Stats are stats, but Lamar Jackson will not regress

Judge Lamar Jackson‘s 2020 season by how he plays, not by what the numbers tell you, and believe me when I say he won’t regress.

In 1984, Miami Dolphins second-year quarterback Dan Marino figuratively set the league on fire by passing for 5,084-yards and 48 touchdowns, leading his team to a 14-2 record, and being named Associated Press MVP in the process. Marino followed up that campaign by tossing for 4,137-yards and 30 touchdowns the next season, still earning himself a First-Team All-Pro bid in the process.

If we fast-forward to 2018, Patrick Mahomes, the second-year quarterback for the Kansas City Chiefs, bagged his own Associated Press MVP award by slinging for 5,097-yards and 50 touchdowns, leading his team to a 12-4 mark. In 2019, Mahomes was a little dinged up and missed two starts, but still managed to throw for 4,031-yards and 26 touchdowns, capping off the season with a Super Bowl win.

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Continuing in my wave of second-year MVPs, Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson led his team to a 14-2 mark in 2019 by throwing 36 touchdowns to only six interceptions and rushing for a quarterback-record mark of 1,206-yards. How his third year will play out is yet to be determined, obviously, but there is already a recurring theme that Jackson will regress a bit from his career year.

Why? Why do we think that?

Is it based on statistics? Sure, a 6:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio is asking a lot out of anybody, and the addition of J.K. Dobbins to an already-talented stable of running backs should/could/might impact his rushing totals, but even if there is a statistical decline, as there was with Marino and Mahomes, does that mean Jackson stops being an elite player? Should we expect him to not be a superstar?

Remember, this is not some flash in the pan we’re talking about here. Lamar Jackson was the youngest Heisman winner in history and finished third the next season — one in which many observers felt he was significantly better than in his winning season. We all watched in awe as his passing process improved from his rookie campaign to his MVP work, and with a healthy Marquise Brown, a savvy Mark Andrews, and some intriguing young additions to the pass-catching rolls, there is no reason to doubt Jackson will become a better downfield passer in his third season.

I also feel the pandemic-related challenges put on teams this season will not impact Lamar Jackson’s passing ability as much as it might some others in the league. Quarterbacks like Tom Brady rely on precision routes and passing to move the ball downfield methodically, and any interruptions in training can impede that — at least coming out of the gates. The same goes for Drew Brees. Even Mahomes operates an offense based on splits and levels and timing, though it’s obvious that Mahomes is the rare quarterback who can truly make something out of nothing on any given play.

What makes Lamar Jackson different as a passer, to me, is his ability to understand where everybody is on the field and to utilize leverage to get the ball to his receivers. I equate his game to a basketball point guard trying to get the ball to the high or low post. Throughout all the chaos and inherent danger that exists in every single play in an NFL game, Jackson appears to see which hip a defender is on, or how his receiver will turn.

His throws do not need to be pinpoint or with meticulous timing as much as they need to be “right,” or where only his receiver can grab them. His legs — which some detractors appear to enjoy ridiculing him for — serve as a point guard’s penetration arsenal, able to move a defender to a different leverage to offer a clearer angle to his receiver, or can get Jackson downfield on his own accord, like Chris Paul taking an open lane if a defender opts to take away an in-breaking forward.

Lamar Jackson is the rare quarterback who can lead his team to wins even if he’s struggling with an “off” passing game. Mahomes can do this, too, with two or three big plays to offset an otherwise pedestrian effort. Russell Wilson really made his mark by doing this his first few years in the league before becoming a more-polished passer.

Where are games often won? Third down and the red zone, I’d argue. A quarterback like Jackson, who can escape trouble, make his own plays with his legs, understands where a linebacker or safety might be in regards to defending Andrews, or simply trusts a guy like Brown to “shake loose” can win games.

Lamar Jackson did this in college. He did it his rookie year, and he did it even better last year. What in the world makes you believe he won’t elevate his game even higher this year, even if the numbers might not be as clean?

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Classify regression by play as opposed to black-and-white statistics in a book and you’ll lessen your chances of being disappointed this season. Lamar Jackson will make plays, elevate this team and be a star — because that’s who he is.

It’s who he’s always been.

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