Jackson shows enough for Ravens to want to see more

November 20, 2018 | Luke Jones

The Ravens don’t need to apologize for Sunday’s strange 24-21 win over Cincinnati.

This is the same franchise that once won a playoff game — the 2009 wild-card round at New England — by 19 points despite completing just four passes for 34 yards. Coming off a three-game losing streak and needing a victory to preserve any realistic shot of making the playoffs, Baltimore did what it needed to do coming off the bye with an injured starting quarterback, running the ball 54 times against a Bengals defense that entered Week 11 ranked 29th in the NFL in allowing 5.0 yards per carry.

That shouldn’t be the knock on Lamar Jackson some have made it out to be after he ran for 117 of the Ravens’ 265 rushing yards, the fifth-highest total in franchise history. The rookie quarterback was far from perfect, but he was a big reason why they won the game, which is as much as you could hope for in his first NFL start coming in a virtual must-win situation. Making it more impressive was that his week of practice was interrupted by a Thursday trip to the hospital for stomach pains.

You obviously don’t need to be Sean McVay to recognize 27 rushing attempts — the most by an NFL quarterback since at least 1960 — being way too many to sustain on a weekly basis if you want Jackson to last, but his running ability is a large part of what makes him so appealing as a quarterback in the first place. He needs to learn to better protect himself, but those rushing yards still counted just the same to the Ravens’ success and shouldn’t be disqualified in assessing his play. Just ask Fran Tarkenton or Steve Young how important the ability to run was to their Hall of Fame careers.

Of course, Jackson the passer remains a major work in progress, but completing 13 of 19 throws for 150 yards is hardly an abomination at 7.9 yards per attempt. In contrast, Joe Flacco was 15 of 29 for only 129 yards in his rookie debut 10 years ago, and he turned out to be a legitimate NFL passer. Jackson throwing an interception as well as another pass that could have been picked in his 19 attempts is far from ideal, but his escape and scramble to find John Brown for 23 yards to set up a field goal in the final 20 seconds of the first half showed his ability to improvise that so many love. His inconsistent release point and footwork are problematic, but the 21-year-old completed four of five passes for 58 yards on Baltimore’s two second-half scoring drives, showing poise with the season all but hanging in the balance.

Jackson did enough for the Ravens to want to see more of him, but can he do more moving forward to create a full-blown quarterback controversy?

Head coach John Harbaugh hasn’t ruled out Flacco for Sunday’s game against Oakland, but he acknowledged it would be tough for the 33-year-old to play as he continues to recover from a hip injury sustained in Week 9. And given how Flacco has struggled when playing at less than 100 percent with  known injuries in the past, the Ravens shouldn’t hesitate to roll with the rookie against a 2-8 Raiders team sporting the league’s 30th-ranked scoring defense.

What the coaching staff asks Jackson to do this week could be telling about his chances of keeping the job for the rest of the season. Unlike the Bengals game that served as the guinea pig for a Jackson-led offense, Jon Gruden and the Raiders coaching staff will have a full game to identify his strengths and weaknesses, minimizing the element of surprise. A similar run-pass ratio would reinforce the idea of the coaching staff lacking confidence in his passing ability and would likely still work against the lowly Raiders, but you’d like to see offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg open up the game plan a little more to see how Jackson handles it. As quarterbacks coach James Urban said during the bye week, “If you put food on the plate and you eat it, then you get more food.”

Jackson showing meaningful growth in the passing department against the Raiders could create a fascinating decision for Harbaugh, who is coaching for his job. Does he show loyalty to the veteran quarterback who won him a Super Bowl and helped get him to the playoffs six times — albeit a long time ago — or go with the rookie quarterback whose development could provide a spark and potentially even save his job?

A poor performance by Jackson in his second start still resulting in a win would make an easy decision to go back to Flacco with three of the next four games coming on the road.

In a vacuum, a healthy Flacco very likely provides the Ravens a better chance to make the playoffs this year and undoubtedly gives them a better passing game, but the running game has clearly been superior with Jackson at quarterback, evident by rookie free agent Gus Edwards’ 115-yard day against the Bengals.

It’s complicated.

Will a less-than-100-percent Flacco — even when deemed healthy enough to return — playing behind the current offensive line really be an ideal fit, especially if the ground game remains so stagnant when Jackson isn’t on the field? Can the Ravens realistically hang tough on the road against Atlanta, Kansas City, and the Los Angeles Chargers using such a run-heavy approach with Jackson at quarterback? Does throwing the rookie into the fire of a playoff race provide valuable experience or potentially stunt his development and confidence if he’s just not ready to be a more consistent NFL passer?

Monday night’s epic showdown between Kansas City and the Los Angeles Rams reminded that there isn’t necessarily a wrong answer. Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes certainly didn’t suffer from sitting out all but one game of his rookie season behind Alex Smith a year ago while Rams quarterback Jared Goff overcame a poor rookie year in 2016 to find much success with a new coaching staff.

In other words, we probably shouldn’t overreact to how Jackson plays or to the quarterback decision Harbaugh makes in the coming weeks — even though we undoubtedly will. No one knows what kind of NFL quarterback Jackson will ultimately become, but his debut showed enough to make it clear the Flacco era is rapidly winding down.

After watching Jackson against the Bengals, I’m looking forward to seeing more.

Whether that means next week, next month, or next year.