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.