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The Curious Case of Lamar Jackson

The Ravens quarterback is dynamic, exciting, puzzling, and misunderstood all at the same time. And the analysis of him is a direct reflection of that mystery.

Let’s say I presented you with a quarterback. This quarterback averages around 4,000 yards passing and running per season with a greater than 3:1 touchdown to interception ratio while completing 65% of his passes. This quarterback also wins games, a lot of fun. He has a winning percentage of 70% as the starter for his team. I would argue that this quarterback at the age of 25 should be regarded highly when people talk about quarterbacks.

The quarterback that I just described is Lamar Jackson. A player that has incredible athletic ability to the point that it has marginalized his skills from a perception point of view. He has made the interesting decision not to hire an agent to handle his contract negotiations, which has resulted in an extension not being reached this off-season. Lamar is at times a paradox of a player and at other times an incredibly misunderstood talent. And the way that media and fans have covered and analyzed him is indicative of not fully understanding his value as a player.

The Running Back Retort

A few years ago, there was a shift in the way that we viewed quarterbacks. In the era of Michael Vick and other dual-threat quarterbacks, the ability to run when things broke down was viewed as a negative. That they “couldn’t win from the pocket”. But then everything changed. These days quarterbacks are expected to have some running ability to at the very least buy more time when a play breaks down. If you look at the elite quarterbacks in today’s game outside of Tom Brady, all of them are a threat running the ball or at least improvising. Players like Josh Allen, Patrick Mahomes, Kyler Murray, and Justin Herbert are considered the new prototype in this regard.

The same treatment does not seem to apply to Lamar Jackson. There are always caveats. A common opinion is that Lamar would be nothing without his running ability. Could the same not be said of Josh Allen’s running ability? Or Patrick Mahomes side-arm throws? Or Kyler Murray’s improvisation abilities? The running element is part of the package that is Lamar Jackson and discounting feels disingenuous. The age of the statuesque pocket passer has been over for years now.

The common joke that many people make about Lamar Jackson is that he is a glorified running back. My question to that is, why is that a bad thing? Why is bad to be an above-average passer and elite runner? Lamar Jackson is the ultimate offensive weapon that can be utilized in today’s NFL. And this is where Lamar's critics seem to have amnesia. The style is effective as it wins games and he is a matchup nightmare for anyone trying to plan to play the Ravens.

The Contract

When the Cleveland Browns gave Deshaun Watson the NFL’s first fully guaranteed contract, the calculus for negotiating with quarterbacks was changed forever. Not because of the amount or length of the contract, but the guaranteed money has become the new standard and something that we look at when analyzing quarterback contracts in the NFL. In the extensions that have been given out post-Watson to Russell Wilson and Kyler Murray, guaranteed money has been at the core of the negotiations.

The negotiations between Lamar Jackson and the Ravens have been no different in that regard. Lamar feels that he is a top-caliber quarterback in this league, and if Deshaun Watson can get a fully guaranteed deal then so should he. It is hard to argue this point when the totality of the two players is considered. Unlike Watson, Lamar has not sustained serious injuries (Watson has torn his ACL twice) and has no off-the-field issues to speak of (Watson is currently serving an 11-game suspension for multiple accusations of sexual assault and misconduct). Both players have one only one playoff game and Jackson is the more dynamic player. If you are Lamar why wouldn’t you think that you are a more valuable player than Deshaun Watson?

I’m sure Kyler Murray thought the same thing before he re-signed with the Cardinals this summer. But the difference between Lamar and Kyler is that Kyler has an agent and Lamar Jackson does not. This further adds to the mystery that is Lamar Jackson and makes people question his judgment. That he is mismanaging his entire negotiation without the expertise of an agent. In a certain sense, this is the ultimate “bet on yourself” moment but in another sense, it is playing with fire. This is yet another factor that has caused the viewing of Lamar the player to be skewed in the eyes of many football fans.

Not Your Type

Sports broadcaster Colin Cowherd has a term that he uses to describe quarterbacks that he calls “quarterbackial”. In other words, in Cowherd’s opinion, a quarterback needs to act a certain way because the position is higher leverage than any other in professional sports. But what does being “quarterbackial” mean to most people? I would contend that most football fans think the definition is not who or what Lamar Jackson is. Many people look for their quarterback to be like Tom Brady or Peyton Manning in the sense that they are clean-cut guys who say all the right things at the podium.

For years the black quarterback was rejected by the football populous as a gimmick, a fad that would just go away. But as that has proven to be hilariously false, there has been more nuance added to the discussion. Think of the black quarterbacks that people fawn over today: Russell Wilson & Patrick Mahomes, two quarterbacks that similarly present themselves to the original ideal. It is the same establishment that rejected black quarterbacks from the south like Michael Vick, Vince Young, and countless others. Lamar Jackson is in the mold of those players and it ultimately makes a fan base of a sport that has struggled with perceptions of racism uncomfortable.

Lamar Jackson is a pure athlete at the quarterback position that is from Florida and shows his southern black culture proudly and prominently. And this makes fans uncomfortable, it makes them want to devalue his ability by saying that he is just a running back. It makes his decision to represent himself in negotiations easier to discredit and demean. There is a bias in place and raised eyebrow at all times when it comes to Lamar Jackson.

The goalposts are always moving, because of course, they are. It was about him running too much, then never winning a playoff game, and now that he is foolish and possibly overrated. Lamar Jackson is Michael Vick in a league that accepts the skillset of that type of player. He is the ultimate weapon but many people simply refuse to see it. There might be a chance that the Ravens refuse to see it. But in the end, the league is a better place with Lamar Jackson in it regardless of how he is depicted by the masses.

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