson because, he says, “nothing strikes fear into a defense like a quarterback who can truly run at will and make every throw.” In his opinion, Jackson can make all the necessary throws, too. His main concern? Health. In three or four years, he does not believe Jackson will be this electric of a runner. And when that speed slows down — juuuust a tick, a couple MPHs — can Jackson deliver from the pocket? This coach on one of the NFL’s most prolific offenses is still unsure. Because, in Jackson, he sees a 6-foot-2 quarterback generously listed at 212 pounds completely unfazed by contact. (And you heard Johnathan Abram. The smart defenses wallop quarterbacks on read-option plays every time.)

This should be a concern.

It’s also true that Jackson should be himself and we should all enjoy every bit of his game while he can.

As for the consensus opinion that once Jackson’s down by 10 or 14 points, he is incapable of coming back? Harris laughs. Harris dismisses this as a false narrative, pointing to the fact that the bedrock of their training is throwing Jackson into “adverse situations” all the time. He sees a fight deep down inside of Jackson that actually craves for that opportunity.

Says Harris: “He thrives in those. That is what gets him going, like, ‘OK, we need this.’ Him being down? That’s where he thrives. That’s where he gets better. … Sometimes, we take the team’s struggles and we attach it to the quarterback. I don’t think that’s fair. As we saw (against Cleveland), he came in — it was fourth down — and made a play. That’s the Lamar we know. And we’re going to see more of that.”

That moment alone should make defenses in the AFC tremble. His first snap back from those, uh, crampsand Harris assures it was cramps! — was a fourth and 5 with two minutes left. Jackson lured the Browns in with that threat of the run and, instead of taking off, hit Brown deep for a 44-yard touchdown.

“That is him,” Harris says. “You saw his true identity right there. If you go back to his high school film, he’s always been somebody who’s used his legs but always kept his eyes downfield to make a play. That was exactly it.”

Brown had three drops earlier this game.

Brown also wasn’t shy in tweeting his displeasure with Jackson and his role a month prior.

No, this has not quite been the Montana-Rice connection Brown and I talked all about way back in February. But the quarterback never lost trust in his No. 1 receiver and he’s hitting him with more accuracy of late, too. They’re from the same county. The two teammates who drove home from that Titans game together and immediately re-watched the film of that crushing loss are still driving into practice together. Harris calls the QB-WR relationship like a marriage. Both did a ton of work individually through the offseason. Both grew individually. Brown added muscle while Jackson improved his mental game. But contrary to what viral images might’ve suggested, they were rarely running routes together during the pandemic.

“A husband and wife have some individual growing and then they have to bring that together,” Harris says. “So, unfortunately, that chemistry they’re looking for has been delayed. We’re seeing glimpses of it now.”

Maybe this rapport proves to be Baltimore’s missing piece.

Jackson’s speed alone will drive coordinators mad the week of a playoff game.

As my podcast partner, longtime personnel exec Jim Monos, relived last week, Michael Vick once had the legendary Jim Johnson sweating before the Eagles playoff game against the Falcons. As Johnson told Monos then at the office, you can scheme everything up perfectly and it might not even matter against an athlete like Vick. And no quarterback in NFL history strikes this same fear like Jackson.

Only, with Jackson, there’s more.

Unlike Vick, he can throw with touch. Unlike Vick, he’s got a receiver in Brown who can go deep. Unlike Vick, ridiculously jammed into a West Coast offense, Jackson fits perfectly into a run-heavy scheme that accentuates his gifts. Granted, Greg Roman became this renowned mobile QB guru of sorts almost by chance. Way back in 2015, he pushed hard for Matt Cassel to be his QB in Buffalo. In training camp, it was obvious that Tyrod Taylor was better so Taylor won the job and, before you knew it, Roman was devising some of the most complex rushing schemes in the game. One NFL quarterbacks coach calls Roman’s X’s and O’s “legendary” in the coaching community and says offenses everywhere are now copying him.

Jackson, the athlete, is unleashed.

This isn’t RGIII. This isn’t Colin Kaepernick. This is a QB who can last.

Harris wants to make one thing abundantly clear. He states that Jackson would shine in any offense. He loathed the narrative that a team would need to put the right offense around him.

Nobody has figured Roman’s offense out, he says.

Nobody has figured Jackson out, he says.

He just may be right, too. These Ravens are peaking.

“When people put out a certain narrative when a person is coming into the NFL, it’s very hard to get away from it,” Harris says. “It becomes the easy thing to say, you know what I mean? Look at Dak Prescott. I firmly believe when people say, ‘Is he worth the money?’ it’s because, why, that he’s a fourth-round draft pick? Fourth-round draft picks aren’t supposed to make $40 million. The guy’s been great. We stay with the narrative coming into the draft. There was this narrative that Lamar couldn’t throw or he couldn’t pass. OK. Again, the numbers speak that he can throw. Is he developing? Are there things he’s adding to his arsenal? Of course. But what third-year player isn’t?”

There is one way to silence that narrative for good, he’s told.

Win a Super Bowl.

“That’s when it’ll die. That’s when it’ll go away.”

Now, that hope is realistic.

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