We knew coming into this season that the Baltimore Ravens would be one of the league’s most interesting teams. John Harbaugh has a history of creative coaching. With Lamar Jackson the confirmed starting quarterback, Harbaugh has more chances to think up new concepts and styles than he did when Joe Flacco was Flaccoing.
As we’ve seen, Jackson has outperformed expectations and freed Harbaugh and coordinator Greg Roman to draw up more interesting stuff. They’re throwing downfield in addition to mixing in RPOs. Jackson is passing the ball a ton, reducing the chance that he takes unnecessary hits or fumbles the ball. As a result of the schematic diversity and uniqueness, Baltimore is one of the most fun and interesting offenses in the league.
The basics of Jackson’s scouting report are widely known and repeated: he’s an electric runner and playmaker who has poor passing mechanics. While the narrative carries a certain amount of truth, it’s an oversimplification and undervalues his general quarterbacking abilities. Jackson is proving doubters wrong.
Harbaugh and the Ravens entered this year aiming to build a run-first offense that effectively harnessed Jackson’s strengths and minimized his weaknesses. They’ve run the ball effectively through three games, but the passing attack has been a revelation, and the success of it has solidified Jackson’s status as the Ravens’ promising QB of the future. Jackson has inspired confidence that he can throw the ball well enough to win Baltimore games.
While his issues with throwing mechanics are real, they shouldn’t hamper expectations too much— Jackson can launch the ball with power and accuracy, and his ability to torch Miami’s defense in Week 1 is proof. His disjointed motion should improve over time. His footwork and pocket movement are more important (and more coachable) for the long run.
Struggles with efficiency in the last couple of games are not quite as bad as what the box scores might indicate. In Week 2 against Arizona, Jackson went 24/37 for 272 yards, and in a Week 3 loss to the Chiefs (in which Baltimore played mostly from behind), he went 22/43 for 267 yards. The latter completion percentage of 51 percent is abysmal. But Baltimore are letting him air it out; his average intended air distance is 10.7 yards, fifth in the NFL per Next Gen Stats. The QBs above him are Matthew Stafford, and Jameis Winston, and the two Miami signal-callers. Jackson is not dinking and dunking.
It’s all made for good entertainment value, as we’d expect from an offense trying new and different things. The excitement produced when Jackson does stuff on the field is not the sort of stuff we’re used to in the NFL. Improvisation is the quarterbacking trend of late — Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, Patrick Mahomes, etc. — but Jackson takes it a whole other level.
The unpredictability is refreshing. NFL coaches like things to be tailored to their intricately drawn-up whiteboards. Anything resembling individual creativity is, to many of them, inherently risky and something to be worried about. Jackson’s wide-ranging skillset makes his spontaneity an asset, and Harbaugh has successfully adapted.
Harbaugh and Roman’s scheme includes plenty of downfield passing plays to accompany a run-first set-up, with Jackson’s speed and explosiveness used as leverage to unlock Mark Ingram’s downhill power running and Marquise Brown’s fleet-footed routes. As the Ravens acquire more effective wideouts to accompany Brown and tight end Mark Andrews, Jackson will have an easier time throwing from the pocket.
They will improve with time, as Jackson grows as a downfield passer and Harbaugh coaxes maximum effectiveness out of the potent rushing attack. Baltimore, who are the highest-scoring team in the league after three games, have a chance to get a leg up on a weaker AFC North in the next three weeks, as they play Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati coming up. The Steelers’ fall and the underwhelming Browns mean that the Ravens are clear favorites to take the division.
If Baltimore rises to elite status, the AFC gets a little more interesting. Only the Chiefs and Patriots look like legitimate good teams, given the Chargers’ injury issues and the Texans’ horrible offensive line. The Ravens have a very good defense and the best kicker of all-time, with a unique and evolving offense.
It will be fascinating to see how they move forward and figure out how to contend. Their brand of football is new and different, and the NFL can always use more of that.