A toe-tapping bassline thrummed from the speakers, the rhythm of which was periodically interrupted by gusts of laughter coming from Jackson’s locker, which like all the others in the room was ringed by strings of holiday-colored lights. Which begged the question: Who is having more fun in life at the moment, the young quarterback of the Ravens, or a Disney Imagineer? Lamar Demeatrice Jackson Jr., or a waterslide tester?
“Just gonna play ball,” he said. “Not gonna overthink it.”
The Baltimore Ravens may or may not win a Super Bowl, but they already have established this much: An NFL team can be great without being grim. They have utterly broken all the old patterns and casts with their history-wrecking offense, the first ever to average more than 200 yards passing and 200 yards running per game. “Street ball,” Jackson calls it. Like their lark of a quarterback, they’re at once an embodiment of power and yet feathers on a breeze.
It’s not just Jackson’s combination of twirling elastic-armed passes and jolting footspeed and evasiveness that puts defenders and audiences alike in a trance. There is a boy’s joy in the way he plays, a freedom that has made admirers of both Drake, and actor Al Pacino. In an oral history of “Any Given Sunday” for the Ringer, Pacino said, “There are occasionally these players that are inspiring because you can see the game that they play is a game.”
All of which Jackson absorbs with the innocent, bone-deep modesty of a kid who just wants to go back outside. This is not someone whose head is easily turned. He has yet to even unpack the Heisman Trophy he won at Louisville — “The Heisman’s still in a box,” he said — and shrugged off a team MVP award he won this week.
“I’m just trying to work,” he said. “I want a Super Bowl. All the accolades, I’ll cherish that another time. I’m chasing something else right now.”
He is the grief and shame of the old-schoolers who passed him over, the 32nd player and fifth quarterback chosen in his NFL draft class, and those who whiffed on him must be pounding their foreheads in self-recrimination. He has led the Ravens to more than 30 points on 10 occasions this season, and when Tennessee Titans Coach Mike Vrabel was asked how he will try to slow him down, there was a helpless pause before he replied, “Other than try to tie his shoelaces together?”
Of course, none of it is as easy as the Ravens make it look. Underneath the ease and street ball is incredible discipline, an underrated quality of which Coach John Harbaugh said, “If it was easy, everyone would have it.”
It was not quicksilver speed but rather discipline that has allowed Jackson to grow from an inconsistent flash of a rookie who fumbled three times and threw an interception in the playoffs last year against the Los Angeles Chargers. “He’s made that jump, and mostly because he works hard at it,” quarterbacks coach James Urban said.
He’s now a much sounder decision-maker who knows “when to give and when to pull it, when to go over the top and when to dump it down,” wide receiver Willie Snead IV said.
Jackson’s work ethic is no shock to those on the Ravens staff who were smart enough to look beyond old stereotypes and see him for what he is: not just a physical genius but a mental giant.
“The only thing that surprises me with Lamar is almost every day, every game, he drops my jaw,” Urban says.
It’s only just now becoming apparent to the rest of us that Jackson’s primary weapons are not his arm and legs but his head and heart. The Ravens saw it from the beginning, starting with retired former general manager Ozzie Newsome and his successor Eric DeCosta, whose high appraisal of him “trickled down” to Harbaugh, according to Snead.
“Harb just bought in, and said: ‘This kid is amazing; this kid can grow. He’s a competitor, and he can lead this locker room,’ ” Snead said.
One of the things they saw was the stubborn self-belief it took for Jackson to fend off the conventional thinkers who wanted him to change positions at every step of his career, from Pop Warner in Boynton Beach, Fla. through Louisville and assorted NFL teams. They saw only his legs and speed, not his arm or his mind.
“If that’s your dream, chase it. Don’t let nobody tell you different, ’cause I ain’t let ’em tell me different,” Jackson said.
That independent will was instilled by his mother, Felicia Jones, who practices the same herself. During the draft process she smartly rejected the overtures of agents, because she understood the NFL rookie pay scale made his contract essentially pre-set. It was racket to pay a commission to a stranger for nothing. “Be the head and not the tail,” she has told him since he was a boy. “Don’t be a follower. Be a leader.”
It’s impossible to overstate just how much that strong-mindedness has imbued the Ravens. Many of them are as young as he is — 22 players are either rookies or in the second season – and his attitudes and habits have become theirs.
“I’m not the greatest; I’m not the best, I just want to win,” he said.
“It’s infectious, man,” tight end Mark Andrews said. “I haven’t seen anyone who is just so hell-bent on winning. It’s all he cares about. When he says all he cares about is winning a Super Bowl, he means it. That’s rubbed off on everyone in this locker room, everyone in this facility, everyone in this organization, and everyone in this city. It’s been so much fun to be around a guy who has that kind of It factor.”