Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens broke the N.F.L.’s cardinal rule last year: They dared to try something different.
In a league where “innovation” means adding divider tabs to the sacred playbook handed down from Bill Walsh and a young quarterback’s running ability is regarded as a childish indulgence never to be encouraged, the Ravens had the audacity to build their entire scheme around Jackson’s dual-threat capability as a rusher and a passer. The Ravens’ offense was part sandlot and part leather helmet throwback, plus a dash of rugby. It was unique, thrilling and unpredictable, and it worked. Until the playoffs, that is.
The Ravens set an N.F.L. record with 3,296 rushing yards in 2019. They became the first team since the 1978 New England Patriots to gain more than 3,000 rushing yards in a season. Jackson set the single-season quarterback rushing record with 1,206 yards.
The few modern offenses that featured rushing quarterbacks like Bobby Douglass, in the 1970s, and Tim Tebow, in the early 2010s, were typically built to hide the fact that those individuals threw the football like a beach ball or read a defense like the fine print on a mortgage. But Jackson led the N.F.L. with 36 touchdown passes in 2019, finished third in the league with a 113.3 efficiency rating and won the league’s Most Valuable Player Award. The Ravens became the first team in modern N.F.L. history to average both 200 rushing and 200 passing yards per game.
The innovations ran deeper than just adding more designed quarterback runs to the playbook. The Ravens used the “pistol” formation — Jackson 4 yards behind the center, the running back or backs 3 yards behind him — more than anyone else, deploying it on over 50 percent of their offensive plays last season. The Ravens also used their three tight ends the way conventional teams use wide receivers, targeting them for 42 percent of the team’s passes, another modern-era record.
Finally, the Ravens were by far the most aggressive team in pro history on fourth downs. According to Football Outsiders, Coach John Harbaugh was nearly four times more likely to attempt a fourth-down conversion than the typical N.F.L. coach. The Ravens converted 17 times in 24 attempts in the regular season, an excellent success rate.
Thanks to their unconventional offense and dynamic quarterback, the Ravens finished the 2019 regular season with a 14-2 record, outscoring opponents by an average margin of 33-17 and defeating powerhouses like the Patriots and the San Francisco 49ers. Football Outsiders’s statistical analysis ranked the 2019 Ravens as the seventh-best team of the last 35 years, listing them in the same company as the 2007 Patriots, who were undefeated in the regular season, and the 1985 Chicago Bears.
The regular-season dominance came to naught when the Ravens were upset by the Tennessee Titans, 28-12, in the divisional round of last year’s playoffs. Jackson threw two interceptions and lost a fumble in that game. The Ravens failed to convert two fourth-and-1 opportunities, with the Titans scoring quickly after each failure.
The defeat, coming after a swift playoff dispatch at the hands of the Chargers in 2018, provided ammunition for the football orthodoxy eager to write off the Ravens as a novelty act with a system ill-suited to “win the big game” and a quarterback who needed to settle down in a nice, safe pocket like a grown-up.
Last year’s playoff loss did not really reveal any fundamental flaw or moral shortcoming in Jackson or the Ravens’ philosophy, though it did expose some of the 2019 Ravens’ minor, prosaic weaknesses.
Their run defense ranked just 21st in the league, according to Football Outsiders analytics, and the Titans’ Derrick Henry rumbled through tackles for several big gains in the playoff loss. The Ravens’ receiving corps was thin and inexperienced, leaving Jackson to throw to burly tight ends while trying to play catch-up.
The Ravens addressed those weaknesses in the off-season by signing the free-agent defenders Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe, and drafting reinforcements at receiver. Factor in further development from the 23-year-old Jackson, and the Ravens enter the 2020 season on a short list of top Super Bowl contenders.
The rest of the league, however, still appears to regard the Ravens as either a fad, an outlier or a dangerous subversive. There are no Ravens copycats trying to turn their dual-threat quarterbacks into Jackson imitators. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman was not plucked away to be some other team’s head coach. After decades of emphasizing the importance of pocket passing and the perils of allowing a quarterback to run too frequently, the N.F.L. hegemony seems to be waiting for the Ravens to fall short again, or for Jackson to get hurt, so the naysayers can cluck their tongues.
To their credit, the Ravens remain committed to bucking conventional wisdom; there has been no rhetoric about Jackson running less this year. If the Ravens can break through their playoff ceiling and reach the Super Bowl, they will open doors for more players like Jackson, open minds in the league to new ideas and change the way N.F.L. football looks forever.
If the Ravens keep stumbling, however, their system will be blamed and scrapped, and Jackson’s game will be altered to fit the traditional quarterback mold. And the sport will be poorer as a result.