Having won a division title behind the unpolished arm and supersonic legs of their rookie quarterback, the Ravens started over this offseason. They promoted Greg Roman to replace Marty Mornhinweg as offensive coordinator. At the urging of Coach John Harbaugh, and in line with the vision of management all the way up to ownership, Roman and his staff promptly tore down what the Ravens had been and fashioned an entirely new plan built around the specific strengths of Jackson.
“There are several coaches on our staff that have always wanted to do this: ‘What would I do if I could start from square zero?’ ” Roman said this past week at Ravens minicamp. “So we’ve been granted that opportunity.”
With training camp a little more than a month away, the Ravens represent both an offensive laboratory and a study in what happens when a franchise commits to a franchise quarterback. Last year, Jackson was a rookie who spoke softly in the huddle and tossed wobbly spirals. He was a first-round athletic marvel acquired to mature for a season behind Joe Flacco, a former Super Bowl winner at the end of an eight-figure contract and an entirely different species of quarterback. Jackson is now the center of Baltimore’s universe.
Jackson emerged last season after Flacco suffered an injury, steering Baltimore — and its fearsome defense — from 4-5 to the AFC North title after a midstream shift in offensive philosophy and cementing the Ravens’ hopes that he would be their future. They spent their offseason reshaping their franchise around him, managing their roster with his skills in mind and remaking an offense to suit the same.
“You build around your players and nobody more so than your quarterback,” Harbaugh said. “We need to build everything around what he can do. Offense, defense and even special teams are built with that in mind: ‘What kind of a team are we going to be based on the skill set of the quarterback?’ ”
One feature of making a definitive choice of a franchise quarterback is that it provides a road map for decision-making. The New England Patriots load up on shifty, versatile wide receivers to take advantage of Tom Brady’s precision and quick release. The Kansas City Chiefs put burners around Patrick Mahomes to take advantage of his extraterrestrial arm strength. The Los Angeles Rams centered their offense on play-action passes to make Jared Goff comfortable. It sets an organizational course.
For the Ravens, this included re-signing Robert Griffin III and drafting Trace McSorley to give them two mobile backup quarterbacks who can replicate Jackson’s running ability. They added running back Mark Ingram, a hammering inside runner who complements Jackson’s ability on read-option plays, which ask Jackson to hand the ball off or keep it himself based on what he sees from the defense.
With their first-round pick this year, the Ravens chose Oklahoma wide receiver Marquise Brown, perhaps the fastest player in college football last season, a weapon capable of stretching the field and rearranging the defense’s coverage by himself. The desire to add speed around Jackson reached the top of the organization.
“We realized as much as anybody else did that we had 11 [sets of] eyes on Lamar near the end of the year,” owner Steve Bisciotti said this spring. “I don’t think that, because of maybe a lack of speed, we could spread those eyes out. They were focused on him, and to make him grow I think we had to put some speed around him.”
As they tweaked their roster, the Ravens remodeled their playbook. Starting in early January, Ravens coaches underwent what Roman, previously the coordinator of a run-heavy San Francisco 49ers offense quarterbacked by Colin Kaepernick, called “a real thorough housecleaning.” They studied their own players, explored trends across the league and called outside coaches to discuss new ideas. Former Georgia Tech and Navy coach Paul Johnson, an expert at the triple option, visited during organized team activities.
NFL teams make changes to their offenses every year, with the usual tweaks that Harbaugh compared to a technology company releasing new editions of the same product. This year the Ravens have taken things to the extreme.
“We’re probably doing iPhone 1 now,” Harbaugh said. “We have a whole new idea. It’s not that there’s anything new in there, concept-wise, that has never been done in football before. But the way we put it together, to me, is unique and different.”
In a league that is only getting more pass-happy every season, the Ravens will lean on their rushing attack, as they did after Jackson took over last season. Roman coordinated the run game last year, and this year’s edition will be similar, though not identical, to the punishing, versatile scheme full of runs designed for Jackson and zone-read concepts. The passing game will be a more radical change, using more quick passes and two-way options for wideouts created with Jackson in mind.
“We’re using more of his traits now than we did last year,” wide receiver Chris Moore said.
When returning players arrived for offseason workouts, they realized how much the offense had changed. They relearned even the most basic aspects — where to stand in the huddle, how snap counts would be declared, at what tempo plays would be run.
“We started from scratch,” Moore said. “When we came in for the first football school, we had a brand new playbook. All the plays were different. Everything — the wording — was completely different.”
The changes were welcome. Asked what he liked about Roman’s scheme, Jackson replied, “Everything.” He hesitated, as if scanning his mind for specifics, before repeating himself: “Everything.”
Roman had designed with two imperatives in mind: Make the system easier for his players, and make it more complicated for the defense. He shrank and simplified the terminology; Jackson can call a play with just a few words, and receivers can read coverages to change their routes on the fly. David Culley, the wide receivers coach and passing game coordinator, was instrumental in designing pass plays, particularly two- and three-wideout clusters Roman hadn’t previously employed.
“It puts a lot of stress on the defense,” Ingram said. “It’s a lot of different looks trying to accomplish the same things but from a lot of different formations.”
Those formations will hinge on how Roman deploys tight ends. On any given snap, tight end Mark Andrews said, he may line up out wide, in the backfield, on the end of the offensive line — “anywhere.” The Ravens made blocking tight end Nick Boyle a priority, re-signing him to a three-year, $18 million contract, with $10 million guaranteed. The price surprised many around the league, but Boyle’s versatility as a blocker suits Roman’s rushing attack perfectly, allowing the Ravens to hunt mismatches based on how the defense responds to which tight ends are on the field and how they line up.
“There’s no other tight end system in the league that uses tight ends the way the Ravens do,” Andrews said.
As the Ravens have crafted a system for Jackson, teammates have noticed more confidence in him, both in the huddle and in interactions with teammates.
“You can definitely tell,” Andrews said. “Lamar is our guy, and everyone is behind him. The teams I’ve been on that have had, at quarterback, ‘the guy,’ and everyone’s been around that guy, have been good teams. You need that guy. It’s kind of hard to play with two quarterbacks. Now that we have the solidified guy in Lamar, it’s going to be fun to see.”
In a telling gesture, the Ravens put the locker of new arrival Earl Thomas, one of the greatest defensive players of his era and a renowned leader, next to Jackson’s. Every day before practice, the veteran safety laughs and jokes with the young quarterback.
“He’s a star in the making,” Thomas said. “Box office.”