David J. Phillip/Associated Press
On Saturday night, the NFL‘s biggest stars (at least the ones who aren’t playing in Sunday’s Super Bowl LIV) gathered in Miami for the ninth annual NFL Honors. And to the surprise of exactly zero people, Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson was named the league’s Most Valuable Player. As a matter of fact, Jackson won unanimously.
Sorry, Russell Wilson. Still no votes for you, buddy.
That Jackson won the award after his record-setting campaign is hardly a surprise—he led the Ravens to 14 wins and set a record for rushing yards by a quarterback on the way to becoming the first player in NFL history to throw for 3,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards in the same season.
What is surprising (and more than a little terrifying for Baltimore’s opponents) is that Jackson has only scratched the surface of his potential.
That’s right: The league’s hardest player to defend has room to get better. Much better.
Nick Wass/Associated Press
After Baltimore’s postseason ended in unceremonious fashion in a lopsided divisional-round loss to the Tennessee Titans, Jackson was the first to admit he has room to work on his game—while saying that’s exactly what he’ll do this offseason.
“There’s always room for improvement,” Jackson said at the Pro Bowl, via Ryan Mink of the team’s website. “I’m not the best. I’m not the greatest. I’m going into my third year and I’m trying to get somewhere. I’m trying to get to that Super Bowl, so I’ve got to work on everything.”
“We’re trying to get somewhere. All of us wanted to be in Miami for the Super Bowl. We weren’t planning on cutting it short,” Jackson said. “It happened and we were hurt about it, but it is what it is, and we have to move on.”
As Frank Schwab wrote for Yahoo Sports, Jackson parroted those sentiments after accepting the MVP award.
“The season is going to come fast as ever,” he said. “So, I have to be prepared. I’m still young. I’ve got a lot of work to do. If you see me win a Super Bowl, you’ll probably see a lot more emotion.”
We’ve already seen the kind of quantum leap Jackson is capable of in a single offseason. As a rookie in 2018, he completed 58.2 percent of his passes, averaged 7.1 yards per attempt, threw six touchdown passes in seven games and posted a passer rating of 84.5.
Fast-forward one year, and most of those numbers didn’t just increase—they skyrocketed. In 2019, Jackson completed 66.1 percent of his passes, averaged 7.8 yards per attempt, put up a passer rating of 113.3 and led the league with 36 touchdown passes.
Never mind the record 1,206 rushing yards and seven scores on the ground.
His season began with five touchdown passes in a blowout win over the Miami Dolphins—one of two times in 2019 that Jackson’s passer rating was a perfect 158.3. Twice more during the regular season, Jackson hit that five-touchdown mark through the air.
This from a quarterback whose ability to throw accurately was a considerable question mark entering the year.
Jackson went into Seattle and waxed the Seahawks. He beat the NFC-champion 49ers in a downpour in Baltimore. In back-to-back weeks, the Jackson-led Ravens outscored the Houston Texans and Los Angeles Rams 86-13.
There were also more jaw-dropping highlight-reel plays than you can count.
Bengals defenders are still trying to figure out what the heck happened on that play—nearly three months later.
It was, by any objective measure, an amazing season. To say it vindicated Baltimore’s decision to trade up for Jackson at the back end of Round 1 in 2018 is the mother of all understatements. It also made every other NFL franchise—and every pundit who wondered aloud whether Jackson could play quarterback in the pros—look like fools.
Egg, meet face.
Every other team in the league (at least the ones without their own superstar quarterback) has gone from doubting Jackson to looking for the next one.
Good luck with that.
But the craziest, most unbelievable thing of all—the thing that will give defensive coordinators nightmares until September—is that there’s still so much room for him to improve as a quarterback.
Jackson’s athleticism is unparalleled. When he pulls down the ball and takes off, you can hear the gasp from fans and opponents alike—the expectation that something special is about to happen, even if you aren’t exactly sure what it will be.
To his credit, Jackson improved markedly as a passer from his rookie season to 2019. Arm strength was never an issue—he can flick it 60 yards on a rope while on a dead run and make it look effortless. But vastly improved accuracy was a big component of Jackson’s MVP campaign.
Still, just as the Los Angeles Chargers did in January 2019, the Tennessee Titans exposed some areas where Jackson could stand to get better. The Titans took away Jackson’s primary read, and then when he pulled the ball down, they funneled him outside, taking away the middle of the field and the spin cycle that gave so many defenders vertigo in 2019.
Nick Wass/Associated Press
Now imagine a Jackson who is more comfortable both working through his projections and using his legs not only to pick up yardage but also to buy time for receivers to work themselves open as coverage breaks down. A Jackson who has better touch on intermediate and outside throws.
In other words, a Jackson that strategy won’t work against.
It’s not hard to imagine—even a little. Those are all things that can be learned. Things that can be gained with experience. And Jackson’s second-year leap speaks well to his willingness to put in the work and get better.
Per the team’s website, only the great Jim Brown was younger (21 and 22) than the 23-year-old Jackson when he won his first MVP award Saturday.
Jackson’s got time. He’s got an arsenal of talents that can’t be coached. And he’s got the willingness to work hard to fully realize them.
Lamar Jackson has a ceiling. Every player does. But we haven’t seen it yet.
That sound you hear is the rest of the NFL sobbing quietly.