What Can We Learn from the Lamar Jackson Situation?
All-Pro Reels, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Lamar Jackson wants a new contract. This isn’t news. This budding catastrophe for the Baltimore Ravens has been bubbling for over two years now. The end of Jackson’s third NFL season was the first opportunity the Ravens and their QB had to negotiate a contract extension. Since then, it’s been nothing but rumors, posturing, and exhaustive takes from the media.
Now, with the franchise tag deadline looming and the two parties seemingly as far apart in negotiations as the Earth is to the sun, the possibility that Jackson will sign with another team becomes more and more…possible. It seemed im-possible just three years ago, back when Lamar was winning unanimous NFL MVPs. So much has changed - and yet, nothing’s changed at all. Lamar Jackson still doesn’t have a long-term contract with the Ravens.
The consensus seems to be that the Ravens are going to tag Jackson. It’s the obvious move. If the two sides were going to come to an agreement, they probably would have by now. The Ravens can’t afford to let Jackson walk in free agency for nothing. The tag is their best option to at least get something in return for the second-youngest league MVP in history. They could also buy themselves some more time to hammer out that pesky extension…though, yeah…still not lookin’ likely.
The odds that Jackson retires as a Raven have become astronomically high. How did it come to this? How did the Ravens and Jackson go from the NFL’s “it couple” to “taking some time” in less than one presidential cycle?
It’s simple, really: the Ravens don’t think Lamar Jackson is worth what he’s asking. And to be fair, they might be right. But Lamar could be right, too. We don’t really know, and that’s what makes this standoff so fascinating.
For just about any other QB, this situation would have been resolved ages ago. The typical cycle for a high-performance first-round QB looks something like this: get drafted, perform well in years one, two and three, get extension deal, continue to ball out moving forward. That’s what happened for Patrick Mahomes. That’s what happened for Josh Allen. That’s what will (hopefully) happen for Joe Burrow. It happened for Kyler Murray for chrissakes. But it didn’t happen for Lamar…why?
Well, for one thing, he doesn't have an agent. That’s probably affecting the negotiations to some degree, but I don’t believe it’s the most compelling issue. The biggest problem, first and foremost, is that Lamar Jackson is a running QB.
Now, this is not to say Lamar can’t pass. That would be absurd. Of course he can throw. He has a career 63.7% completion percentage and 96.7 career passer rating. If he retired today, his completion percentage would rank 28th and his passer rating would rank 13th - that’s all-time people! He has a better career completion percentage than Troy Aikman and Brett Favre and a better career passer rating than Peyton Manning.
No, the problem isn’t that Jackson can’t pass - it’s that his style of play (a.k.a. running the ball) supposedly lends itself to more injuries. The Ravens want to be smart here. They don’t want to pay above and beyond for someone who’s missed ten games in the last two seasons. The logic makes sense: more running = more physical contact with fast-moving defenders = more opportunities for injury. But what if this was a fallacy?
According to research by John Verros at Sports Info Solutions, the rates of injury between running QBs and traditional pocket-passers is almost the exact same. That’s Lamar Jackson’s case. He’s arguing (I imagine) that the only reason he’s running the football so much is because the Ravens offense demanded it. And guess what? He would be right!
Lamar Jackson is a sensational runner. That is undeniable. But Lamar Jackson is also a more than competent thrower, as I demonstrated. The Ravens wanted to maximize Jackson’s running ability, so they tasked former offensive coordinator Greg Roman to develop one of the NFL’s most unique schemes, utilizing more QB reads and option plays than just about anyone else. But what if that was all unnecessary?
Jackson is arguing (I would guess) that he could be a traditional, drop-back passer just like Burrow or Manning or Favre or anyone else in that classic mold. The only difference would be Jackson’s world-class ability to get out of a pickle. Like Benny the Jet outrunning the Beast, Jackson is able to turn a would-be-sack into a highlight reel like nobody else in the league.
Maybe the problem isn’t Jackson’s running ability - it’s the Ravens’ insistence on utilizing him as a running QB, when Lamar is capable of much, much more. And while this seems like a distinctly “Ravens problem” right now, it’s an issue that’s about to become more widespread.
Take prospective QB-draftee Anthony Richardson, for example: the former Florida passer just participated in the NFL Combine and measured in at a whopping 6-4, weighed 240 lbs., and promptly re-wrote Combine record books by setting new QB-marks in the vertical leap, long jump, and recorded an eye-popping 4.43 in the 40-yard dash. If there’s a new Lamar Jackson in this year’s draft class, Richardson seems like an obvious candidate.
And here’s the thing: players like Richardson are only going to become more common. As the NFL continues to expand its reach into other countries, and as the NFL becomes more and more open to the idea of their fastest offensive player also being their best thrower, guys like Joe Burrow could end up going from traditional to outlier in a hurry. They’ll still exist (because there will always be a place for players who can put a football on a dime and always make the right decision in the most critical moments), but the QBs who can throw a 40-yard touchdown on one play and run for a 50-yard touchdown on the next series are the future of the NFL.
I don’t know what’s going to happen with Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens. I don’t know if he’ll get a long-term extension, I don’t know if he gets traded, I don’t know if he doesn’t just pull a Le'Veon Bell and sit out a year instead of signing the franchise tag. But one thing I do know is, no matter what happens, this contract negotiation will set the precedent for running QBs. The Ravens better hope they get this right, because the next high-performing, sensational first-round QB they draft could play an awful lot like the QB giving them headaches right now.