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Unpopular Opinions

Lamar Jackson, Ravens have the NFL's best offense right now

Listen, I don't try to live my life as a contrarian. That's not true -- I kind of do. I spend a lot of time in public houses and taverns, and I have a two-hour commute that allows me to hear a lot of the sports world's most popular opinions. Sometimes, I think it's best to take a look at the other side.

In this space, I articulate positions that are the opposite of what most people think -- unpopular opinions, if you will -- and explain why, well, my unpopular opinions are right and everyone else is wrong. Below, I shine the spotlight on a truly special offensive team.

Your latest Game of the Century this week will feature one of the most prolific offenses in the NFL right now, a group that seems nearly impossible to defend. And that team is going up against the Kansas City Chiefs.

You read that correctly: The Baltimore Ravens have the most balanced and dangerous offense right now.

Don't take this as a slight against the Chiefs. I always hate when you tell people you prefer one awesome thing to another awesome thing, and they take it to mean you believe the other awesome thing is washed. This is not the case. The Chiefs have a great offense, and I love them, as my fantasy lineup will attest. The truth is, I'm just really feeling the Ravens.

Think of it this way: The Chiefs are like the popular girl who is all wrong for the protagonist in your typical 1990s teen rom-com. The Ravens are the best friend who has been secretly pining for the boy for years, and now she's finally taken off the glasses and painting smock.

It all starts with Lamar Jackson, who helped turn Baltimore into one of the top rushing teams in the NFL when he took over as the starting quarterback as a rookie last year. Not only did Jackson push the Ravens to the playoffs, but he likely saved John Harbaugh's job and helped land the coach an extension.

Of course, this was by running the football. From Week 11, when he replaced Joe Flacco as the starter, to Week 17 last season, Jackson rushed 119 times for 556 yards and four touchdowns while leading Baltimore to a 6-1 record and the AFC North title. To put that in context, consider that in that span, Jackson out-rushed running backs like the Panthers' Christian McCaffrey, the Vikings' Dalvin Cook and the Bills' Josh Allen.

All right, that's a cheap shot -- Allen, who piled up 476 yards on the ground for Buffalo in that span (he finished with 631 rushing yards and eight rushing scores on the year), is a quarterback. But that's exactly the kind of joke -- He's a pretty good passer, for a running back -- some have made at the expense of Jackson, who famously faced doubts about his ability to be an NFL quarterback coming out of Louisville. Some even wondered if he should change positions, despite having won the 2016 Heisman Trophy as, well, a quarterback.

The running back joke wasn't funny the first 1,000 times I heard it. And right now it feels about as dated as a "Seinfeld" reference. Because it turns out Lamar Jackson is a pretty good passer -- for a quarterback.

Jackson wasted no time letting us know about the advancements he made throwing the ball to start off the 2019 season. Like a kid wearing his brand new clothes on Christmas morning, Jackson lit up the Miami Dolphins for five touchdown throws and a perfect passer rating in Week 1, thanks to rookie receiver Marquise "Hollywood" Brown, who hauled in two scoring catches. In fact, Jackson finished that game with nearly as many touchdown passes as he did rushing yards (6). In Week 2, Jackson proved that outcome was no fluke. With the game against the Cardinals on the line and facing a third-and-11 with three minutes left, Jackson didn't hesitate to go to the air, dropping a dime on a perfect 41-yard pass to Brown to seal the 23-17 victory and move Baltimore to 2-0.

It helps that Jackson has potent targets to throw to after just one receiver (John Brown, who is now with the Bills) topped 700 receiving yards in Baltimore in 2018. Marquise Brown's 233 receiving yards are the most in a player's first two NFL games since Anquan Boldin had 279 with the Cardinals in 2003. Tight end Mark Andrews has 16 catches on 17 targets for 220 yards and two touchdowns thus far. He's the first tight end in team history with at least 100 receiving yards in consecutive games.

So Jackson can obviously throw a little. The dude doesn't even need to run the ball. The thing is, he's still good at that, too.

Jackson reminded us of this in Week 2, when he ran for 120 yards. It's kind of like the way Brock Lesnar doesn't always need to drop an F5 to win a match. But sometimes it's good to let everybody know that he can still do it.

Here is what makes the Ravens so dangerous: Against the Cardinals, Jackson became the first player in NFL history to pass for 250-plus yards and rush for 120 or more in a regular-season game; he's the second when you include playoff games, behind Colin Kaepernick, who did it against the Green Bay Packers in the 2012 postseason. It was also Jackson's fifth career game with at least 75 rushing yards, which is the most among NFL quarterbacks since he entered the league in 2018.

Baltimore also has new running back Mark Ingram (who had less rushing yards than Jackson as a member of the Saints last season) to help carry the load. Ingram had two rushing touchdowns against the Dolphins, along with 107 yards on the ground. Against Arizona, Ingram chipped in 47 rushing yards and two receptions for 30 yards. With Ingram and Jackson both logging more than 5 yards per carry, Baltimore leads the NFL in rushing yards per game (223.5). If you're on defense trying to stop the Ravens on the ground, it's just a matter of who you want to dice you up. And it opens up the offense.

The Ravens' offense really hummed along last year because of their use of play-action. Jackson threw nearly 43 percent of his passes from play-action last year, where he averaged 8.8 yards per attempt on throws, according to Pro Football Focus. He averaged 5.9 without it. Under new offensive coordinator Greg Roman, Baltimore has continued to ride the tactic. Jackson has thrown 43.9 percent of his passes off play-action this year, which leads all starting quarterbacks (Mahomes is fourth at 38.0 percent), and he's picking up 8.3 yards per attempt on play-action.

After finishing 2018 with a 58.2 percent completion rate and 84.5 passer rating, Jackson leads the NFL with a 145.2 passer rating. He's completed nearly 72 percent of his passes, too. And, no, it's not because he's completing a lot of dink-and-dunk tosses, inflating that stat. Jackson is fifth in the NFL with 10.1 air yards per attempt, according to Next Gen Stats -- ahead of Patrick Mahomes (9.4). So Jackson detractors are going to need to find some new material.

Of course, the Ravensdid open the season against the Miami Dolphins (who seem to lead the NFL in trade requests) and the rebuilding Arizona Cardinals. You would not be wrong to suggest that the caliber of Baltimore's opponent thus far has played a role in this team's success.

But Jackson can beat you in so many different ways, like John Elway or Steve Young in their heyday, that to me, he's matchup-proof. And the great thing about the NFL is that the schedule changes week to week. This week, doubters will get to see what Jackson and the Ravens can do against one of the premier teams in the AFC.

I won't be surprised if we get to see that again in January -- maybe against a different opponent (Baltimore has the best chance of the contenders in the conference to give the Patriots trouble), but with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.

Follow Adam Rank on Twitter @adamrank.

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