Moments after Lamar Jackson had led the Baltimore Ravens to a 26-16 win at Atlanta Dec. 2, moving to 3-0 as a starting quarterback in the NFL, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh candidly said, "This is an unconventional offense. ... I don't know if any of us know where it is going."
That might still be true, but the Ravens are fully committed to finding out.
The Ravens are all-in with Jackson after he led them to six wins in seven starts and the AFC North title during the final two months of his rookie season.
Former Super Bowl MVP quarterback Joe Flacco, benched upon returning from a hip injury in light of Jackson's success, will reportedly be traded to the Denver Broncos at the start of the new league year in mid-March. Greg Roman, the architect of the running game that excelled once Jackson became the starter, has replaced Marty Mornhinweg as offensive coordinator. And new general manager Eric DeCosta and Harbaugh have touted the Ravens' Jackson-led offense as an unpredictable foil in a copycat league.
"Lamar is just a heck of a player," said Harbaugh, who signed a new four-year deal in January. "He's a threat every time he touches the ball, run and pass. You certainly, as a coach, are excited to have a guy like that playing quarterback for you."
A Whole New Approach
This succession plan from Flacco to the former Heisman Trophy-winning Jackson surely was accelerated by Flacco's hip injury in early November, but it was inevitable the minute the Ravens traded back into the first round last spring to nab Jackson with the No. 32 overall pick. (They sent second-round picks in 2018 and 2019 to the Philadelphia Eagles in the deal.)
Once Jackson took over as the starter in Week 11, the Ravens essentially tore up their offensive playbook with stunning success, embarking on an entirely different approach centered around Jackson's dynamic skill set.
Whatever shortcomings he displayed as a passer were negated by his running ability.
As teams extended horizontally to guard against Jackson running to the outside, the Ravens unleashed 238-pound rookie running back Gus Edwards, a between-the-tackles battering ram. The undrafted Edwards, a practice squad player for the first month of the season, topped 100 yards rushing during each of Jackson's first two starts. He finished the season as the Ravens' leading rusher with 718 yards in just 11 games. (Jackson ranked second at 695).
With Jackson and Edwards leading the way, the Ravens chewed up yardage and time, reducing opposing offenses to spectator status for long stretches. When those offenses did get on the field, they faced a Ravens defense that was rested and ready.
And as the Ravens flourished with an old-school, ground-and-pound offense that ran counter to all the trends in the pass-happy NFL today, they noticed something: Other teams weren't quite sure what to make of it.
The day after that win against Atlanta -- during which the Ravens topped 200 rushing yards for the third straight game -- Harbaugh said, "When a team sees that for the first time and doesn't have a chance to work on it throughout the year, it's going to be challenging for them. … All of the coaches in the last three weeks have said that."
In the midst of that late-season surge, tight end Nick Boyle -- whose blocking ability was central to the success of the running game -- said, "I don't know if it's old school, but it's good school because we're winning football games."
Now the question is, can it continue in the long term?
Passing, Ball Security Remain Major Concerns
From the moment he was drafted, Jackson brought much-needed energy and excitement to the franchise. After three straight years without a playoff appearance and after a pregame national anthem protest in London that infuriated many, the temperature of the Ravens' fan base hovered somewhere between apathetic and disenchanted.
Ravens officials had noticed the empty seats. Now here was the sort of dynamic, pulsating offensive player of which the Ravens have had far too few for far too long.
Yet Jackson is not without critics. He needs to improve as a passer in accuracy and consistency. He takes a pounding as a running quarterback, which is not a recipe for long-term success; Jackson led the team with 147 carries, the most by a quarterback in the modern era.
And Jackson had at least one fumble in every start, with 10 during seven regular-season starts and three more in a 23-17 playoff loss to the Los Angeles Chargers.
Critics point to that loss in any debate about the viability of this offense. With the novelty no longer a factor in seeing the Ravens for the second time in three weeks, the Chargers suffocated Jackson at every turn for three quarters.
They unveiled a defensive alignment with seven defensive backs to counter Jackson's speed, and the inside running game got no traction as the Chargers' defensive front dominated the line of scrimmage.
At one point in the fourth quarter, the Ravens trailed, 23-3, they had three first downs and Jackson had a passer rating of 0.0. The worst fears about this offense -- that it loses effectiveness the second time around, that Jackson's passing game is a liability when needing to come from behind -- appeared to be borne out.
And if the Chargers could stop this offense on a second look, what about AFC North rivals who are assured of seeing it twice a year?
The Ravens dismiss such concern.
Harbaugh acknowledged that the Chargers "outplayed us that [playoff] game and outcoached us, there's no doubt about that." But he and DeCosta maintain that Jackson's talent and a scheme built around him can succeed.
"It's all going to work," Harbaugh said, adding, "They can't stop everything. If you think there's a defense that's going to line up and stop Lamar running plays and us executing really well, that's just not the case. You can't put 13 guys out there. They have to play their 11 against our 11."
Wanted: More Big Plays
Harbaugh acknowledged that for all the methodical, time-consuming success this year, there were not enough big plays, so fleet-footed receivers and a running back with breakaway speed could be on the Ravens' offseason shopping list.
"We've got a quarterback with a unique skill set," DeCosta said, "and so how best can we make him better?"
Jackson's rookie resume includes several erratic throws, but also a gorgeous 68-yard touchdown pass to rookie tight end Mark Andrews and a play-action, 48-yard bomb that hit receiver John Brown in stride -- perhaps Jackson's best throw of the season -- which was called back by a holding penalty.
The Ravens know they need more of that.
Harbaugh said Jackson has an ambitious offseason throwing program planned and, "I expect him to come back a better quarterback, skill-wise, than when he left. He's determined to do that."
On the plus side, they now have their franchise quarterback on a rookie deal, which has major salary-cap advantages.
The Ravens could lose two of their top three receivers if Brown leaves as a free agent and Michael Crabtree is a cap casualty. Production for both dropped sharply once Jackson became the starter, and luring established free-agent receivers to an offense that emphasizes the run could be a tough sell. But DeCosta and Harbaugh maintain that free agents will want to come to Baltimore.
"Players respect talent," DeCosta said. "I think players respect athletes and competitors. And anyone can watch Lamar Jackson and see how talented he is and what kind of competitor he is. Players also want to win … and they'll recognize that about us. When they watch us play, they'll want to play here."
"We're going to build this offense from the ground up this year," Harbaugh said. "That's what's kind of exciting, and we'll see what comes of it."
Follow Bo on Twitter @bsmolka
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox
Issue 251: February 2019
Originally published Feb. 15, 2019