Last year, in a serene corner of the Bahamas, the football world shifted a little. Paul Johnson, the recently retired Georgia Tech head coach, visited an exclusive club on the Atlantic Ocean called Baker’s Bay. He only wanted to fish and relax, but one night he struck up a conversation with the owner of the Baltimore Ravens, Steve Bisciotti.
“One of my friends knew him,” Johnson recalls by phone. “I had met him before. We were just sitting around at dinner and he said, ‘Would you consider coming to visit for a few days?’”
Soon after, Ravens coach John Harbaugh called Johnson. The plan was set.
Coaches visit each other all the time in the offseason, so that wasn’t new. However, Johnson, then 61 years old, had spent a decade coaching the triple-option at Georgia Tech. That’s hardly a modern, pro-style scheme.
But the Ravens had a part of their offense that was uniquely geared to both the modern NFL and a throwback corner of college football. They had a player who was both a Tesla and an off-road Jeep.
They had Lamar Jackson.
Less than a year later, a flock of Ravens in jerseys and white hats gathers in a huddle on a field at Disney World. Jackson is there, running back Mark Ingram II is there, tight end Mark Andrews is there, three offensive linemen are there — even long snapper Morgan Cox is there. Suddenly, Jackson sprints off the field to a metal barrier by the end zone. Dozens of fans gather with footballs and camera phones and Sharpies. Reporters and security hustle over. A boom mic is lowered into the throng. Jackson, 23, is an MVP and one of the most popular players in the sport. Despite an upset loss to the Titans in the playoffs, Jackson and his teammates have all but turned the Pro Bowl into a team practice.
It’s way too facile to say Paul Johnson’s ideas led to this — and Johnson himself would bristle at the mere suggestion — but it’s not too simple to say the NFL hasn’t ever seen an offense quite like the one the Ravens displayed in 2019. Baltimore gained 3,296 rushing yards — a league record — and outran the next-best team (the 49ers) by nearly 1,000 yards. Jackson finished sixth in the league in rushing with only 176 attempts. If he had averaged the same yards-per-attempt over the same total attempts as league-leader Derrick Henry, he would have been the eighth NFL player in history with a 2,000-yard rushing season — as a quarterback — to go with his league-leading 36 passing touchdowns.
The concerns about Jackson, which included his size, accuracy, vision and sustainability, all but evaporated over the course of one season. And the 2018 NFL Draft — with Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen and Josh Rosen in the top 10 and Jackson at pick 32 — would look different were it redone now.
“It would have been different last time,” Johnson quips, “if they were paying attention.”
But would it? How much has NFL Draft conventional wisdom tilted in the past two years because of not only Lamar Jackson, but also Patrick Mahomes? Up until fairly recently, there was a belief that the “mobile” or “dual-threat” quarterback could win you some games but not a Super Bowl. There was a parallel feeling that the college game, replete with zone reads and options, broke down when the speed of NFL defenses closed off the running windows of even the fastest runners out of the backfield.
With Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers exiting the playoffs early in 2019, and likely No. 1 draft pick Joe Burrow adding a rushing attack to his game to help lift his LSU team to the national title, it’s time to ask whether bringing in multifaceted quarterbacks like Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa or Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts has become less of a risk and more of a necessity.
Or, is it possible that stars like Jackson and Mahomes — and Russell Wilson and Deshaun Watson and Cam Newton — are unicorns? Are they so gifted and dynamic that they temporarily break rules that are still very much in place?
Keep in mind that all of these quarterbacks have been posting eye-popping passing stats; they don’t just run for their lives. NFL AP Offensive Rookie of the Year Kyler Murray might be known by some for his agility, but he’s successful because of his passing precision.
Maybe Jackson and Mahomes (and Wilson and Watson) are just that good, and their offenses are simply reflections of that superiority. Ravens tackle Ronnie Stanley, one of the team’s Pro Bowlers, was asked in January what made his offense so special.
“Lamar,” he said. “Lamar. Lamar. Lamar. Lamar. What makes us different is Lamar.”
And that leads to one more nerve-wracking question for everyone from coaches to scouts to GMs to college recruiters, as the NFL Draft draws near:
What if the inevitable search for the next Jackson or Mahomes comes up empty?
At the very least, the lines between the college game and pro game are more and more blurred. The zone reads, the RPOs and the shifting role of the quarterback have all bubbled up from lower levels. That has likely had an important effect: making transitions easier for offensive linemen. One of the plays Paul Johnson worked on with the Ravens was the trap zone, which he described as “the zone read on steroids.”
Orlando Brown Jr., the Pro Bowl tackle whom the Ravens drafted right after Jackson in 2018, describes it this way: “You’re just trying to take advantage of the people who get off the ball and shoot straight upfield. You’re trapping the front side three tech. Think of it as Geno Atkins sprinting upfield. The left guard pulls and hits him. Geno Atkins thinks he’s getting double-teamed. Typically, he ends up falling on his face. The guard kicks him out. The center blocks back, the tackle goes through.
“I love trap.”
Granted, Brown is the son of a legendary NFL lineman, but it’s clear that at 23 he’s not overwhelmed by his tasks. He went from blocking for Baker Mayfield at Oklahoma to blocking for Jackson at the next level.
“It was pretty easy for me,” he says. “I played a college system my whole life. It was pretty familiar — the concepts and the way we run ’em. It’s not today’s NFL. It’s today’s college ball.”
This is no small deal. A lot of linemen struggle to adapt from the college game to a pro-style offense — especially when it comes to pass protection. But when the pro-style offense has a college-style familiarity, growing pains ease.
“Guys memorize things better than they used to,” says Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman. “One or two words, and guys get it. It’s more of a bullet-point world. They can handle so much — content and life nowadays. I think their minds are more adaptable. They don’t want to listen to a paragraph in a huddle.”
And when an offensive line can adapt, it makes it easier for an entire offense to adapt to a new system or a new quarterback.
“It’s complex and unique,” says Ingram. “All the different things — the way you run the ball, so many different ways you run the ball.”
This Ravens’ offensive shift — which really started in 2018 after Jackson arrived — is reminiscent of one Roman led in 2012, when San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh unexpectedly benched Alex Smith (who had the highest completion percentage in the league at that point) after a concussion for Colin Kaepernick. Like Jackson, Kaepernick was a player whom the team traded up to get, and like Jackson, he was considered a mobile quarterback as much as a passer. Kaepernick led the 49ers to the Super Bowl that year, and the Nevada product had a record 264 yards rushing in the postseason. It was a former college coach (Harbaugh) bringing in a recent college quarterback (Kaepernick) to run a pro offense inspired by a college scheme (the Pistol).
The next year, Andy Reid hired Kaepernick’s old coach at Nevada, Chris Ault, to help install the Pistol offense with new quarterback Alex Smith. Reid has built on the scheme further with Mahomes, resulting in a Super Bowl win.
“We wanted a way to have the benefits of the quarterback in the shotgun but still be able to run the ball downhill like you would be under center,” says veteran offensive line coach Chris Klenakis, who was on the staff with Ault at Nevada when Kaepernick was there and also on the staff at Louisville when Jackson was there. “This is a way to have it all. You can have that downhill hard-nosed run game, and all the counters, and still be in the ’gun for the pass game.”
Part of the genius of the Pistol: You don’t have to give away which side of the field you’re attacking.
“You have two running backs to defend on one play, which is very hard,” says recently retired Ravens veteran offensive tackle Marshal Yanda. “It puts a lot of stress on the defense.”
And the best part: You don’t have to give away your run-pass choice because it’s a shotgun formation.
But here’s the rub: You have to have a quarterback who makes you not only respect both the run and the pass, but also fear both the run and the pass. And if that quarterback is going to succeed against NFL pass rushers and defensive backs who cheat toward the line of scrimmage, he’s going to have to be insanely fast.
“If you have an athlete,” says Klenakis, “it’s deadly.”
Under Jim Harbaugh at San Francisco and John Harbaugh at Baltimore, Roman was able to put together a Pistol-like offense with a pro-style magazine and a college-style bullet. The Niners and Ravens were both bruising in the run game, with multiple tight ends who could block and catch. One play would be extremely traditional — Frank Gore or Ingram plunging ahead (sometimes behind a fullback) — and the next play would be a trap zone that would make Paul Johnson’s eyes twinkle. Roman calls this Ravens offense “2.0.”
“People think we are a college offense,” he says. “They miss the boat. It’s not a college offense. It’s a different approach to a pro offense. It’s still based on the offensive line playing physical. Trying to impose our will — that’s where it starts.”
So why doesn’t every offense do this? Well…
“Lamar’s kind of in his own box,” Roman says. “Colin was, too.”
This is what makes this year’s NFL Draft so interesting. Likely No. 1 pick Burrow is not only a pro-style passer who can run, but he’s also a pro-style passer who found his rushing game only after he transferred from Ohio State (53 yards in 10 total games) to LSU (nearly 800 yards in two seasons). For him (and Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields), the emphasis on rushing does absolutely nothing to diminish pro prospects. Quite the opposite. Tua Tagovailoa is in the same category. The risk may have swung from selecting a “dual-threat” player like Hurts to a pass-first prospect like Justin Herbert. At this point in the growth of the sport, can you afford not to have a mobile passer?
But it’s possible, even probable, that none of these guys can do what Lamar Jackson can do. There’s a reason it took decades for anyone to break Michael Vick’s records, even as the sport changed dramatically at the pro level: Vick and Jackson aren’t in every draft. And we are sorry to tell you — the odds are that the next Lamar Jackson is not in this draft, either.
What’s different, perhaps, is that the chances are greater than ever that the next Lamar Jackson (or a reasonable facsimile) will not be left to rot on the bench, or ushered to a different position. The chances of a Vince Young-in-Tennessee or Robert Griffin III-in-D.C. situation are lower than ever. Put simply: It will be easier to be a system quarterback when the system fits the quarterback.
Jackson took a risk on himself, remaining stubborn about playing quarterback even when some said he should move to receiver. Whether that reaction to his college play stemmed from traditional thinking or latent racism, Jackson now stands for black quarterbacks who want to stay behind center no matter what the so-called experts say. He’s a profile in courage, and to a lesser degree, so is his head coach.
The Harbaugh brothers’ mid-season shifts were risky both times, and were greeted both times with plenty of skepticism. Their conviction might now be greeted more as common sense. Even the Drew Brees-led Saints found room for Taysom Hill, a cat-quick quarterback who was cast off by Green Bay. Maybe the versatility of a quarterback like Hurts is more of an asset than it would have been two years ago. Maybe the old line about “When you have two quarterbacks you have no quarterbacks” is losing its resonance.
“I think things will (change),” Roman says. “Now, [Lamar’s] level of talent is ridiculous. But there’s a lot of guys who don’t have his athleticism but will have a role as a backup, and can bring a different dynamic, kinda like what New Orleans is doing [with Hill]. And we did with Lamar.”
For New Orleans, with Teddy Bridgewater now in Carolina, will Sean Payton use Taysom Hill even more at quarterback as a complement to 41-year-old Drew Brees? What kind of quarterback will Bill Belichick choose for Tom Brady’s replacement? If he morphs his offense according to a college passer he particularly likes — the way Harbaugh did in Baltimore — that may signal that a new era is really here.
One thing is for sure: There will be a Lamar Effect and a Mahomes Effect at the prep level. There will be joystick moves and no-look passes — just like there were one-handed grabs after Odell Beckham Jr.’s emergence. Jackson’s high school coach scrapped his entire offense when he saw the quarterback make a single cutback, but it’s going to be rare for any high school offenses to rely solely on traditional schemes. Rushing from the pocket won’t be accommodated; it will be expected.
“I think it’s going to open up doors,” Roman says. “It will encourage quarterbacks who are in grade school, and high school: If they have those kinds of skills, they’ll work to develop them.”
The old cliche holds true: It’s a copycat league. It’s just that now the cats to copy are different. The key to the draft — and the whole decade ahead — isn’t just how many NFL teams can match Lamar Jackson. It’s how many teams try.
— Written by Eric Adelson (@eric_adelson) for Athlon's 2020 NFL Draft Guide. With in-depth scouting reports on 230 of the top prospects, position-by-position rankings of 526 draft-eligible players, NFL depth charts and personnel needs, features, and more it's the most complete preview of the upcoming draft. Click here to get your copy.