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Column: Lamar Jackson has been a difference-maker for the Baltimore Ravens

Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson scores on a run against the Bengals during a game on Nov. 10, 2019, in Cincinnati.
Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson scores on a run against the Bengals during a game on Nov. 10 in Cincinnati.
(Frank Victores / Associated Press)

The arm and legs we see. Those are quantifiable in the prodigious statistics compiled by Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson. To hear his coach tell it, there’s something else that sets apart the NFL’s most electrifying player.

When he lifts the sideline shades, check out the eyes.

“For lack of a better way to explain it, I feel like he’s got a photographic football memory,” coach John Harbaugh said, standing with a reporter after a recent Ravens practice. “He’ll throw the ball to somebody, and I’ll say, `Why’d you do that.’ He’ll say, ‘Well, 22 was low and 23 was high’ — he talks by numbers — ‘and I felt 51 was pushing. So that’s why I went over here.’ He’ll know every number and where they were. So I go back and watch the tape and I’m like, ‘Oh my god. He had it exactly right.’ He always comes off the field and knows exactly where everybody was.

“He’s not perfect; he’ll miss things. But his processing, his ability to know what he saw, I think he sees in photographs. You know how people say the game slows down? Like, you get back there and it’s a blur? It’s not a blur to him. To me, he sees it crystal clear, like a snapshot. He sees it all, and he remembers it.”

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These days, it’s Jackson who’s the blur. The second-year star, whose team plays against the Rams on Monday night at the Coliseum, is the only quarterback in league history to produce at least 2,000 yards passing and 700 yards rushing through a season’s first 10 games.

The Ravens are 14-3 since Jackson took over as their starting quarterback near the end of last season. Jackson’s 14 regular-season victories are tied with Seattle’s Russell Wilson for the most during that span — and, not surprisingly, Jackson and Wilson are the clear Nos. 1 and 2 candidates for most valuable player this season.

The football world sees the youthful effervescence of Jackson, the spirit that drove him to borrow a pair of sunglasses from a team official and relax on the sideline in the midst of a recent blowout victory.

“One of our trainers had them on, and I said, ‘Let me hold them real quick,’” Jackson explained. “I just put them on, was just chilling.”

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Beneath that nonchalance is a player with uncommon focus and intensity.

“You wish everybody could watch Lamar and how he prepares every day — meetings, really everything, just his leadership,” said Baltimore offensive coordinator Greg Roman, the architect of San Francisco’s offense during the heyday of Colin Kaepernick as a dual-threat quarterback.

The San Francisco 49ers’ 37-8 blowout of the Green Bay Packers in prime time underlines their status as the biggest force to be reckoned with in the NFC.

“You wish you could make a little documentary of [Jackson] preparing for a game and kids could watch it, and they could see how much work goes into it.”

The Ravens, a franchise so long defined by their defense, molded their offense around Jackson after he replaced drop-back style Joe Flacco, taking pains to capitalize on his ability to throw as well as run.

In that sense, this is the golden age of dual-threat quarterbacks, from Jackson and Wilson, to Houston’s Deshaun Watson, Arizona’s Kyler Murray, Buffalo’s Josh Allen, and Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes.

“It’s changed in the sense that these guys who are really gifted athletes who can run, whether it’s Lamar or Mahomes, Russell, go through the list,” said Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman, a Fox analyst. “The difference is these guys can beat you in the pocket. That’s why they’re so dangerous.

“I don’t know how far runners ultimately take a team. Now you’ve got that element plus when things aren’t there and they have to make plays in the pocket, they’re making those throws. I’ll always believe that without that part of it, you’re really not a quarterback. You’re basically a running back.”

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Jackson is ranked in the top four in passer rating (106.3), passing touchdowns (19), and pass-to-touchdown percentage (6.8). He has finished with two “perfect” passer ratings this season, against Cincinnati and Miami, to join Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger (2007) as the only quarterbacks to achieve that twice in the same season.

“He’s just been blowing people out of the water, blowing us out of the water,” Ravens receiver Willie Snead said of Jackson. “It’s like, ‘Dude, what are you doing? You’re making crazy plays.’ But it’s been working for us. It’s keeping defenses off balance, but it’s pretty effective for us.”

The NFL is celebrating its 100th season, and there are many behind-the-scenes stories still to be told. Over the course of this season, Times NFL writer Sam Farmer will pull back the curtain and tell some of those, through the eyes of the players and coaches who lived them.

Backing up Jackson is Robert Griffin III, who exploded onto the scene as the No. 2 overall pick by the Washington Redskins in 2012, sustained a knee injury at the end of his rookie season, and — partly because of friction with coaches and their philosophies — never got back to the heights he reached at the start of his NFL career.

Asked if he wished the Redskins had shaped their offense around him the way the Ravens have tailored theirs to Jackson, Griffin said: “I don’t think about that, because all that stuff that happened was part of my journey. It helped me get to where I’m at now with the Ravens, and it put me in a position to be able to mentor Lamar with the knowledge and experiences I do have.

“What I’ve told Lamar since he got here was, this was the best place for him to get drafted. Stable organization, great leadership, with offensive coaches who are willing to not make you fit a mold but build the offense around you. The way that they handle Lamar with the press and the PR team, with social media, is the best I’ve ever seen.”

That said, Griffin has a firm grasp on what Jackson has done for the Ravens, and how the former Louisville star has emerged as a sensation in not just Baltimore but across the league.

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Tackle Orlando Brown Jr., who like Jackson was drafted by Baltimore in 2018, won’t forget when he and the quarterback stopped by a local mall after a practice last December.

“We were just stopping by to get Christmas presents,” Brown recalled. “Man, we’re walking through the mall and we get to Macy’s, he stops for one picture, and I kid you not, the whole mall was surrounding him. It was incredible, bro. We’re talking people walking up to him on Facetime with family, like, ‘Hey, look who I’m with.’ He took pictures for about an hour and 45 minutes. I didn’t want to leave him, but I almost left his [rear] .”

All eyes are on him. And for Jackson, whose eyes are everything, that’s the way it should be.


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