Tue, Dec 10, 2019

LOS ANGELES — In the buildup to the 2018 NFL Draft, the small circle around Lamar Jackson adopted a mantra to keep them focused. Jackson, his mother and the select few they chose to surround themselves with are all people of strong Christian faith, and they leaned heavily on one particular teaching of Jesus from the Book of Matthew.

Those who start out first shall finish last. Those who start out last shall finish first. That’s what they repeated over and over in the winter and spring of 2018 as they decided to go about the pre-draft process their own way, as Jackson was asked to work out at receiver at the combine and as people across the NFL questioned the Heisman winner’s professional future.

The Baltimore Ravens drafted Jackson with the last pick of the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft. After Monday night in Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum where he threw for five touchdowns, he should be first on everyone’s MVP ballot.

The 9-2 Ravens trounced the Rams 45-6 in a game L.A. desperately needed as the NFC playoff picture begins to congeal. Meanwhile, Baltimore hasn’t won a game by less than two possessions in a month and a half.

“Put a lot of points up on the board. Best in the business I would say,” Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey humbly mustered at his locker, still hot from his postgame verbal altercation with Ravens cornerback Marcus Peters, whom he replaced in L.A. last month.

Ravens head coach John Harbaugh knows, without a doubt, what he has with this team is special. The Ravens have outscored their last three opponents, 145-26, with Jackson playing as a top-three quarterback in the league in passer rating and a top-10 running back in rushing yards. Jackson finished the evening going 15-for-20 passing for 169 yards and another 95 yards on the ground without playing the final three possessions of the game.

Harbaugh is doing his best to tamp down excitement around the team and keep everyone in purple focused. Ask him if he feels this group has a special sort of chemistry.

“I do. I felt that way last year, too,” he said, referring to last year’s division champs who lost in the wild-card round.

Sure, John. But the way you beat the defending NFC champions in their place?

“Yeah – I mean it’s good for this week, but next week it doesn’t give you anything,” he said. “You get one win no matter how many you win by.”

OK so let’s get into the game. The play where Jackson dropped the handoff fake in the second quarter, picked it up, scrambled up the middle of the field while breaking a tackle and juking a Rams defender before getting tripped up just before the goal line. What was going through your mind, John, as the NFL collective held its breath?

“I don’t remember,” Harbaugh said politely as possible. “I hardly remember the play, to be honest with you.”

Oh … sure. The Ravens got five possessions with Jackson before a gentleman’s mercy rule was applied in the fourth quarter, and Jackson threw for a touchdown on all five.

(The last score was especially delightful when, after the Rams had finally held the Ravens to a field goal and forced Sam Koch to earn his paycheck as the Baltimore punter, the home team had too many men on the field. That left the Ravens with fourth-and-4 from the L.A. 33 and brought out the best kicker in the game today [and perhaps ever] for his first field-goal attempt of the night. Jackson then ran onto the field with offensive personnel, told Tucker to take a hike and connected with Miles Boykin for a 15-yard fourth-down conversion to continue the drive.)

The comparisons to Michael Vick have hit a fever pitch recently, and because he was in the Coliseum Monday night, let’s be clear. Vick paved the way for Jackson by inspiring a generation of boys to play the position in a different way while forcing dyed-in-the-wool coaches to better suit their scheme to personnel. Vick was the most electrifying player in football in the mid-2000s, and the best season of his career came in 2010 when he paired with Andy Reid (and had now Ravens quarterbacks coach James Urban as his QB coach.)

Vick’s arm was stronger and he was probably faster than Jackson is today. But at no point was Vick ever this good.

Jackson is beating teams inside and outside of the pocket. He’s winning with his legs and his arm and his football smarts. He’s beaten Tom Brady and Russell Wilson by double digits. He’s beaten Deshaun Watson like he’s never been beaten before. He faced the defending NFC champions and nearly got his third perfect passer rating of the season after becoming the second player in NFL history to have two in one season.

For the fourth time this season, Jackson posted a passer rating above 139 with a minimum of 15 pass attempts. Before Monday, a player has done that four times in a single season just seven times. Five of those instances led to the player winning the AP NFL MVP (2007 and 2010 Tom Brady, 2011 and 2014 Aaron Rodgers and 2016 Matt Ryan).

A future first-ballot Hall of Famer, Russell Wilson is as close as he’s ever been to the league’s top individual award. Michael Thomas has a fun—albeit unrealistic—case, too. And Jackson is simply pulling away from them with a month left on the calendar while being unable to pad his stats in four fourth quarters this season based upon his domination of the first three quarters of those respective games.

When Jackson’s personal coach, Joshua Harris, finally got his hands back on Jackson following his 2018 rookie season, Harris told him to focus on staying disciplined and find his rhythm. Do those two things, and a Pro Bowl berth would be coming in 2019.

“No, coach. Super Bowl,” Jackson told him.

What we’ve seen in the now-viral sideline exchange with his head coach is what Jackson has been saying all year. When Marquise Brown couldn’t haul in his third touchdown on what looked to be a perfect throw on a slant, Jackson took the blame. When he was filleting a proud Rams defense the worst it had ever been in the historic Coliseum, Jackson deferred the acclaim to offensive coordinator Greg Roman, saying it was Roman who “outdid himself.”

Immediately after the game, Jackson approached Pro Bowl right guard Marshall Yanda to apologize for a sack Jackson took that he figured would reflect poorly on the offensive line even though, to Jackson, it was his fault and he has to do better.

“I said, ‘Listen bud you’re doing a great job. We’re behind you. Don’t worry about that one play,'” Yanda says. “That’s the type of guy he is. He’s a respectful, hard-working dude. You rally behind a guy like that.

“And if he wasn’t like that, we’d still have to rally behind him. But it makes it that much more special with the type of guy he is.”

The MVP chants came early and often for Jackson in Los Angeles. He heard and appreciated them, but he didn’t revel in it.

“It’s cool,” Jackson said, “but I’m trying to win the Super Bowl. That’s the goal and I’m chasing that right now. We got the 49ers right now … and that’s what I’m focused on.”

The Ravens have yet another momentous tilt, this time with the 10-1 49ers this Sunday. And if he can win that one, who then will doubt him?

Who could doubt him?

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