Maybe I’m just a Steelers jerk fan when I ask this question: When John Harbaugh, the coach of the Ravens, says he’s going to revolutionize offense in the NFL, is this just his way of saying, “Yeah, our quarterback isn’t very accurate with his passes, but he sure can run, so we’re going to make the best of it”?
Yes, it’s true, John Harbaugh, a coach known more for his knowledge of special teams and defense, has been pretty adamant early in Ravens training camp that they can do for the modern NFL offense what the 49ers did in the 1980s under the leadership of the brilliant Bill Walsh, in many ways the godfather of the contemporary passing game.
“Standing in front of the team, Harbaugh said the Ravens weren’t going to chase the long-standing model of the drop-back passer. Baltimore is going to break the mold of NFL offenses, the head coach told his players.”
That was a snippet from an ESPN.com article published on July 31, which details Harbaugh’s vision.
The reason for Harbaugh’s decision to go against the grain is his quarterback: Lamar Jackson, the second-year man out of Louisville and the key component to Harbaugh’s master plan.
The Ravens are going to try and keep opponents off-balance with an array of run-pass option schemes designed around Jackson’s ability to make things happen with both his arm and his legs.
Fine, but can Jackson do the arm thing? That’s going to be the real key to this plan. If Jackson can’t, if his accuracy and inability to progress beyond his second read before taking off and running (two things that were listed as weaknesses in his NFL.com Draft Profile), are still problems in 2019, I don’t see how he will last long enough to revolutionize anything.
Jackson set the record for single-season rushing attempts for a quarterback last year with 147. That’s a lot of rushing attempts for a passer that is listed at 212 pounds. Even if Jackson is a little bigger this year, as was mentioned in the ESPN.com story, will his frame be able to withstand the pounding over the course of a 16-game season, especially since Harbaugh seems to indicate his young quarterback would likely smash the single-season record for attempts in 2019?
To the Ravens credit, they recognized they were going nowhere with Joe Flacco a season ago; they made Jackson their starter late in the year, utilized his ability to make things happen with his feet, and they rode him all the way to an unlikely AFC North title.
But in Baltimore’s playoff game against the Chargers, Jackson was exposed as a quarterback a defense could keep in check just as long as it contained him as a runner.
Isn’t that the recipe for any NFL defense, make an offense one-dimensional? And if the strength of an offense is running the football, shutting that element down almost guarantees success.
To lend some expertise to Harbaugh’s vision, he hired Greg Roman as offensive coordinator. Roman was previously the architect of offenses led by Colin Kaepernick and Tyrod Taylor. Therefore, the theory is, he’ll be able to take Jackson, who is considered to have a much higher upside, and, to reiterate, pull a Bill Walsh.
The thing that Walsh did with the 49ers in the 1980s, though, was take advantage of the many rules enacted in the previous decade—narrowing the hash-marks, eliminating bump and run coverage, allowing offensive linemen to extend their arms in pass-protection, etc.—that were clearly designed to favor the passing game. And in case you haven’t been paying attention over the past 40 years or so, the league has never stopped trying to create ways to make passing the football easier.
Instead of trying to take advantage of these rules, the Ravens want to break the mold and go against the grain?
What will the Ravens do if Jackson can’t significantly improve on those aforementioned passing weaknesses? If he does, look out to the entire NFL. Fran Tarkenton and Steve Young are in the Hall of Fame. Michael Vick was likely headed there before he made some very poor life choices. Randall Cunningham was a handful in his day. But what made those guys truly special was that they were complete quarterbacks who could sit back in the pocket and pick defenses apart when they had to.
NFL defenses are filled with freakish athletes who are big, fast and strong. They dream of getting a free shot at the quarterback. Sure, the Ravens might initially do some damage with this planned attack that’s hellbent on revolutionizing modern offense. But what happens when defenses begin to catch up? And it might not take them too long to catch up if Jackson doesn’t have the accuracy to find his shiny new receivers downfield. What happens if Jackson becomes just another run-first quarterback? That’s a lot of hits per game to absorb from those freakish athletes on the other side of the ball.
Not to disparage Jackson too much, but Harbaugh’s plan sounds an awful lot like what the Broncos may have had to do with Tim Tebow had Peyton Manning not been released by the Colts prior to the 2012 season.
Is what Harbaugh’s proposing truly innovative, or is it merely smoke and mirrors aimed at covering up the deficiencies of his young quarterback?
I guess the Steelers and the rest of the NFL will soon find out.