For a very long time the question hovering over Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson has been this: What will he do next?
Will he jump over a dude? Throw for 500 yards? Rush for 100? Win another prestigious award? Because he’s done all those things, and seems primed for more.
Bobby Petrino saw that, lived that. The head coach at Louisville from 2014-18 (as well as 2003-06), he helped Jackson blossom from a three-star recruit into a Heisman Trophy winner. And when asked now for a favorite Jackson moment, Petrino struggles to answer.
“There was,” he says, “a lot of them.”
That’s still true. In his second year with the Ravens he was a unanimous choice as the NFL’s MVP, an honor that lost some of its luster when Baltimore bowed out of the playoffs with a first-round loss to Tennessee.
What will he do next? Hard to say, given the manner in which the coronavirus pandemic hovered over training camps as they opened in mid-August, threatening to curtail or cancel the season. On a somewhat lighter note, Jackson is seeking to overcome the Sports Illustrated cover jinx, the long-held notion that misfortune is bound to befall whomever appears on the front of the magazine, as he did the Aug. 15 issue.
The accompanying story posited that Jackson had changed the very idea of what a quarterback is, and should be — how a dual-threat guy could in fact pass and run with equal proficiency, and achieve great things in the NFL. Previously a QB wearing such a label was likely to be an athletic guy and a suspect passer — a novelty, really, as opposed to a guy who could be relied upon to deliver long-term success.
No longer, though. Not after a season in which Jackson became the first NFL quarterback to pass for over 3,000 yards and rush for over 1,000. Not after he led the Ravens to a league-high 531 points, a 14-2 finish and a division championship.
“In 2020, this is how quarterbacks are going to play,” former Baltimore cornerback Brandon Carr told SI’s Jenny Vrentas. “And I am pretty sure if you look at the little leagues right now, those coaches have been having their best players doing those things. We can redefine quarterback right now.”
Added sportswriter Brandon Howard, “I love how Lamar is dismantling those preconceived ideas about what a quarterback should be and how he should play.”
Finally, there was Washington executive Doug Williams, once a Super Bowl-winning quarterback himself.
“Unfortunately you’re not going to get a Lamar Jackson every year,” he told Vrentas. “But the next Lamar Jackson that does come out, I don’t think the coaches and the scouts are going to sit around and say what he can’t do as a quarterback. They’re going to take a page out of Baltimore, and go back and get the tape and see what they did with Lamar Jackson, and use that. He’s given them a little more hope now, because of what he’s done.”
Again, Petrino was there when Jackson was still on the launching pad. He had recruited him out of Pompano Beach, Fla., while promising Lamar’s mom, Felicia Jones, that her son would be used exclusively at QB, and be given ample opportunity to play as a freshman. And never mind that Petrino, unlike assistant coach Lamar Thomas, hadn’t actually seen him play.
“We broke a rule,” Petrino, now the head coach at Missouri State, said with a laugh “One of the rules I always had when we recruited a quarterback was that you had to see him in person throw the ball before you accepted his commitment, but because he wanted to come, I took the commitment.”
He would never regret it. Indeed, the first day of preseason drills, Petrino was standing next to his athletic director, Tom Jurich, as Jackson ran the Cardinals’ offense.
“Watch this guy throw the ball,” Petrino told Jurich.
Sure enough, Jackson zipped his next pass for a touchdown.
He didn’t start right away, but he was on the field for the first play of the season opener against Auburn, lining up at running back and taking a pitch. The idea was to throw an option pass off that. Jackson did. It was intercepted.
No matter. He ran for 106 yards that day, and wound up starting eight games his freshman year. The last of those, a 27-21 victory over Texas A&M in the Music City Bowl, was a portent of things to come, as Jackson rushed for 227 yards and passed for 226, while accounting for all four Cardinals touchdowns. He was named the game’s MVP, but hardly rested on his laurels.
“It’s the greatest thing in the world,” Petrino said, “when you’ve got a guy that’s the best player, the most talented, and on the practice field he works harder than everybody else.”
The Heisman came the following season, when Jackson threw for 3,543 yards and 30 touchdowns, and ran for 1,571 yards and 21 scores. After another productive season the Ravens used the final pick of the first round in the 2018 draft to select him. As Vrentas points out, he was the last of five quarterbacks taken in the first round that year, and Baltimore seemed to draft him only reluctantly. The Ravens traded down, from No. 16 to No. 22 to No. 25, then chose another player, tight end Hayden Hurst. Only when they engineered another deal, back into the first round, were they able to choose Jackson.
By the middle of his rookie season he was installed as the starter, winning six of his seven starts to lead the Ravens to the playoffs. Then he busted out in 2019 — in part, Vrentas writes, because Baltimore changed offensive coordinators, in part because he worked with renowned throwing coach Tom House in the offseason, and improved his accuracy from 58.2 percent to 66.1 percent.
“It really doesn’t surprise me, just because you know him so well,” Petrino said. “You know how hard he worked. One of the things I always knew was how well he threw the football. And nobody could get past how well he ran it, so they never even believed me when I told them that. But I give the Ravens a lot of credit. They spent the time, came in and did extra work, met with coaches, really studied and knew what they were getting with Lamar. So I give them credit, over all the other NFL teams.”
So the question lingers: What will he do next? And the answer appears to be, anything he wants. His gifts are peerless, his potential limitless. Lamar Jackson, it seems, can soar to unprecedented heights.