Led by MVP candidate Lamar Jackson, there's a new wave of signal-callers in the NFL, and teams are getting smart on how to best use them and their unique talents

By Jeffri Chadiha | Published Nov. 12, 2019

BALTIMORE -- They met in the middle of summer, where they honed their techniques and crafted their chemistry while grinding through stifling humidity. An assortment of Ravens receivers darted and dashed downfield during those informal workouts, while second-year quarterback Lamar Jackson zipped passes to them with crisp accuracy. Jackson had arranged those training sessions in Baltimore to work on an offense head coach John Harbaugh had deemed revolutionary. The excitement surrounding that new system clearly drove Jackson as he steadily perfected his timing.

Jackson had spent his rookie season operating a run-heavy option offense that helped him lead the Ravens to the playoffs after he replaced Joe Flacco as the team's starter at midseason. This new system would be better suited to his skills, a scheme that would allow him to attack opposing defenses with both his legs and his arm. In fact, Jackson confessed to wide receiver Willie Snead during one of those summer sessions that he was elated by the change.

"He told me, 'Bro, I didn't know anything last year,' " Snead said during a recent interview. "He said, 'I just got thrown in there. I didn't have any feel for you guys. I didn't know how fast you were.' But when he got into this offense, he felt comfortable right away. And you're seeing it start to blossom now."

The Ravens adopted a strategy with Jackson that, at first glance, seemed cutting-edge. Instead of spending all their time trying to teach the multidimensional signal-caller how to fit into a traditional pro-style offense, they assessed Jackson's strengths and built a system around his skill set. It's something college coaches have been doing for decades. The change has come at the NFL level, where an increasing number of coaches feel this approach makes sense.

Jackson is merely the most extreme example of what can happen when a team goes all-in on the idea of making life easier for a young quarterback. He's already passed for 2,036 yards, rushed for 702 more and accounted for 21 total touchdowns on a team that leads the AFC North with a 7-2 record. But Jackson isn't an outlier. The NFL is filling up with more athletic quarterbacks, and coaches are becoming more creative in how they use them.

Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes won the league's Most Valuable Player award in his first year as a starter, largely because his head coach, Andy Reid, tweaked his West Coast offense to stress the same aggressive downfield passing concepts and improvisational opportunities that Mahomes had thrived in at Texas Tech. Dallas' Dak Prescott and Buffalo's Josh Allen both operate systems that highlight their skills as runners and passers. Then there are the Arizona Cardinals. They hired Kliff Kingsbury (who coached Mahomes at Texas Tech) and used the first pick in the draft on Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray, who won the Heisman Trophy while thriving in the Sooners' spread offense.

Not long ago, NFL teams looked at quarterbacks in innovative college systems and worried about those players transitioning into the NFL. Now the league is pivoting toward a more intriguing mindset: Doing what's best to make those players successful early. Jackson is ample proof of that, and he'll have a huge matchup this week with another quarterback boasting a dynamic skill set, Houston's Deshaun Watson.

"This has been going on for a while and not just in my era," said Jackson. "You look back and you had guys like Randall Cunningham, Michael Vick and Steve McNair (doing similar things). The difference is that the game is so much faster now. You need guys who can run and throw."

"You have to be flexible," Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy said. "If you're drafting a kid, you want to make sure he can be at his best doing what he does best. Obviously, there are some things that we will want [Mahomes] to do but we don't have to force-feed him everything. You want to make sure guys can excel and do things that they've done for a long time. You want to let them shine."

The Chiefs have been one of the most open-minded teams when it comes to tailoring an offense to a quarterback's strengths. When Reid became Kansas City's head coach in 2013, he hired former Nevada coach Chris Ault as a consultant in order to learn more about the pistol offense Ault created in college. Reid also scoured old college tape of former Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith in order to find plays and concepts in which Smith operated best. Even today, Reid and Bieniemy will watch college football as they review their game plans on Saturday nights, with Bieniemy admitting that "sometimes we'll sit there and see a play that makes us think it's something we'd want to run here."

Drawing from his seven years as a high school coach, Cowboys quarterbacks coach Jon Kitna hasn't been shy about suggesting plays he ran at the prep level to Dallas offensive coordinator Kellen Moore. Kitna said it used to be that teams prepared young quarterbacks to play by "shrinking the playbook and asking them to just read half of the field," but now long-held college concepts -- such as the run-pass option (RPO), the zone-read and up-tempo play -- have become more effective tools.

"The game has evolved so quickly, mainly because of the technology, that you can't stay the same," said Kitna, who played 16 seasons in the NFL. "Everybody has everything you've ever done for the last seven or eight years and sometimes more than that. You have to continually be looking at how you can grow while staying within the base of what you do. There's a lot of different ways people are skinning a cat these days, that's for sure."

Jackson had no idea what the Ravens were doing with their offense early last offseason. When the team announced that Greg Roman was replacing Marty Mornhinweg as offensive coordinator, Jackson first learned of the news through media reports. Shortly after that, Roman and Jackson talked about the new philosophies Roman wanted to implement. The longer they talked -- with Roman stressing the team wasn't going back to the pro-style offense installed for Flacco -- the more excited Jackson became.

Roman made his name as the San Francisco 49ers' offensive coordinator, back when Colin Kaepernick was tormenting defenses in a system as unique as what the Ravens are running today. Jackson was a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback at Louisville, one who totaled 7,203 passing yards, 3,172 more on the ground and 96 total touchdowns in his final two seasons running a spread offense. After hearing Roman talk, Jackson said, "I was ready for it. I couldn't wait to get going. I knew we'd have to learn fast because we were going to a new system between my first and second year. But I just wanted to get the reps and start having some success."

Jackson was equally pumped on the first day of training camp, when Harbaugh reiterated that the coaches weren't trying to turn Jackson into a traditional dropback passer. The same quarterback who had been scrutinized and even derided prior to the 2018 NFL Draft -- Hall of Fame executive Bill Polian famously said Jackson should move to wide receiver months before the Ravens used the 32nd overall selection on the signal-caller -- was going to be the foundation of an innovative approach to the position. The Ravens still rely heavily on variations of the option, which gives them distinct numbers advantages when blocking for run plays. It's just that now they've weaved in several other wrinkles to go along with it, including creative formations, constant misdirection, the utilization of a trio of talented tight ends and deep shots to speedy receivers like rookie Marquise "Hollywood" Brown.

The diversity of the offense -- which ranks first in the NFL in scoring and second in yards -- is what makes it so scary. Jackson threw for 324 yards and five touchdowns in his first game this season, a 59-10 win over Miami. He passed for 272 yards and ran for 120 in his second contest, a 23-17 victory over Arizona. How did Jackson perform in the Ravens' two most impressive wins of the season? He gained 116 yards on 14 carries in Seattle and accounted for 224 total yards and three touchdowns against the previously undefeated New England Patriots.

Jackson raves about the system because, as he said, "I love the speed of it -- guys running open, the spread concepts. It's a lot like college." Harbaugh has gushed about his quarterback's rapid development from Year 1 to Year 2, saying opponents face "a conundrum" every time they see Jackson.

"He is just way, way more advanced," Harbaugh said. "We do so much more now. Our motions are more complex. Our cadence is more complex, both verbal and silent. We're under (center). We're in the 'gun. We're in the pistol. We're (in) empty (backfield formations). We do a lot of different things and he does a good job of handling all of it."

"There are so many different areas we can attack people," Ravens offensive tackle Orlando Brown Jr. said "We have Lamar, who can hit you with the run and the pass. We can hit you with Mark Ingram with the run. (Tight end) Mark Andrews and (wide receiver) Willie Snead can hurt you in the passing game. And up front, we have a variety of different things we can do. We can run toss cracks. We can run power. We can run outside zone or inside zone. The reason we've been so successful is that it's a lot to prepare for."

The success the Ravens are enjoying with Jackson is yet another reminder of how rapidly the view of the quarterback position is changing. When Polian suggested Jackson change positions a couple years ago, he offered an opinion rooted in old-school thinking. The consensus in the NFL for decades had been that the best chance for a quarterback to succeed is if he can thrive as a pocket passer in a proven system. The idea of thinking too creatively about the position didn't make much sense because: 1) Teams don't have the kind of depth in the NFL that you see in college; 2) quarterbacks weren't as gifted athletically; and 3) plenty of coaches built their reputations on the notion that they were offensive gurus with reliable schemes.

Sure, there were some teams that were exceptions -- most notably, Atlanta with Vick and Tennessee with Vince Young -- but it was the Denver Broncos who truly changed the game in 2011. They inserted backup Tim Tebow at quarterback after a 1-4 start and then desperately scrapped their pro-style offense in favor of the read-option system that Tebow used as a college star at Florida. The Broncos shockingly rebounded to win the AFC West that season and upset the Steelers in the playoffs.

"It's true that Tebow wasn't the first mobile quarterback (in today's NFL)," said Quincy Avery, a quarterback consultant whose client list includes Deshaun Watson. "But he was the first where a team built an entire offense around the fact that he was mobile."

Tebow couldn't sustain his success, but he did represent what was coming to the NFL -- more multidimensional quarterbacks who were accustomed to dominating the college game in a different way. Bieniemy learned that lesson when he got his first opportunity as an offensive coordinator, at Colorado in 2011. He came into that job looking to create a power offense relying on a sturdy O-line and physical backs. Once Bieniemy spent a couple seasons watching opponents torching defenses with spread offenses, he realized he was seriously behind the times.

He wasn't the only one having a similar revelation. Even Polian has admitted to having a change of heart about Jackson, as he recently told USA Today, "I was wrong, because I used the old, traditional quarterback standard with him, which is clearly why John Harbaugh and Ozzie Newsome were more prescient than I was."

"I saw this transition coming seven or eight years ago," Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon said. "A lot of these quarterbacks are learning about [concepts like RPOs and zone-reads] when they're in junior high school. It's what they've been raised to do. By the time they get out of college, they've had probably 10 or more years in the same offense. What the NFL is doing is saying that, even though we've got coaches who've been well-versed in a certain system, it makes sense to change things up because the players have more knowledge of another system. The whole idea is to not put a square peg into a round hole."

"A lot of things go into [this change in thinking]," said Ravens quarterback Robert Griffin III, Jackson's backup. "One is that this stuff works. Two is that NFL teams don't see the college concepts as being gimmicky anymore. And three: The value of first-round picks has gone down significantly. You don't have to invest as much in a first-round quarterback. If you're a rookie quarterback in this league, the second you start a game, you're underpaid. And if you're underpaid, they'll take more risks. ... It's great because you get to be yourself, which is what Lamar is doing. The teams can say, 'OK, you did this back then? We'll give you some of that and then we'll spoon-feed you the NFL stuff until you get up to speed.' "

Griffin knows first-hand what can happen when a coach is willing to give a young quarterback an offense that is familiar. When Washington selected him second overall in the 2012 draft, then-Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan sat Griffin down in a meeting and explained the team's thinking. Despite earning a reputation as one of the game's sharpest minds -- and winning two Super Bowls with the Denver Broncos -- while running the West Coast offense, Shanahan told his rookie there would be some new twists to this system. The most surprising was Shanahan's willingness to design more runs for Griffin, including an ample amount of read options.

Griffin finished that season with 3,200 passing yards, 815 rushing yards and 27 total touchdowns, earning NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. As much as people remember the issues Griffin faced early in his career -- he tore the anterior cruciate ligament and the lateral collateral ligament in his right knee at the end of his first season and later feuded with Shanahan -- it's difficult to argue with the instant success he enjoyed in that revamped offense. As Griffin said, "You saw what happened in that first year we were together. It was great."

"It's no secret that there was a split in the organization when it came to what happened to me in Washington," Griffin said. "That's why, when I see something here, I try to tell Lamar what is important and valuable. When the whole organization is behind you, the team is behind you. Nobody has to pick sides. That's what is so great about Baltimore. When they pull the trigger on you, they let everybody know they believe in you."

Griffin does plenty of mentoring with Jackson whenever opportunities arise. The backup knows how it feels to be a young quarterback leading a playoff-caliber team while transitioning into a new offense. Griffin is also aware of what can happen if things go bad. There are plenty of examples around the NFL of how quickly patience can fade if a young quarterback can't develop after enjoying early success.

Mitchell Trubisky helped the Chicago Bears win the NFC North while operating as a multidimensional threat last season, but now, he's a major factor in the team's current struggles (and a player who seldom runs as much as he did in 2018, when he gained 421 yards on the ground). Marcus Mariota was a promising dual-threat weapon during the first two years of his career, but he's become so inconsistent that he lost his job to Ryan Tannehill earlier this season. Even Carolina's Cam Newton, who dominated so much with his legs and his arm that he won the league's MVP in 2015, has faced his own scrutiny. He's battled injuries over the last two years -- including a foot sprain that landed him on injured reserve this season -- and he's completed an unremarkable 59.6 percent of his career pass attempts.

The denunciation that Newton has heard throughout his career is the same one that dogs most athletic quarterbacks: They can only tolerate so much punishment if they don't evolve into more consistent threats from the pocket.

"There's a lot of things that people at this level have grabbed from college that may fit a system, but sometimes you can get away with things in college that might not work here," Kitna said. "It might look nice, but the challenge is how you make it fit, especially when those guys on the other side are trained killers."

The 6-foot-2, 212-pound Jackson already has shown a similar penchant for protecting himself. He instinctively understands how to contort his body at the proper instance, right before a defender is able to deliver a serious blow. Jackson also has learned to play with great tempo. When he's running, it often looks as if he's calculating exactly when he needs to dart, cut or scamper to a spot where tacklers can inflict the least bodily harm on him.

Jackson even has become a more fiery, demanding leader of late. When the Ravens drove deep into Seahawks territory in the third quarter of that contest, Harbaugh appeared willing to settle for a field goal on a fourth-and-2 from the Seattle 8. Then the coach caught Jackson looking clearly irritated while running to the sideline. Harbaugh quickly asked Jackson what he wanted to do, and Jackson said he wanted to go for it.

The Ravens dialed up a play called "quarterback power" and Jackson carried the ball all the way to the end zone, taking a lick as he hit paydirt, to give Baltimore a 20-13 lead in what turned out to be a 30-16 victory.

"I'm (normally) playing it safe, keeping myself safe," Jackson said after that game. "But whatever it takes to get the first down, coach had faith in us. We couldn't come up short."

That play launched Jackson into the MVP conversation for this season. He's had his difficult moments, but he's also played at his best in Baltimore's biggest games.

"If he was just a runner, then you would change your game plan and not worry about the pass," said Patriots safety Devin McCourty. "If he was just a passer, it wouldn't be as big of a deal to try to make sure you keep him in the pocket. But I think it's his ability to do both things at such a high level that makes it tough, and then it's the scheme that they run. Everything is not something that you see every week, so now you're trying to prepare for something that you can't replicate in practice."

The other thing to consider when thinking about Jackson's success is how much it means to future quarterbacks. The consistent knock on many quarterbacks coming out of college in recent years has revolved around how little experience they had in traditional NFL signal-caller skills. They didn't know how to take a snap from under center. They spent too much time taking audibles from coaches holding signs on the sidelines. They were too accustomed to running without any fear of taking a vicious shot.

Today, the pro football world feels a little different. Not only are there young, athletic stars playing quarterback in the league, but there are a variety of others coming through the college ranks, including Ohio State's Justin Fields, Texas A&M's Kellen Mond and Houston's D'Eriq King.

"Somebody like (Oklahoma quarterback) Jalen Hurts becomes a really good case study now," Avery said. "When he was at Alabama, you thought he might not get a shot to play in the league. Now you can see him being a Day 2 or Day 3 pick because of how he plays. If you can dictate the game with your legs, you don't have to be able to throw as well. There's a certain threshold you have to meet in terms of accuracy in the NFL, but if you're dynamic with your legs, you still can create opportunities to make dynamic plays."

"There is so much on the plate of young quarterbacks today that it really comes down to how fast they can adjust," an AFC assistant personnel director said. "In college, they see a lot of basic coverages, but when you get to this level, you start seeing things you've never seen before. It used to be that if a player wasn't special -- somebody like a Peyton Manning -- then you probably didn't want to play them early. But now with the pressure to win, the mobility of the players and the innovation of the position, coaches are becoming more creative. It's all about getting instant production."

The Ravens would echo that sentiment. Last year, they spent the second half of the season hoping to find a way to win with a rookie quarterback who was limited in obvious ways. Now they've turned themselves into a legitimate contender with that same quarterback playing at a Pro Bowl level. The only thing that changed around Lamar Jackson was the plan for how best to use him.

It's a notion that more teams around the league are starting to believe in, as well. When asked about being the face of a new quarterback revolution in the NFL, Jackson liked the idea of leading that charge.

"We're young, athletic and we can all run and throw it," Jackson said. "Most importantly, a lot of us are winning. And that's what it's all about."


Editors: Andy Fenelon, Gennaro Filice | Illustration: Chloe Booher
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