John Harbaugh leaned forward and stared into the eyes of his young leader.
With a commanding advantage on the scoreboard and his starting quarterback having completed another masterful performance, the Ravens’ longtime head coach paused to put the moment — and everything Lamar Jackson represents — into much-needed perspective.
“You changed the game, man,” Harbaugh told the 22-year-old, as the pair sat on the sideline during Baltimore’s drubbing of the Bengals this past Sunday. “Do you know how many little kids in this country are going to be wearing No. 8 playing quarterback for the next 20 years?”
That intimate, indelible moment offered a rare window into Jackson’s world and the special bond between the head coach and his most trusted asset. It also crystallized how special a gift Jackson is to the Ravens, to the city of Baltimore and anyone who loves the NFL.
He’s the most electrifying player in the game according to Pro Bowl and All-Pro defenders who have been tasked with trying to contain him in and out of the pocket. He gives head coaches and coordinators fits because he possesses a rare blend of traits that make playmakers great: speed, accuracy, athleticism and an unwavering will to be the best to ever do it.
Jackson is better than we ever imagined. Even Bill Polian, one of the former Heisman Trophy winner’s most vocal pre-draft detractors, has admitted that. Yet, somehow, naysayers still exist among us.
Despite Jackson’s precision throwing the football and his weekly athletic feats of strength, the detractors remain — always lurking, waiting for the chance to discredit what we’re all witnessing. They grasp at straws at every turn, dismissing the legitimacy of mobile quarterbacks. They insist that you can’t win on a big stage with someone like Jackson. They complain that pure pocket passers are the major key to deep postseason runs and Super Bowl trophies.
And to them, I say this:
Stop looking for excuses to discount him.
Stop denying that he’s special.
Stop making short-sighted comparisons between him and Michael Vick, or some other speedy black quarterback of the past.
Stop bringing up what “history tells us” about mobile quarterbacks and stop writing off Jackson’s chances for success in January, and possibly, beyond.
Instead, believe your eyes.
Appreciate the marvel that he is.
Enjoy the show.
And allow yourself to be inspired by someone breaking the mold with reckless abandon.
Jackson is not your father’s quarterback.
He’s not made in the same image of the quarterbacks from yesteryear you grew up idolizing. And that’s OK.
Actually, it’s more than OK.
It’s long overdue.
And it should be celebrated.
That said, there’s no need to start chiseling a Canton-bound bust of Jackson. There are still seven more games left in Baltimore’s season, seven more chances for Jackson and Harbaugh to build on their 7-2 record with the difficult matchups against the Texans, Rams and 49ers on deck.
But the shame of it is this: The margin of error for Jackson is so razor-thin. After everything he has accomplished in only 16 career starts — owning the highest total QBR of any quarterback (99.7) in a game this season, becoming only the second player in NFL history to have a perfect passer rating (158.3) in multiple games in a season and quarterbacking the only team to beat the New England Patriots since Dec. 2018 — there are still people hard-pressed to point out what Jackson isn’t.
They’ll waste time telling you that Jackson handicapped his team in last season’s wild-card loss to the Los Angeles Chargers, but conveniently forget that Jackson took over a team with a losing record behind Joe Flacco, ignited the offense during the regular season and closed out the year with a 6-1 record.
They’ll tell you, “We’ve seen this before. He’s just another Vick,” yet omit the fact that Vick’s career completion percentage was 56.2 percent. Jackson, who’s proven himself to be a better passer, has a completion percentage of 65.9 this season — same as Philip Rivers. (For comparison: Tom Brady’s completion percentage is 64.8, while Patrick Mahomes’ is 66.3.)
They’ll tell you that he’s a one-dimensional talent, but fail to mention all of the times Jackson has shown he can throw the football. In fact, he came out the gate in Year 2 looking to disprove the notion that he’s just a glorified running back. But the 204 yards (plus touchdown throws of 83 and 47 yards) in the first 11 minutes of play against the Miami Dolphins in Week 1 — en route to his first perfect passer rating — was just the beginning of his impressive sophomore campaign.
“I play Lamar Jackson ball. I don’t play anybody else’s ball,” Jackson told reporters on Wednesday, when asked about his playing style vs. Houston’s Deshaun Watson.
The Ravens are doing something so simple, yet so unheard of in the NFL. They’re letting Jackson be himself. They’re embracing everything he is and utilizing all of the unique gifts he brings to the table. They’re building a team around his best attributes. And they’re running — quite literally at times — with their plan.
If it was so easy to put up 59 points on the Dolphins, the Patriots and Cowboys would also have done so in Weeks 2 and 3, and the Jets and Colts wouldn’t have lost to Miami.
If it was so easy to beat Bill Belichick’s team, another team would have done so already in 2019.
Jackson — who earned AFC Player of the Week honors for the second straight week and third time this season — is on pace to throw for more than 3,600 yards and run for more than 1,200 yards this season.
So why are some still so hard-pressed to write him off as a gimmick?
He’s a dual-threat, playmaking quarterback who is doing things on the field that we haven’t seen. So, enjoy it. Don’t waste time trying to make him fit your mold of what a quarterback should be. Because it wasn’t too long ago that the definition of what a quarterback is didn’t include faces that looked like Jackson.
No one knows what his career arch will look like when everything is said and done. Not you, not me and certainly not Jackson. But one of the best byproducts of his early success is the fact that he inspires kids who look just like him — brown-skinned boys with mini Afros and unkempt plaits — to keep striving to be exactly what the world says they can’t.
Jackson was the last of five quarterbacks taken on Day 1 of the 2018 draft and the final pick in Round 1. The collective NFL community had determined that Mayfield, Darnold, Allen and Rosen were surer bets to build a franchise around than Jackson. But after 16 starts, Jackson has outshined them all.
What lies ahead for Jackson is completely unknown and it’s far too early to say with certainty that he’ll one day be a Super Bowl-winning quarterback. But his mission is more than clear.
As Harbaugh sat beside him on that bench this past Sunday, praising his quarterback’s aggressiveness and natural-born leadership during the fourth quarter of their 49-13 win over the Bengals, Jackson’s mind was focused on something else. Something bigger than just him.
“Do you know how many little kids in this country are going to be wearing No. 8 playing quarterback for the next 20 years?” Harbaugh asked.
Without missing a beat, Jackson replied: “I can't wait to see it when I get older. But right now, I’ve gotta get to the Super Bowl.”
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