We’re a week or so away from the start of the NFL season, and Lamar Jackson’s profile has never been higher.
The star quarterback for the Baltimore Ravens is the reigning MVP, one of the freshly minted “faces” of the league.
He’s the top-ranked player in the NFL’s Top 100 list for 2020, ahead of even the great Patrick Mahomes.
And as the cover man for the new “Madden,” his likeness is plastered in stores all over the country.
Yet to all this, Jackson ... just shrugs?
“My life really didn’t change,” Jackson told Yahoo Sports in May. “It’s just, more people know me than they did the year before or the year prior. But everything else is still the same.”
Including how Jackson sees himself.
“I look at myself like I’m a regular person,” Jackson reiterated, regarding his newfound fame. “Other people may not.”
Jackson’s humility is earnest. You never have to remind him to keep the main thing (striving for greatness and winning football games) the main thing. It’s one of his best traits, coaches say.
“I don’t think anything changed one iota … other than he’s a year older, a year wiser and I think he understands the challenges we face and how we’ve got to get prepared for those,” said Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman, who spoke to reporters Monday.
After a majestic regular season in which he completed 66 percent of his passes for 36 touchdowns and six interceptions (while also rushing for 1,206 yards and 12 touchdowns), the Ravens lost to the Titans 28-12 on Jan. 11, despite racking up 530 yards of offense.
Jackson’s three turnovers — two picks and a fumble — and the Ravens’ four failed fourth-down conversions contributed to the loss, which coincided with plenty of criticism about his passing, particularly as it relates to playing from behind, and to a lesser extent, his general accuracy on short-to-intermediate routes.
“There’s no magic pill [for it] — I think he’s made really good strides,” Roman said of Jackson’s short-to-intermediate accuracy. “But like every quarterback in the National Football League, they’re striving to be as consistent as possible, and he’s no different.”
So Jackson, who is already a dynamic, elusive runner and also grades out, statistically, as one of the league’s better deep-ball passers, has worked hard this offseason to improve in all areas as a passer. That includes his decision-making and his overall consistency.
“Which, if we can get 2 to 5 percent better in those areas, it’ll be pretty impressive,” Roman said.
When in doubt, Jackson always has his legs. Roman was coy Monday when asked whether he’ll call as many designed quarterback runs — “we’ll see,” he said — and Jackson did miss two practices a week ago with a groin injury.
Prior to that, quarterbacks coach James Urban made a cross-sport comparison earlier this month when he noted that great perimeter basketball players may learn how to shoot better or add a fadeaway, but they never lose the ability to drive the lane. In this hypothetical, of course, “driving the lane” for Jackson means running around and creating with his prodigious athleticism, and given how special Jackson is at that — and how adept he generally is at avoiding big hits — it would likely be unwise to tamp that aspect of his game down too much, especially given how much respect and wonder he inspires in fellow players after they’ve spent 60 minutes trying to corral him.
It must also be noted that Jackson commands similar respect from his teammates, and if you’re looking for a reason the 23-year-old can repeat his MVP performance in 2020, that’s as good a place to start as any.
“I think he’s a real force multiplier, and guys really believe in him,” Roman said, when asked for the most positive thing he noticed about Jackson since the Ravens reported for training camp a month ago. “I really think his personality, and how he treats his teammates and how he interacts with them, goes a long way towards being a really strong leader.”
This is not a new development, Roman added, but it has nonetheless been a positive aspect of this training camp.
“[Whether it’s] the encouragement [he gives] to an offensive lineman or to a backup tight end, or how he’ll get on the receiver about running the route a certain way but he brings him back in with positive words of encouragement, kind of strengthening that belief and commitment,” Roman said. “I think he’s a guy his teammates want to fight for and compete hard for and do right for on the field.”
The way Jackson’s teammates speak about him publicly back that up.
“He’s the best player I’ve ever been around, and he works hard,” tight end Mark Andrews, one of Jackson’s favorite targets, recently said. “So, I think you are going to see an even more polished and an even more ready Lamar than you saw last year. That almost sounds unbelievable, but the guy is incredible, and he’s a winner.”
Winner. Yeah, that’s probably the best way to put it. And after stewing on the most disappointing loss of his career all offseason … did I also mention motivated? That’s bad news for the Ravens’ opponents in 2020, and anyone who doubts Jackson’s ability to take his team farther in the playoffs.
“It’s in there,” Jackson told me a few months ago, shaking his head with a grin while simultaneously thinking of his critics. “I don’t forget anything.”
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