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One of the best modern examples of the complete quarterback was Steve Young. In many ways, he set the standard for the evolution of the position we are witnessing.
During his Hall of Fame career, Young led the NFL in passer rating six times and completion percentage five times, and his 43 career rushing touchdowns is second all-time among quarterbacks in the Super Bowl era. The 4,239 career rushing yards he compiled in 15 seasons with the Buccaneers (briefly) and the Niners ranks fourth (behind Michael Vick, Randall Cunningham and Cam Newton) at the position, post-AFL-NFL merger.
In short, no player has been a more complete quarterbacking weapon than Young.
Yet, astonishingly, Young would seem slow and stiff compared to the startling number of speedy, athletic and accurate young passers in the league now.
Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson (460 rushing yards and two touchdowns), Houston’s Deshaun Watson (164 yards and five touchdowns), Arizona’s Kyler Murray (238 yards and two touchdowns) and Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes (80 yards) have combined for 942 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground.
Yet that’s only part of the story. Like Young, those same players are throwing the football with pinpoint accuracy. Mahomes has a 111.9 passer rating, Watson 107.9 and Jackson 96.7.
Mahomes had already broken a number of passing records after just 20 games as a starter, and before he was injured on Thursday night, he became the fastest in league history to throw for 7,500 passing yards. Watson is the quickest to reach 6,000 passing yards and 800 rushing yards. And Murray is already doing his own share of record breaking six games into his career.
But if you want to see maybe the greatest example of the current quarterback metamorphosis, which is the equivalent of Bruce Banner changing into the Hulk, look no further than Jackson and Russell Wilson.
Jackson and the Ravens will play in Seattle against Wilson’s Seahawks on Sunday in the most fascinating matchup of the week. This is Wilson, at the top of his game and an MVP candidate, against Jackson, who may be the next evolution of what Wilson is. This goes beyond a look at the current OG and a possible future one. This is about something bigger.
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This is a chance to witness the transformation of the most important position in football, if not all of sports. While Wilson was a big step in that process after Young, Jackson looks to be the next breakthrough, someone who arguably is the best athlete on the field and can make the athletes he’s throwing to look even better.
Why are we seeing so many of these athletic, accurate quarterbacks? The answer, say some coaches and players, is a simple one.
Jackson is part of a generation of athletes who started younger and developed faster than their predecessors. They began absorbing the complexities of offense at a young age. Same with the physical training and conditioning. They’ve built speed and power at an earlier age too. Jackson also grew up in a world where knowledge about nutrition is more advanced than the world Young or even Wilson grew up in.
Players like Jackson have studied more and arrive a bit more prepared, so they don’t seem as lost as the young quarterbacks of the past. Partly because of that and the increasing pressure to win quickly, teams also aren’t as hesitant as they once were to throw large amounts of the playbook at them.
Jackson’s passer rating is 96.7. In Week 1 against Miami he had five touchdowns and a perfect passer rating. (Yes, it was against the Dolphins, but still…) Last week he rushed for a career-high 152 yards against Cincinnati and became the first player to have 150 yards rushing and 200 yards passing in the same regular-season game. He’s only the third quarterback in the Super Bowl era to rush for at least 150 yards in a single game.
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That performance led Jackson to become the first quarterback to win the FedEx Ground Player of the Week in the award’s 17-year history.
“He’s as good as we’ve ever seen,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said of Jackson at his Wednesday news conference. “He’s as fast and as elusive as we’ve seen. Cam Newton has always been really difficult to play against. They have so much offense and all that. These guys, likewise. They seem even more apt than with Cam to just let him go and run and play football, just like you see the guys playing in college. He’s tough, physical, explosive and creative. He’s throwing the ball well too. It’s a real nightmare. Very difficult.”
Jackson has been compared to Vick, Newton and Cunningham. The more apt comparisons are Young, Wilson and Aaron Rodgers.
And Jackson has the opportunity to be better than all of them.
Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @mikefreemanNFL.