Ravens Flip The NFL’s Script With Lamar Jackson

Most any pro football fan knows that the Baltimore Ravens are tearing up the league this year. They boast a 10-2 record, are outscoring opponents by an average of more than two touchdowns, and, currently, hold the #1 seed in the AFC. They have soundly beaten both Super Bowls clubs from last season — the Patriots by a score of 37-20 at home in early November and then a 45-6 drubbing of the Rams in Los Angeles more recently. The have also beaten two of the top three teams in the NFC.

Their quarterback, Lamar Jackson, is the “it” guy in the NFL this season. When he took over the starting job last season, the Ravens had posted a middling 4-5 record and were on a three-game losing streak. With Jackson at the helm, they have posted a gaudy 16-3 in regular seasons games since then.

Obviously, Jackson is a talented player. He won the 2016 Heisman Trophy as a sophomore with outlandish numbers, throwing for 10,000 yards over 3 seasons and running for 4,000 more. In spite of these accomplishments, his success at the pro level was far from a sure thing. Four quarterbacks went in the top 10 of the 2018 draft, while Jackson slid to the 32nd overall pick and likely would have fallen much farther without the Ravens trading up to get him. Some analysts loved the pick but many expressed varying degrees of skepticism about his ability to turn into a successful pro quarterback because, in the orthodox view, great college QBs who are great runners but lacking in passing accuracy are, at best, long-term “projects” in the NFL. Sports illustrated gave his selection only a B+.

Because of the dominance of the passing game and success of teams with QBs like Tom Brady, Petyon Manning, and Drew Brees, the push has consistently been to transform a Lamar Jackson into a pass-first, run-if-you-must kind of player. At the outset with a player like Jackson, teams might incorporate more running to allow him to develop, but with the view toward training him to be able to “stand in the pocket” and play more like Brady and Co. The view has been so pervasive that even great running quarterbacks such as Steve Young have constantly harped it over the years.

Here is where the Ravens flipped the NFL’s script. They haven’t tried to mold Jackson to fit some orthodox NFL offensive scheme. Instead, they changed their whole scheme to fit Jackson, opting for an offense that looks a lot more like a college team than a typical pro team.

It is most obvious in the amount that Jackson runs the ball. He’s carrying the ball more than 12 times per game with 16 carries against both New England and San Francisco. That’s running-back level of carries. By comparison, his rushing attempts more than double those of Houston’s Deshaun Watson, about double the amount for Colin Kaepernick as starter for the 49ers, about 40 percent more than Michael Vick or Cam Newton in their peak running seasons, and a third more than Robert Griffin III with Washington in his break-out 2012 season that seemed so unorthodox at the time. Really, only Tim Tebow with Denver in 2011 comes close. The Ravens’ willingness to go all-in on Jackson’s strengths has also helped him succeed as a passer. His 66 percent completion percentage is nearly 10 percent better than his college numbers.

Beyond just how much Jackson runs, the whole running game has an un-NFL feel. The Ravens don’t just employ run-pass option plays that are now common in the NFL, but they run “down the line” option plays more evocative of bygone eras in college football than what is seen in the pro game. They also shipped out their orthodox backup QB (and former starter) Joe Flacco in favor of system-compatible backup in Robert Griffin III, a player pretty much cast aside by the rest of the league.

It all seems so insightful now, but it takes some real courage and an innovative spirit to shift the whole offensive balance around an unorthodox approach. The NFL may embrace small innovations but not big ones. Making use of the running ability of quarterbacks has come into style with players like Russell Wilson, Patrick Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers, Dak Prescott, and others, but it’s still a side dish and not a main course. Going all-in like the Ravens is not in style and probably never will be. Coaches who lose games are ultimately fired, but coaches who lose games in unorthodox ways are fired much quicker (just ask Josh McDaniels or Chip Kelly). Whether with Tebow, Vick, Griffin, Kaepernick, Newton, or others, there is a constant and strong pull toward re-shaping their games to fit the NFL mold and casting them aside if they don’t.

Even after Jackson’s success at the latter part of the 2018 season, the skeptics appeared validated during the Ravens playoff game with the Chargers. Baltimore not only trailed 23-3 in the fourth quarter, but Jackson had completed only 2 passes through the first three quarters of play. I was on the road listening to the game on Sirius-XM, and the announcers were incredulous that head coach John Harbaugh had not replaced Jackson with Joe Flacco. Harbaugh stuck with Jackson, who brought the Ravens back to cusp of victory, ultimately losing 23-17.

Not only did he stick with Jackson, but they only pushed the gas pedal down further on re-making the offense to suit Jackson’s skill set. One can only imagine that had the Ravens adopted the half-measure approach of adjusting a little to Jackson’s skills but with a strategy of re-molding him to fit a more orthodox offense scheme few would be touting him for MVP.

Of course, this is a story in progress. If the Ravens lose out in the playoffs, doubters will begin to appear. It seemed as though with the advent of players like Griffin, Kaepernick, Newton, and Tebow that a wave of college-style quarterbacks was taking over the league only for the wave to subside. Given that Lamar Jackson may be a relatively unique talent, this may not be the building of a new wave, but I’m guessing that Baltimore isn’t going back.

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I'm Distinguished University Professor of Economics at Gordon Ford College of Business at WKU. I've published 7 books including my latest, Sports Economics Uncut, along