Lamar Jackson Doesn’t Want to Run


OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Lamar Jackson tossed a touchdown to Marquise Brown in the first quarter of the Baltimore Ravens’ season opener, and as he decrypted Miami’s defense while awaiting the snap from his 17-yard line, he sensed that he just might be about to throw another.

The deep middle of the field beckoned. The Dolphins showed five players at the line but rushed three, dropping eight into coverage. Brown zoomed past defenders on a post route, then toward a vast expanse of green. Jackson flicked his wrist and lofted the ball 45 yards. Brown caught it in stride and dashed into the end zone.

From the Ravens’ perspective, how the play happened was more exciting than the score itself.

“We just hadn’t seen anything like that from him,” the Ravens’ offensive coordinator, Greg Roman, said, referring to Jackson. “It was the coverage read, but it was also just great downfield accuracy.”

That play differed dramatically from those Jackson piloted last season. When he was elevated to the starter midway through the season, coaches thrust him into a rush-heavy offense, the better to optimize his supersonic speed and cheat-code jukes, his most salient qualities. Jackson ended up throwing for one more touchdown than he ran in himself (five). That style helped power the team to a division title, but it wasn’t the long-term plan for the Ravens — or Jackson.

“I hate running,” Jackson said before a practice last month. “Only if I have to. But my job is to get the ball to the receivers, tight ends, running backs. If I have to run, I’ll do it. But I’d rather just sit back and pass it. I like throwing touchdowns instead of running them.”

Jackson has made that point before. At Louisville, coaches once asked him to return punts in practice, and almost immediately his mother, Felicia Jones, who during Jackson’s recruitment insisted that her son never switch positions, crushed that experiment. He won the Heisman Trophy and passed for more than 9,000 yards in a pro-style offense while also scampering for over 4,000.

Despite his unreliable throwing mechanics and having taken few, if any, first-team snaps before becoming the starter, Jackson had perhaps the most efficient passing season by a 21-year-old in N.F.L. history. But by having run so well as a rookie and at Louisville, Jackson, at a sinewy 6-foot-2 and 212 pounds, is confronting familiar skepticism, propagated by racist stereotypes that have permeated the sport for decades: that he, as a mobile black quarterback, does not throw as well as he runs.

“It’s going to be something that he’s going to overcome every single time he plays, and he’s aware of that,” said Robert Griffin III, Jackson’s backup. “Tom Brady has to overcome, ‘He’s too old,’ every time he goes and plays. He plays good, it’s like, ‘Oh, that’s great.’ He doesn’t, it’s, ‘Oh, he’s declining, it’s over.’ It’s just something that comes with the territory.”

When the Ravens drafted Jackson in 2018, both quarterback and team committed to his development into a ruthless drop-back passer. The team reshaped its personnel and reimagined the offense in the off-season while Jackson refined his mechanics.

“I’ve told him, ‘You’re going to be great; it’s just a matter of when,’” Roman said.

Fulfilling that planned career arc has implications beyond just Baltimore’s 3-2 record, something Jackson hinted at after throwing for 324 yards and five touchdowns against Miami, both career highs, in Week 1.

“Not bad for a running back,” he quipped.

Those words resonated for Louis Moore, an associate professor of history at Grand Valley State University, who appreciated Jackson’s subtlety. “Because he’s not bringing up race,” said Moore, the author of “We Will Win the Day: The Civil Rights Movement, the Black Athlete, and the Quest for Equality.” He continued: “He wanted his shot — and he got his legit shot — and hopefully because of this, maybe they’ll look at the next line of black quarterbacks and give them a fair shot.”

It’s unclear how heavily that responsibility weighs on Jackson, now 22, but it is obvious that he is aware of it. Those closest to him say he does not want to silence cynics; he wants to convert them. So far this season, he has thrown 11 touchdowns — and five interceptions — and run for one. He is still running, though, leading all quarterbacks with 50 attempts (for 308 yards), including 14 attempts in Sunday’s 26-23 overtime win at Pittsburgh. But by completing 65.4 percent of his passes, up from 58.2 last season, and dedicating his off-season to improving as a passer, Jackson is seeking to upend the popular perception.

His private quarterback coach, Joshua Harris, said: “It’s almost like, ‘I’m going to make you love me. You were against me, but I’m going to make you love me.’ I do think that’s kind of his goal.”

So much of an N.F.L. quarterback’s job is persona, and Jackson is beloved around Ravens headquarters for more than just the amazing things he does with a football. He earned his teammates’ trust with his comportment last season, when in Week 10 he replaced Joe Flacco and, operating a scaled-back playbook, won six of eight games. That trust has grown in his second year.

“His mind-set going into the season was just like: ‘I’m going to throw this thing. I’m throwing the ball this year. I’m going to prove to everybody that I can throw the ball,’” receiver Willie Snead IV said.

Snead and running back Mark Ingram spent a week in July with Jackson in Florida, running routes and learning each other’s tendencies. Their time punctuated a methodical off-season reset for Jackson that started in February at his old youth field, McNair Park in Pompano Beach.

Since he had spent the previous two years darting from one major moment — Heisman campaign, draft prep, replacement starter — to the next, he and Harris, the personal coach, felt it was imperative to approach their work slowly, with purpose.

For three hours a day, five days a week, Jackson retrained his muscle memory, isolating the three basic elements of the passing motion — step with the front foot, turn the back hip, bring the arm through — then repeating them together in sequence.

Harris noticed that as chaos enveloped him last season, Jackson tucked the ball and ran instead of keeping his eyes downfield. If he did pass, his mechanics lapsed. Harris worked on Jackson’s footwork, ensuring that he generated velocity by rotating on the ball of his back foot.

Throughout the summer, Harris maintained contact with Baltimore’s quarterbacks coach, James Urban, texting him videos of drills and relaying details of Jackson’s progress. The collaboration liberated Jackson, who was relieved to learn, for instance, that he could maintain his peculiar grip — his index finger touches the nose of the ball, à la Kurt Warner, and not the laces — as long as his throws were on time and accurate.

At Louisville, Harris said, coaches had insisted that Jackson stand almost upright in the pocket to help him see more of the field. But the stance hindered him from creating power from his back leg and impaired his accuracy, causing him to miss high, particularly on intermediate routes.

To correct the habit, Jackson would slowly walk the length of the field crouched in a wider base, doing push-ups if his form reverted. Another drill had him yank taut a resistance band tied to a fence with his left hand while shuffling around with his right arm cocked, as if moving around the pocket.

Harris learned those drills at a clinic with Tom House, a former major league pitcher who has also tutored Drew Brees and Tom Brady. Even though so much about Jackson’s highlights evokes Michael Vick, he holds those two names as paragons, telling Harris how much he admires their Super Bowl rings and their longevity, calling Brady the GOAT. When Jackson watched himself on video performing the drills, he beamed. He thought he looked like Brees.

“Whatever the greats have done, and how they’ve done it, that’s what he’s trying to do,” Harris said. “He’s never wanted to be Michael Vick or Randall Cunningham or anything like that. He’s wanted to be what all the other successful quarterbacks have mostly been.”

Mostly.

The qualification that Harris, who is black, used there hints at the inequalities at the position. For decades, blacks were discouraged from playing quarterback, perceived as lacking the leadership qualities or intelligence to thrive.

The absence of opportunities illuminates why it took until the 22nd Super Bowl for a black quarterback, Doug Williams, to start one and win; though others have since led their teams there, only Russell Wilson has won a championship. Considering how little patience teams have generally shown in molding black quarterbacks, it’s not surprising that they are hardly represented on the career passing leader board: Only Warren Moon and Donovan McNabb, for instance, rank among the top 40 in yardage.

Their spiritual descendants, from Patrick Mahomes to Deshaun Watson, are threatening to someday infiltrate that list. Jackson, too, will have a chance, because he long ago resolved to play only quarterback.

At his pro day, he didn’t run the 40-yard dash because he didn’t want N.F.L. teams, gawking at his speed, to consider converting him. Asked at the scouting combine about teams proposing he play receiver, Jackson said he wouldn’t play for them. Even this past off-season, if Jackson had a sloppy rep, Harris would chirp at him, “That’s why people say you’re a running back.”

While evaluating Jackson before the 2018 draft, Marty Mornhinweg, then Baltimore’s offensive coordinator, noted that “a lot of people” thought he should switch positions. Mornhinweg disagreed.

“The one question, and he knew it, was, ‘Could he become a good enough passer to win big, to win Super Bowls?’” Mornhinweg said in a telephone interview. “And that answer was absolutely yes.”

Jackson’s dazzling performance through two weeks — he and Mahomes became the only players in the Super Bowl era to throw for at least seven touchdowns with no interceptions in their first two games while completing at least 70 percent of passes — reframed the view of his proficiency as a passer. It also set an unrealistic standard.

Jackson has not exactly struggled since, losing to Kansas City and Cleveland then eking out an overtime win in Pittsburgh, so much as played like a 22-year-old adjusting to how defenses adjust to him. Baltimore has scored on the highest percentage of its possessions and averaged the most points per possession in the N.F.L., per Pro Football Reference. Still, reviewing the Chiefs tape with Urban, Jackson cursed his errant throws. Harris, watching it all from home, was neither surprised nor discouraged.

“We’ve gotten to see the high, we’ve gotten to see what he can be,” Harris said. “But he hasn’t even started a full season. You’re going to have some games where he’s undisciplined or the fundamentals leave him because he’s still figuring it out.”





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