The coded language of ‘figuring out’ Lamar Jackson — The Undefeated

BALTIMORE — Before the start of the 2021 NFL season, ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler reported that “a lot of people around the league” believed that, after Lamar Jackson amassed more than 8,000 total yards and 76 touchdowns over the last two seasons, this was the year teams “figure out” the Baltimore Ravens quarterback.

On the surface, it’s absurd that league personnel believe that teams can suddenly flip a switch and stop one of the fastest and most agile players the league has ever seen, particularly one who accounted for 43 touchdowns just two seasons ago, 36 coming from the air.

But when you take that anonymous comment about Jackson and apply it to how other mobile quarterbacks who look like him have been discussed and critiqued over the years, figuring out Jackson is another instance of Black quarterbacks’ talents, and intelligence, being devalued solely based on the color of their skin.

“Figure out” connotes the quarterback’s skill set as sophomoric gimmickry that is easy to adapt to once a head coach or coordinator — likely white — studies it enough. It assumes the quarterback (and his coaches) is incapable of figuring out what the defense has figured out. It posits that mobile quarterbacks are one-trick ponies who, when forced to throw the ball, suddenly turn into running backs who happen to throw a tight spiral.

It’s long been established that Black quarterbacks are treated differently — whether by fans, the media or the league itself. Their intelligence and character are constantly questioned, down to the fact that only within the last 10 years are we regularly seeing more than a handful of African Americans being allowed to start at the position in the NFL. But in those rare instances in which a Black quarterback is handed the reins to the offense, his style of play — which, save for a few examples, is normally predicated on mobility — is considered bastardized and amateurish compared with more “traditional” (read: white) quarterbacks.

There’s a reason a video of Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson explaining coverages two seasons ago went viral on the internet: Watson, who is Black and mobile, wasn’t expected to understand what he was seeing on the field. If it were Peyton Manning giving that same explanation, it would have just been another day.

It’s been known for nearly 20 years that Tom Brady struggles against a disruptive pass rush, and yet defenses figured him out to the tune of seven Super Bowl trophies. Traditional dropback quarterbacks such as Drew Brees and Philip Rivers have .500 and losing records in the playoffs, respectively, but you wouldn’t say defenses figured them out. They just lost.

Yet, Jackson’s former teammate, retired safety Eric Weddle, called the run-pass option (RPO) offensive scheme, normally used by teams with Black mobile quarterbacks, a “phase” that would be rooted out of the game within five years. Never mind that the RPO had been instituted six years before and had brought multiple teams, including the Seattle Seahawks and Philadelphia Eagles, Super Bowl wins.

But when it comes to figuring Jackson out, the suggestion begs the simplest questions: Figure him out how? Will defensive linemen and linebackers suddenly become champion sprinter Usain Bolt to be able to catch him? Will Jackson suddenly become a bad passer from the pocket on the few occasions defenses take away his running lanes? Will defenders’ ankles suddenly not go in the wrong direction when Jackson changes direction in the open field?

Ravens coach John Harbaugh said stopping players or beating teams has to do more with effort and execution than finding some needle-in-a-haystack scheme that acts as kryptonite. Teams can say they’ll stop Jackson, but then they actually have to do it.

While defenses give Jackson different looks as it pertains to structure, which forces the Ravens to adapt each week, Harbaugh said he doesn’t believe there’s some magic bullet that suddenly makes Jackson ineffective as a quarterback.

“I don’t think once somebody does something, some X-and-O idea, all of a sudden, that’s the answer,” Harbaugh said on Monday. “And we’ve kind of been saying that for three years now. There is no answer.”

He continued: “I do think, if you’re looking for your headline here, I think the people who make those statements are kind of whistling in the graveyard just a little bit. It doesn’t have any meaning, I’ve said that before. Anybody who knows X’s and O’s are rolling their eyes when they hear something like that.”

Jackson, as always, doesn’t seem to care, outwardly at least, about what teams are trying to do to contain him.

“I’m not on the side with those guys trying to figure it out,” he said of opposing defenses. “I’m doing me, trying to focus on getting better each and every day. I don’t really know what they’re thinking over there.

“All I know is what we got going on over here, trying to beat every opponent we play over here.”

The facts bear out that while Jackson is one of the most elusive running quarterbacks we’ve seen since Michael Vick, he can be just as dynamic standing completely still. During the 2019 season, in which Jackson won the MVP award, he had one of the top QBRs while passing in the pocket. Quarterback “win” stats are misleading and nearly worthless, but for what it’s worth, Jackson is 35-8 as a starter — the most wins by a quarterback under the age of 25 in NFL history — and the Ravens have won 81% of games with Jackson as their starter. Just two weeks ago, Jackson became the first player in NFL history to throw for 400 yards and four touchdowns while completing at least 85% of his passes; he also ran for 62 yards for fun.

“I strongly doubt it,” Jackson said in August when asked about the prospects of defenses figuring him out this season. And he hasn’t been wrong so far. Through six weeks, Jackson ranks in the top 10 in both passing and rushing yards.

In come-from-behind wins this season against the Indianapolis Colts and Kansas City Chiefs, and on the game-winning drive against the Detroit Lions, defenses threw the entire book at Jackson, and it just didn’t matter. Even if you made the argument that defenses figured him out earlier in the games, necessitating the comebacks, Jackson was unstoppable when he absolutely needed to be, which are the actions of a legitimate threat.

When coverage is tight, he looks off safeties to free up his receivers. When the pass rush is suffocating, he either calmly steps up in the pocket or wiggles his way out of pressure. What are sacks or throwaways for other quarterbacks are first-down scampers or bought-time passes for Jackson.

Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Logan Wilson, speaking this week before the teams meet on Sunday in Baltimore, called Jackson a “running back that also plays quarterback,” but it’s more accurate to call Jackson a passer who also happens to play mobile quarterback. Jackson can do all the electric things with his legs, but when he’s dead set on throwing the ball, he takes his three- or five-step drops, goes through his reads and shoots a laser to his receiver.

“He’s maturing, he’s growing,” said Ravens tight end Mark Andrews, who has caught a team-high 156 passes since the 2019 season. “He understands this offense so well. He’s always had great ball placement, great eyes, but just the way he’s seeing the game, the game’s progressing, it’s slowed down to him a bunch.”

Part of the criticism of dual-threat quarterbacks is the baffling notion that it’s a bad thing to be able to do two things rather than one. In no other profession would one be docked for being versatile, except NFL quarterbacks. It would be like criticizing LA Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard for being a top-tier defender because it might make him a little more tired on offense. Much is made of Jackson’s meager passing numbers the past two seasons, but they don’t account for the fact that he’s rushed for more than 1,000 yards in each of those seasons as well, putting his total yardage on par with 4,000-yard passers.

And Jackson is far from the first Black quarterback to receive that label.

Ten years ago, Vick said he’d heard “for years” that coordinators could design defenses to stop him. Outside of Vick’s admission that he didn’t always prepare the best he could, he still averaged 7.0 yards per carry for his career, and, if you ask the Washington Football Team, could barely flick his wrist and stretch the field.

Then-San Francisco 49er Colin Kaepernick’s field processing was dubbed “remedial” by both former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer and football analyst Greg Cosell, and a writer-turned-football assistant essentially made the argument that the way to figuring out the dual-threat quarterback was by “keeping him in the pocket.” Kaepernick, who appeared in back-to-back NFC conference championships between 2012 and 2013, had his warts, but never had the personnel of a Manning or coaching of a Brady.

Kyler Murray was supposedly figured out last year during a late-season losing streak, but through six games this season, Murray has thrown 14 touchdowns on a league-leading 73.8 completion percentage along with three rushing scores; the Arizona Cardinals are the lone undefeated team remaining.

When the RPO took over the league last decade, mostly run by the 49ers, Seahawks, Carolina Panthers and Washington, all of which had Black quarterbacks, it was considered in the same vein as the “Wildcat” phase from years earlier, despite the Wildcat using actual running backs in the quarterback position.

Yet in the last few years, it’s white quarterbacks who are starting to run the same schemes. Josh Allen and Baker Mayfield are at their best operating outside the pocket, while rookie Trevor Lawrence, considered one of the most can’t-miss prospects in recent memory, uses the RPO in the Jacksonville Jaguars offense. There’s been no such talk of figuring them out.

Ron Veal, a quarterback coach who has worked with 2021 first-round picks Lawrence and Justin Fields, does not believe there is racial stereotyping when it comes to how teams talk about figuring Jackson out, but he does see it in the labels applied to Black and white quarterbacks who can move around.

“Josh Allen’s got the same amount of athleticism as the next person, and he uses it,” Veal said. “But when he uses it, he gets a thumbs-up; these brothas use it, they get a label.”

All that being said, there are legitimate reasons to criticize Jackson’s play. His throwing mechanics, particularly his foot placement, can be noticeably sloppy at times, leading to off-target throws. One of his two interceptions last week against the Chargers (the other pick coming from a bobbled drop by receiver Rashod Bateman) came after Jackson stared down his receiver, leading to a Los Angeles touchdown on the ensuing drive. And, at least on non-game-winning drives, Jackson does struggle on third downs. Of quarterbacks with at least 20 passing attempts on third down, Jackson ranks eighth-worst in completion percentage. (For what it’s worth, Allen, who has also played tremendously this season, has a worse rate.)

In the past, Jackson may have taken off running if his first read wasn’t open, but these days, he stands in the pocket until he either spots an open receiver or has no other choice but to run, which, mind you, normally leads to good things. As of Week 1, Jackson ranks tied for fourth in rushing first downs, according to Stats Perform. No other quarterback ranks in the top 10.

Just as the league is supposedly starting to figure Jackson out, he’s starting to figure himself out. Four years in the league have made him more comfortable as a passer, which should be frightening seeing as he won the MVP award in Year 2.

“I just feel like it’s a maturity thing,” he said this week. “I’m still young, but it just took a couple of years for me to adjust, stay down in the pocket, go through more reads if I could. I feel like I’m doing better.”

Martenzie is a writer for The Undefeated. His favorite cinematic moment is when Django said “Y’all want to see somethin?”

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