Electric passing efficiency driving Lamar Jackson to historic MVP season

December 14, 2019 | Luke Jones

The post-game question about the record made Lamar Jackson’s eyes grow wide as he then pumped his fist, but it wasn’t the same accomplishment everyone else was talking about on Thursday night.

The Ravens quarterback made clear he would always “cherish” breaking the NFL single-season quarterback rushing record held by Michael Vick. However, learning he had tied Vinny Testaverde’s franchise-best mark for touchdown passes in a season prompted an enthusiastic reaction from the man determined to be known as much more than just a running quarterback.

“Throwing them. No running records — besides the little rushing record,” said Jackson as he smiled. “But throwing, that’s amazing.”

His unparalleled athleticism at the quarterback position and ability to make NFL defenders look like awkward adolescents in the open field take center stage on SportsCenter and social media, but you really do believe Jackson when he tells you he’d rather throw than run. And his passing efficiency has cemented his status as the clear-cut favorite to win the league’s most valuable player award. The five-touchdown performance in the 42-21 win over the New York Jets gave Jackson seven more touchdown throws than any quarterback in the NFL despite 22 others having more passing attempts even before the remainder of Week 15 play on Sunday and Monday.

We know the success of Baltimore’s top-ranked scoring offense begins with a rushing attack that’s already shattered the old franchise record set by the 2003 team that featured 2,000-yard rusher Jamal Lewis, but Jackson has eaten defenses alive in the red zone, throwing 22 touchdowns without an interception for a 110.8 passer rating in that area. Entering Sunday, the Ravens had attempted fewer passes than all but three other teams this season, but Jackson has been superb when throwing, improving his completion percentage from 58.2 as a rookie to 66.2 percent (11th in the NFL) this season.

Tight end Mark Andrews and rookie wide receiver Marquise Brown are his top targets with a combined 15 touchdown receptions, but Jackson threw a touchdown to five different players against the Jets on Thursday, meaning eight different Ravens have now caught at least two touchdowns this season. The volume of targets may not be there for a group more frequently asked to do the dirty work of blocking in the run game, but the connections certainly are when called upon.

“That’s just the chemistry and hard work. We’re taking practice like it’s a game,” Jackson said. “That’s one thing I had to work on individually by myself. Because our guys work so hard, I’ve been wanting to throw dimes to them and make sure to make their job a lot easier catching them in stride, and they just help me out by catching the ball and doing what they do.”

The combination of Jackson’s explosive running and passing efficiency is unlike anything we’ve seen, already dating the predictable comparisons to Vick as the former has already thrown more touchdowns and completed a higher percentage of passes in a season than his favorite player did at any point in his career. Ironically, this 22-year-old quarterback and run-first offense that many say are changing the game are doing things you have to go back generations to find comparisons.

Jackson has 33 touchdown passes this season in 370 passing attempts, 179 fewer than Testaverde in 1996 and 142 fewer throws than Jameis Winston with his 26 touchdowns and 23 interceptions entering Week 15. The only other quarterbacks to throw 33 or more touchdowns in 370 or fewer pass attempts in a season were Y.A. Tittle in 1963 and George Blanda in 1961, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com.

What other quarterbacks have thrown 30 or more touchdowns in a season while passing for fewer than 3,000 yards? Just Len Dawson in 1964 and Johnny Unitas in 1959 — the first of three MVP seasons for the Baltimore legend.

Dating back to 1950, a quarterback has thrown five or more touchdowns in 23 or fewer pass attempts in a game only 31 times. Only nine have occurred in the 21st century with Jackson responsible for three this season. Only two other quarterbacks — Eddie LeBaron and Craig Morton — had even done that twice in their entire careers.

Such numbers shouldn’t be interpreted as perfect comparisons across eras of football with very different rules, but they do make you think back to John Harbaugh’s offseason comments about an offensive “revolution” and using offensive concepts not seen in the NFL in decades. The combination of an offense designed perfectly for its quarterback’s strengths and Jackson’s unique skills and markedly improved accuracy have resulted in the Ravens sporting the league’s most devastating offense.

It’s a perfect marriage that’s just getting started, a terrifying thought for the rest of the league. Jackson understandably garners more attention for his exhilarating rushing ability, but the steps he’s already taken as a passer — one who won’t turn 23 until next month — should dismiss the questions about his career longevity beyond the usual injury risk any NFL player assumes.

Jackson may no longer be a 1,000-yard rusher in three years, five years, or a decade from now, but the passing acumen he’s already displaying makes you more and more confident that he won’t need to be.

He’s the deserved MVP and only getting better for the NFL’s best team riding a 10-game winning streak and needing one more victory to lock up home-field advantage throughout the postseason.

“It starts with the quarterback playing well. He’s played well for a long time now,” said 13th-year guard and seven-time Pro Bowl selection Marshal Yanda. “As far as [him] being a young player, you would think — I’m thinking in the back of my mind — sooner or later he’s going to have a young, second-year growing-pains game, and the kid just keeps playing winning football.”