Joe Flacco or no Joe Flacco: it’s Lamar Jackson time
In the case of Baltimore Ravens rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson, who’s now 2-0 as a starter in place of Joe Flacco, it’s all about shots.
How many shots can Jackson absorb while running the ball over the course of a game?
How many shots can he connect on when given the opportunity to pass downfield?
And, finally, has he earned another shot to retain the job and keep Flacco on the sideline?
“I don’t feel I’ve done enough,” Jackson told reporters after Sunday’s 34-17 win against Oakland. “There’s always room for improvement.”
Well, the bench isn’t the best place for that to occur.
If Flacco is cleared to return from a hip injury, suffered in Week 9, coach John Harbaugh will face a mini-quarterback controversy. The Ravens (6-5) suddenly are back in the postseason picture, currently holding down the AFC’s second wild-card spot. They had lost three consecutive and four of five games before Flacco went down, but he arguably remains the best option for win-now mode.
Jackson’s winning streak was engineered against two of the league’s sorriest defenses, especially against the run. On Sunday, Baltimore gashed Oakland for 242 yards on the ground, including 71 yards on 11 carries by Jackson. The previous week, his 26 rushing attempts set an NFL record for quarterbacks in the Super Bowl era; he gained 119 yards. Teammate Robert Griffin III is the only rookie QB who ever had more.
Jackson hasn’t taken Baltimore by storm like RG3 enthralled Washington in 2012. But they play similar games with similar strengths and weaknesses as first-year quarterbacks.
Both posted video-game statistics as run-pass magicians in college. Both won the Heisman Trophy. And both entered the league having to prove they can do more than scamper against NFL defenses.
Griffin never answered in the affirmative after a sensational rookie season ended with a mangled knee.
Jackson still has time and a ways to go.
Like Griffin, one of the biggest obstacles might be trying too hard to prove doubters wrong. Jackson rushed just twice in the first half against the Raiders, compared to 10 first-half carries (for 64 yards) against the Bengals. The fierce urge to demonstrate his passing ability even when running is more prudent must be overcome.
″(Self-pressure) is probably part of it,” Harbaugh told reporters Sunday. “It shouldn’t have to be, because I think he has proven himself in college and all that kind of stuff. Just because you can run really well doesn’t mean you can’t throw.
“It probably is an added layer for him. That’s the best way I could say it. But if anyone can handle it, he can. He just has a great mindset for that kind of thing. I’m not worried about it at all that way.”
That being said, a smart coach takes advantage of players’ dominant skills while spurring growth in their weaker areas. Jackson’s running ability helps soften defenses for the pass and keeps opposing offenses off the field. On Sunday, the Ravens’ first two drives after intermission resulted in touchdowns, going for a combined 30 plays and 146 yards while consuming nearly 16 minutes.
“When you establish the inside run, the perimeter offense, all the bells and whistles with Jackson, they’re very hard to defend,” Raiders coach Jon Gruden told reporters. “You’ve got to stop the inside run, or you have no chance to stop everything else.”
Jackson’s passing remains a work in progress (27-of-44 for 328 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions in his starts), but his overall effect on the offense has been positive. The unit has been less predictable and gained a half-yard more per play (5.7 vs. 5.2) compared to Flacco’s starts.
Considering that Harbaugh is unlikely to return for a 12th season, and Flacco might follow him out the door, and the Ravens probably won’t advance far even if they do reach the postseason, there’s no good reason to take Jackson off the field.
He was drafted to be Flacco’s successor and the opportunity has come sooner than expected. Given the chance to start the remaining five regular-season games, Jackson would have enough tape and experience to entice the next offensive guru as Baltimore begins a coaching search.
There’s no downside to giving Jackson the job now, whether or not Flacco is cleared to return. Jackson needs time and repetitions to prove he’s the long-term solution under center, and not just an exciting flash who won’t last (see: RG3).
“It’s the Lamar show,” Baltimore wideout Michael Crabtree told reporters Sunday. “You just have to sit back and watch, because he’s electrifying.”
Let the shots continue.
⦁ Deron Snyder writes his award-winning column for The Washington Times on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Follow him on Twitter @DeronSnyder.