Three letters reverberated around M&T Bank Stadium following Lamar Jackson’s final touchdown run in the Ravens’ convincing 37-20 win over New England on Sunday night.
M-V-P! M-V-P! M-V-P!
It’s a chant that’s rarely been uttered for a Ravens player — not counting two Super Bowl celebrations, of course — in the history of the franchise. Jamal Lewis garnered light consideration on his way to a 2,000-yard season in 2003 before finishing fourth in the voting and settling for Associated Press Offensive Player of the Year. Ray Lewis and Ed Reed may have heard a stray chant from time to time in their respective primes, but only two defensive players — Alan Page (1971) and Lawrence Taylor (1986) — have ever been voted AP NFL MVP, meaning neither Hall of Famer had any legitimate chance.
Yes, the truth is now clear, even if you were still holding back after Jackson’s performance in the road win at Seattle two weeks ago. A three-touchdown night against a Patriots defense off to a historic statistical start through its first eight games put the 22-year-old quarterback firmly in the MVP running — even if he has a greater team goal in mind than the one thousands of Ravens fans were referring to.
“We’ve got a lot of season left to play,” Jackson said. “We’re worried about the next game. I don’t really care about [MVP]. I appreciate it, but like I said before, I want something better than that.”
Look beyond the numbers — which are damn good already — and recognize what you’re watching with your own two eyes every week. As Jackson himself noted, there’s a long way to go, but he’s a legitimate MVP candidate and the Ravens are a strong Super Bowl contender after starting 6-2 for the first time since 2012.
That’s not to say Jackson is the favorite with the likes of Russell Wilson, Deshaun Watson, Aaron Rodgers, Dak Prescott, and Patrick Mahomes still in the MVP mix to varying degrees. In the same way the Triple Crown categories — batting average, home runs, and runs batted in — carried the MVP clout in baseball for years before modern analytics helped us more fully appreciate a generational all-around talent like Mike Trout, MVP quarterbacks have been judged solely on their passing acumen with few exceptions over the years.
Jackson is an exception. He could end up being the ultimate exception if he continues ripping through the quarterback rushing record book. That’s not something to be dismissed as a footnote or little more than a tiebreaker when comparing him to other quarterbacks who have only a fraction of the athleticism and running ability he possesses. Jackson’s 637 rushing yards are still more than four other entire teams through Week 9.
It’s time for dwindling critics to stop viewing that ability as something for which he needs to apologize and to start appreciating how special it truly is. Yes, he could get hurt on any given play just like the many quarterbacks who’ve been injured standing in the pocket this year instead of being on the move and avoiding contact as Jackson is seemingly adept at doing. There’s always that risk for any player.
No, Jackson isn’t the best passer in the league and may never be despite the substantial improvement he’s already shown from his rookie year. But he ranks 13th or better in passer rating, QBR, and yards per attempt and is on pace to throw for over 3,600 yards and 24 touchdowns in his first full season as a starter. And he’s done that without the legitimate No. 1 wide receiver that many of the aforementioned quarterbacks enjoy.
Of Baltimore’s six conversions on third and fourth downs against the Patriots on Sunday, all but one came on pass completions against the AFC’s best defense, illustrating the faith both he and the coaching staff have in his right arm in key moments.
Simply put, the gap between Jackson and the best passers in the league is a hell of a lot smaller than the discrepancy between him and all but a few quarterbacks in the rushing department. That dual-threat ability that includes a pace of rushing for over 1,250 yards — which would shatter Michael Vick’s single-season quarterback record — is far more valuable than a less mobile quarterback with moderately better passing numbers.
But it’s more than just the combination of passing and rushing numbers that make his MVP candidacy legitimate. Having won 21 straight games against rookie and second-year quarterbacks, the Patriots and their various defensive looks never fazed Jackson from the moment he was in the grasp on his third-down pass to Marquise Brown on the opening drive until his 1-yard touchdown push with 3:19 remaining in the game. He is as cool as young quarterbacks come and continues to make highlights every week while committing just five turnovers all season after ball security was a major problem in his rookie year.
Few quarterbacks — especially young ones — consistently make dynamic plays while also taking care of the football, but that’s exactly what Jackson is doing with 17 total touchdowns, only five interceptions, and not a single one of his four credited fumbles lost. The four quarterbacks drafted before Jackson in last year’s first round have combined for 29 total touchdowns and 33 interceptions this season, reminding us how challenging this really is and how easy Jackson is making it look.
“He has a very high football IQ. He also understands the moment. He has poise,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “It just goes to the way he thinks and the way his mind works. He has an amazing ability to take a lot of factors, a lot of things — play clock, play call, personnel, formation, defense that presents, whatever changes that have to made — and just process all of that in that kind of a moment, which is what makes the position at quarterback so difficult.”
The best MVP argument for Jackson is how much better he makes the rest of his team, an assessment not made with haste after observing the first 15 regular-season starts of his young career. Harbaugh, offensive coordinator Greg Roman, and the rest of the coaching staff built an offense around his strengths this past offseason, but it’s a system that wouldn’t work without him.
Jackson’s move to the starting lineup last November instantly turned one of the NFL’s worst running games into the best because of the pressure his athleticism puts on a defense used to playing 11-on-10 football on the ground. That dynamic rushing attack has allowed the Ravens to dominate time of possession, protect leads, and keep their defense better rested over 60 minutes. Jackson’s ability to take off from the pocket forces opponents to play more zone coverage, making it easier for Baltimore’s tight ends and wide receivers to find open windows and for Jackson’s accuracy issues to be mitigated.
Even when much of that breaks down like it did against the Seahawks two weeks ago when the between-the-tackles run game wasn’t there and his receivers couldn’t catch a cold, Jackson is capable of putting his team on his back. Whether he’s throwing five touchdowns and posting a perfect passer rating, rushing for 100 yards, or simply playing smart and efficient football without the gaudiest of numbers like he did against the Patriots, you can easily see his teammates — young and old — believe in him.
That may not garner the necessary support with voters used to viewing MVP quarterbacks through a more traditional lens, but those qualities could take the Ravens deep into January.
Or even February.
“I’m right with the crowd. I mean that. This man is the MVP,” six-time Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas said. “I’m right behind him. I’m backing him. He makes my job easier, and when you finish the game like that, it’s just a sigh of relief again for us.”