A new trend emerges in the NFL, usually on offense, every few years. The innovating team has wild success, the league struggles to adjust, and eventually the NFL catches up. Think Bill Walsh’s West Coast offense and play scripting, Tony Sparano’s desperation-motivated embrace of the Wildcat, and more recently, Sean McVay’s exploitation of play-clock rules relative to in-helmet communication.
You wouldn’t expect offensive innovation or a major tactical leap of faith from John Harbaugh and the Baltimore Ravens, who open the preseason Thursday against Jacksonville. The franchise has always been about defense -- they have ranked in the top 10 in scoring offense only three times in Harbaugh’s 11 seasons in Baltimore. But if Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman have their way, Lamar Jackson and company will turn into trendsetters.
Baltimore's newfangled offense will largely be kept under wraps until the season starts. But expect it to be tailored to what Jackson does best: designed QB runs, easy pitch-and-catch passing, motion, run-pass options, and maybe even the option itself. They’ve prioritized speed and the running game, with timely shots downfield. In other words, it's a college-style offense.
Harbaugh hinted at what's to come for Baltimore on offense recently when he said, invoking the 1980s, "The game was probably revolutionized with Bill Walsh and Joe Montana. What’s the next era going to be? We’re about to find out.” Former Ravens coach Brian Billick even said recently he thought Baltimore’s 2019 offense will be unique.
But will a college-style offense, or a variant of it, work in the NFL? Doubtful.
In only seven starts last season, Jackson logged 147 carries (17 a game), the highest season total for a quarterback since the merger. That's 272 carries extrapolated over a full season. To put that in perspective, only one running back in the league — Dallas' Ezekiel Elliott — topped that number last season.
No offense can be paradigm-shifting if the quarterback is in traction by Week 9. Harbaugh’s plans, if they involve running Jackson anywhere near 17 carries a game, are almost certain to fail.
An offense tailored to Jackson’s skills still requires him to significantly improve as a passer. He only threw for six touchdowns and completed just 58 percent of his passes last season. He topped 200 yards passing once. That won't be enough to keep defenses honest.
Jackson's advanced numbers were even worse. He ranked last of 35 qualifying QBs when throwing from a clean pocket, per Pro Football Focus. He also ranked 38th of 39 qualifiers, with an accuracy percentage of 45.9% on passes thrown beyond the line of scrimmage, per PFF. Jackson worked on his mechanics all off-season, but the “private quarterback coach” doing the tutoring was his high school coach, Joshua Harris. That doesn’t mean their efforts won’t pay off, but Harris isn’t one of the big-name gurus with a longstanding reputation.
Tim Tebow couldn’t throw, completing only 46.5 % of his passes during his year as Denver’s starter, and despite his running talents, teams figured him out quickly. The best mobile quarterbacks have been able to win with their arm first and foremost. We won’t know whether Jackson can do that until Week 1, and possibly much later.
Robert Griffin III is probably Jackson’s closest comparable, but he was much more advanced as a passer from Day 1. Things might have worked out for him in Washington, too, but the Redskins played fast and loose with his health in his rookie year, and he has been dogged by injuries ever since. In an ironic twist, he’s now Jackson’s backup.
An entire off-season spent creating an offense from scratch may help Jackson and the Ravens. And Roman, the architect of San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick-led offense that nearly won Super Bowl XLVII, is the right man to build it. But the fact remains that whatever form the offense takes, putting Jackson in harm’s way will be a feature, not a bug. And if he doesn’t make a swift, dramatic improvement as a passer, none of it will matter.
With his job on the line last year, Harbaugh bet on Jackson, and it saved him. The Ravens coach got a new contract, but it’s fair to wonder whether making a long-term commitment to Jackson and a totally new offense will be his downfall and not his salvation. After all, not every revolution is successful.
You'll receive Yardbarker's daily Top 10, featuring the best sports stories from around the web. Customize your newsletter to get articles on your favorite sports and teams.
Emailed daily. Always FREE!