OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The quarterback known for his speed stood motionless. The scrimmaging players in front of him at the Baltimore Ravens’ practice facility on a hot day in late July screamed and flew and crunched, but Lamar Jackson’s arms were hanging at his sides, his feet rooted to the ground.
Inside his helmet, his brown eyes followed everything happening on the field, for one important reason: For the first time in as long as anyone could remember, the game was faster than him.
This preseason, the quickest quarterback in football has had to slow down. He is an electric playmaker, the youngest Heisman Trophy winner in history and, maybe, the Ravens’ future savior, but Jackson probably will spend this season holding a tablet on the sideline as Baltimore’s backup to Joe Flacco. If he doesn’t emerge from training camp as ready as the coaching staff hopes, Jackson may also share reps with “Heisman brother” Robert Griffin III, a paragon of the promise and peril in Jackson’s style.
Jackson struggled throwing in his first two preseason games — hesitations became interceptions, and sacks lost critical yardage — but he has three left to show he can adapt, including Monday night at Indianapolis. Jackson wants to prove the speed won’t overwhelm him.
“I was going to the sideline one play, [and] a linebacker caught me from behind,” Jackson said after his NFL debut, against Chicago in the Hall of Fame game. “I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, you have to run full speed with these guys.’ It was pretty intense.”
Everyone at the Ravens’ facility has noted Jackson’s athleticism this offseason, reviewing it as “eye-opening” and “exceptional.” When Jackson showed it himself with a shifty nine-yard touchdown run against the Los Angeles Rams, even Flacco, who hasn’t expressed excitement over the Ravens drafting a quarterback in the first round, couldn’t help it. “He’s so good at cutting back on guys,” Flacco said. “The ability to stop on a dime . . . it was pretty impressive.”
Yet Jackson said he is “ticked off” he has run for two touchdowns but thrown for none. He knows his play now is feeding the coded words he heard before the NFL draft, when some discussed whether he should switch to a position other than quarterback.
Joel Klatt, a college football analyst for Fox Sports, dismissed that idea. If Jackson avoids injuries (unlike Griffin) and develops as a passer, Klatt said, he could succeed Michael Vick as the league’s preeminent dual threat. The redshirt year he figures to get this season, Klatt pointed out, might help because, he noted, Jackson’s growth as a passer is what made him great in college.
“Early in his [college] career, candidly, the defense would have to defend two things: either his first option throwing the ball, or him running,” Klatt said. “Later in his career, he would get to the second option and the third option, and you would see him use the entirety of the field in the passing concept before he would take off and run. It’s that growth, exhausting the passing options, that will ultimately pay him great dividends moving into the NFL.”
One of training camp’s main challenges so far, Ravens Coach John Harbaugh said, has been helping Jackson learn the playbook because “he’s not really been a play caller [before].” In college, Jackson had some hand signals, one-word calls and no-huddles, but there is complex verbiage with seemingly every call in the Ravens’ system. Jackson seems to be making steady progress, but the most evident point of development still comes when he throws.
When questioned about his progress as a passer, which has been the focal point of his camp, Jackson’s answers are short, reassuring and affable. It is textbook from the son of Felicia Jones, whose only public interview ever was about 50 seconds with ESPN after Jackson won the Heisman in December 2016. Family friends sometimes call her “the anti-LaVar Ball.” She and her son prefer to keep a low profile, and Jackson likes learning by observing. The entire time he is on the sideline, he is watching the offense and the defense, searching for clues.
“He’s really an introvert,” said Lyndon Clemons, a family friend and assistant principal at Florida’s Boynton Beach Community High, Jackson’s alma mater. “He’s like the Terminator, sitting and watching with that little eye going around. He analyzes and processes. You can’t learn when you’re talking.”
At Boynton Beach, Clemons and school resource officer Bill Tome tried to help prepare the bashful boy they knew for the fame they predicted. Once, at school, the bell rang while dozens of students were walking through campus, marking them all tardy. Clemons saw them but chided only Jackson, who became upset for being singled out.
“When you’re a star, they won’t see anybody else,” Clemons recalled telling Jackson. “If you’re at the club, they’re not going to see anybody else.” His voice pitched up sharply as Clemons impersonated a bystander: “Lamar Jackson did it!”
Quicker than they like to remember, Jackson graduated, moved to Louisville and became a star. The entire time, though, he kept his circle small and, after he was drafted, the Ravens emulated his mother’s approach in declining the onslaught of media requests.
If Jackson is indeed the franchise’s savior, he probably will have to wait at least a year to show it. 2019 is the first year the Ravens could move on from Flacco’s sizable contract, and this preseason the veteran quarterback has been praised for his play during training camp. Even if Jackson sees the field for certain trick plays, the type Baltimore has been practicing this summer, there could be a lot of standing around for him during his rookie year.
All camp, Harbaugh seemed cautious about Jackson’s progress. He stressed he wanted to avoid judging it until he saw him in a game. Then, after the Bears matchup, his tone changed.
“He does seem poised for a rookie,” Harbaugh said. “He may not know everything. He took a sack in the fringe when we had a chance for a field goal — twice now. He knows that. He comes off the field and knows exactly what he did, and I think he’s really going to continue to blossom for that reason.”
On that hot day in late July, Jackson went in at quarterback and threw a few passes that spun tight and a few that wobbled. Then Griffin subbed in and Jackson shifted out wide left as a receiver. Griffin took the snap and pitched to Jackson, who caught the ball in the backfield and cocked his arm, ready to throw, but saw a defensive lineman bearing down. He tucked the ball and ran, flashing the skill that makes opposing defenses and sometimes his own coaches afraid.
Jackson juked left, then right, then back again. He found himself trapped on both sides by two linemen, but he spun away, and they threw up their hands in frustration. Then Jackson slipped past the safety, who was left shaking his head, and sprinted to the end zone.
When he got there, Jackson turned around and ran off the field. Back on the sideline, he stood next to Harbaugh, his hands hanging by his sides. This time, however, his feet didn’t stay planted. He swayed back and forth, slowly shaking out his legs.