Tue, 20 Oct 2020

Eisenberg: The New Lamar Jackson Passing Debate

Baltimore Ravens
16 Sep 2020, 05:25 GMT+10

John Eisenberg

Lamar Jackson's near-perfect passing performance in Sunday's season opener was statistically similar to his memorable evisceration of the Miami Dolphins in last season's opener.

In Sunday's 38-6 win over the Cleveland Browns at M&T Bank Stadium, he completed 20 of 25 pass attempts, with three going for touchdowns. Last year in Miami, it was 17 completions in 20 attempts, with five going for touchdowns.

But while his numbers were similar, Jackson's reaction to his outing was 180-degrees different.

A year ago in Miami, when a reporter recounted his passing numbers in a postgame press conference, Jackson deadpanned, "Not bad for a running back." It was an instant-classic takedown of the many scouts, coaches and analysts who'd long expressed doubts about his ability to thrive as a passer.

For years, Jackson had heard he might eventually need to switch positions if he wanted to keep playing football. He heard those who said he was more running back than quarterback. Those doubts deposited a monumental chip on his shoulder, and clearly, it was still there.

On Sunday, though, when asked after the game if he thought he was a better passer than a year ago in Miami, he simply replied, "I do."

He went on to compliment James Urban, the Ravens' quarterbacks coach, for conducting drills that help him stay "dialed in." But his initial, two-word response reflected an utter lack of defensiveness. It seems his passing ability is no longer a sensitive subject.

That's hardly a surprise after he led the NFL in touchdown passes in 2019 as part of his dazzling league-MVP season. Jackson has put an end to his war with doubters. It's over, so over.

But that doesn't preclude him from continuing to improve as a passer. He's just 23, with all of 23 regular-season starts to his credit. Even though he has already accomplished so much, he likely isn't close to his peak. Some thought, huh?

Now, a different question about his passing seems appropriate: Just how high can he go?

During this past offseason, Jackson acknowledged he could try to stretch the field more and better incorporate his wide receivers. He also could become more effective on passes aimed outside the hash marks, and fundamentally, continue to work on steadying his throwing base, his lower half - a 2019 "fix" that really helped.

Well, all he did Sunday was check every one of those boxes while also exhibiting a new, deft touch on many throws.

So, yes ... just how high can he go?

"You can tell he's a lot more comfortable and a lot more pinpoint with it," teammate Marquise "Hollywood" Brown said Sunday. "It's now our job to be at the spot, because that's where he's putting it. He's doing a good job of throwing it away from defenders and throwing it to where you can catch and run. So, he's been doing a good job of just improving his game."

At one point last year, Jackson said he actually preferred to stay in the pocket and beat opponents with his arm. It sounded a tad crazy at the time because he was making so many plays as a runner.

But NFL defenses have been watching him run for almost two years now, and believe me, they're preparing for it. The Browns did a decent job of keeping him in check as a runner Sunday. He couldn't easily get to the edge, and though he sliced by a few tacklers, he ended the game with just 45 rushing yards on seven attempts.

His legs were more effective in helping him evade pressure and make those devastating throws. Is that the future?

A few days before the game, Browns defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson downplayed Jackson's passing and predicted the Ravens would rely on their record-setting rushing attack Sunday.

"They're going to stick to who they are. I don't think (Jackson) turned into Aaron Rodgers no time soon," Richardson said.

Not so long ago, Jackson probably would have quietly bristled at the comment and used it as motivation. But his passing is an outdated storyline now, turning comments such as Richardson's into a reflection on the speaker more than the subject matter.

Jackson never responded, but here's what he could have said: "Dude, are you paying any attention?"

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