Lamar Jackson’s talent should be appreciated, not nitpicked

With every challenge faced, each test passed, the endless appraisal of Lamar Jackson continues. It’s not enough to simply appreciate the unique player he is, but instead there’s a desperation to put him in a box in order to fill discussion during the 24 hour news cycle. Why do we feel this need to define what Jackson is, and what he isn’t? Moreover, why is there a constant need to continually bend over backwards to set up new challenges for the young quarterback to face before we dare to say “elite.”

This is why when ESPN NFL analyst Mina Kimes spoke about the “moving goalposts” when it comes to Jackson, it resonated with so many of us that follow the game. It’s part of a tried-and-true formula which has too often existed unique to black quarterbacks, and accelerated in the modern era with Michael Vick.

The first modern iconoclast, Vick’s arrival as a full-time starter in 2002 immediately turned NFL thinking on its head. Mobile quarterbacks existed long before, with Fran Tarkenton, Randall Cunningham and Steve Young to name a few — but it had been some time since the league saw someone dominate athletically from under center.

Despite Vick’s arrival being a mere 20 years ago, the landscape was far different. Yes, many people critiqued Vick’s play, and stodgy old football heads didn’t like that he was essentially a running threat first, and a passer second. This vocal minority were quickly drowned out as most simply fell in love with seeing something utterly unique in the NFL. This was before social media, a time where talking head analysis existed, but couldn’t be amplified to dominant the conversation. This meant that while people either loved, or hated Vick, he was largely allowed to do his thing on the field without every single moment being questioned.

Things are very different now. Cam Newton was a lightning rod for criticism when he arrived in the NFL, and was met with the exact questions Jackson now faces. “Can he win the big one?,” “is he a good enough passer?,” “how long until teams figure him out?” Things we never seem to direct at far worst quarterbacks who play “the right way,” which is standing in the pocket and throwing passes like they’re drawn up in a textbook.

Here’s the deal though: In the NFL the only thing that matters is results. I’m not sure when we became so obsessed with the minutia of how teams and players win games, and can’t just appreciate that they’re winning. We deny ourself the joy of going along for the ride and seeing each week as an adventure. Perhaps that came along with the popularity of fantasy football or gambling, which placed an onus on predicting the future performance of players — but it’s unquestionably made it annoying for those who just like to see athletes play.

That said, let’s just dispel a few falsehoods about Lamar Jackson’s play.

No. 1: Lamar Jackson is just Michael Vick 2.0

I’ve seen this said, and I have to assume it’s just from people standing around water coolers who don’t actually watch the Ravens. While it’s true Jackson has the same scrambling, agile running style — when it comes to throwing the football they’re not remotely the same player.

Jackson is in his third year as a starter. In 2021 he’s on pace for 4,777 passing yards (4,496 if we project against a 16 game season). Along with this he’s 67.5 percent of his passes, and pegged to throw 26 touchdowns this year.

Vick only threw for 3,000 yards in a season twice in his career. His highest completion percentage ever on a season was 62.6 percent. The most touchdowns he ever threw for in a year is 21.

The point isn’t to denigrate Vick as a quarterback, but point out they are nothing alike statistically, or how they play. Jackson breaks down plays far quicker from the pocket. He moves through his full progression before looking to scramble, unless it’s a designed run. When he does throw he’s better at ball placement, hitting receivers in stride, and moving the chains.

No. 2: Lamar Jackson is “just a running back”

In his career Jackson has run the ball 546 times and thrown 1,141 times. This means he runs on 32.3 percent of snaps. That is a quarterback who runs roughly a third of the time, not any other label.

Fun fact: When Steve Young was a first team All Pro in 1992 he ran on 16 percent of offensive snaps. Nobody complained about how often Young ran, because he was getting the job done through the air.

Steve Young — 1992 passing: 3,465 yards, 65.7% completion, 25 TD, 7 INT
Lamar Jackson — 2021 passing (projected): 4,777 yards, 67.5% completion, 26 TD, 14 INT

No. 3: Lamar Jackson just cant win “the big one”

If we’re going to evaluate this by winning in the playoffs (where Jackson has a 1-3 record) then, well, there’s a hell of a lot more candidates with losing playoff records who deserve to be critiques before Lamar Jackson. If we’re saying that Jackson can’t beat top-tier opponents, well that’s patently untrue.

From 2018-2020 Jackson had a 10-6 record as a starter against teams that would finish the season with a winning record. So far in 2021 he’s 3-1 against teams with teams whose records are at .500 or above.

In addition, Jackson has five 4th quarter comebacks and seven game-winning drives to his name. That’s 12 examples of clutch performances from a player who has played 52 career games. If you watch Jackson play there’s a 23 percent chance he’s going to be clutch.

So why do we feel the need to keep harping on Lamar Jackson?

The NFL is a league where we so often romanticize creativity. Praise gutsy coaches coming up with something new. However, when it comes to players suddenly it’s a problem if they operate outside the box.

Yes, Lamar Jackson runs the ball more than most quarterbacks. However, he also throws the ball a hell of a lot better than most quarterbacks too. Whatever this formula amounts to, it’s resulting in wins for the Ravens.

So can we maybe chill on the endless discussion of what Jackson is, or isn’t — and just appreciate Lamar Jackson, one of the most exciting quarterbacks in the NFL who’s leading the Ravens to one of the best records in the NFL.

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