Jack­son fine wait­ing in wings on win­ning team

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - FRONT PAGE -

RAVENS, backs coach, James Ur­ban.

“I don’t think it’s as much of a fac­tor right now,” Ravens coach John Har­baugh said as he looked ahead to to­day’s matchup with the Carolina Pan­thers. “He does ex­tra work dur­ing the week with James, from the long-term de­vel­op­ment part of it. But re­ally now, we’re just get­ting ready to try to win games.”

It’s an un­usual po­si­tion for a player who dom­i­nated na­tional high­light reels in col­lege and who ranks as per­haps the most im­por­tant per­son in the Ravens’ story go­ing for­ward. But Jack­son has avoided any awk­ward­ness by op­er­at­ing with hu­mil­ity at ev­ery turn.

Har­baugh said be­fore the sea­son that he fully ex­pected Jack­son to be ac­tive on game days and to be a part of the Ravens of­fense. And he’s been good on his word, us­ing the rookie in ev­ery game so far.

The Ravens de­ploy Jack­son in a fairly nar­row way, some­times as a de­coy but usu­ally with the op­tion for him to either carry the ball or hand off.

Aside from the Ravens’ sea­son-open­ing blowout of the Buf­falo Bills, in which Jack­son played for much of the sec­ond half, his work­load has hov­ered be­tween two snaps (in Weeks 3 and 6) and nine snaps (Week 4 in Pitts­burgh).

On the 29 snaps he’s played since the opener, he’s car­ried the ball 13 times and at­tempted two passes. Only once, on a 22-yard scam­per in Week 6 against the Ten­nessee Ti­tans, did he truly break free. But he’s be­come an im­por­tant short­yardage op­tion for of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Marty Morn­hin­weg.

“I like it,” Jack­son said of those high­stakes car­ries. “I like it when the pres­sure’s on. It’s pretty cool for me that they’re re­ly­ing on me to do it.”

Last Sun­day against the New Or­leans Saints, when the Ravens needed to punch the ball in from the 1-yard line with eight sec­onds left be­fore half­time, they turned to the rookie. He con­verted for his first NFL touch­down.

That ball al­ready oc­cu­pies a place of honor in his man cave.

“It’s re­ally noth­ing writ­ten in stone,” Har­baugh said, ex­pound­ing on the size of Jack­son’s weekly role. “I think it’s just like any­thing else — it’s more art than sci­ence. I think as much as pos­si­ble, within rea­son, if that makes sense — be­cause we have a quar­ter­back who’s play­ing at a high level … Joe is play­ing at a very high level. I don’t want to lose sight of that. We try to do the best we can to put both of those guys in there in ways that help us score points and move the ball and things like that.”

Gen­er­ally, when Jack­son comes in the game, Flacco lines up at wide re­ceiver. Though the 11-year vet­eran has poked fun at his role on those plays, fears that he might be­come frus­trated with Jack­son’s us­age have proved un­founded.

Like most of the coaches, he’s not fo­cused on Jack­son’s over­all progress as a quar­ter­back. But he ex­pressed a grow­ing con­fi­dence in Jack­son’s util­ity for this sea­son.

“Ob­vi­ously, I don’t get to see him at quar­ter­back and do­ing those kinds of things in our of­fense, but in terms of how we’re pro­gress­ing as an of­fense with him in­volved, I think we’re def­i­nitely start­ing to do some good things and make a real im­pact on games, for sure,” Flacco said.

Op­pos­ing coaches have said Jack­son cre­ates an ex­tra prob­lem for them as they pre­pare for the Ravens.

“Oh, yes, most cer­tainly,” Pan­thers coach Ron Rivera said. “The young man is a dy­namic, ex­plo­sive player. He’s a threat when­ever he’s on the field, so you have to ac­count for him, and then you have to ac­count for where the other quar­ter­back lines up.”

But oth­ers, such as Fox an­a­lyst and for­mer Dal­las Cow­boys stand­out Daryl John­ston, have ques­tioned the value of putting both Jack­son and Flacco onto the field.

“When you do these spe­cial pack­ages with quar­ter­backs that have a unique skill set at the po­si­tion like La­mar Jack­son has, you re­ally do re­duce your odds be­cause you’re re­ally play­ing 10 on 11,” John­ston told Bal­ti­more ra­dio host Glenn Clark last week.

Re­gard­less, Jack­son feels he’s grown closer to Flacco, the man he might one day suc­ceed.

“Joe’s funny,” he said. “I don’t know if y’all know that. But I’m al­ways laugh­ing. He’ll be say­ing lit­tle stuff.”

Jack­son said he doesn’t mon­i­tor the progress of the other four quar­ter­backs se­lected in the first round of this year’s draft — Baker May­field, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen and Josh Rosen. He’s the only one of the five not to have started at least four games. But he’s also the only one play­ing for a win­ning team.

Though it’s be­come the norm for firstround quar­ter­backs to be thrown into the fire, Jack­son said he’s con­tent to help where he can as he con­tin­ues to de­velop his craft.

That’s where the ex­tra ses­sions with Ur­ban and fel­low re­serve quar­ter­back Robert Grif­fin III come in.

“Man, is he work­ing hard,” Morn­hin­weg said. “James and he … and ‘RG’ go down there after prac­tice for, man alive, 20 or 30 min­utes in most cases, and work the quar­ter­back part of it.”

Grif­fin lived a dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ence, start­ing 15 games as a Wash­ing­ton Red­skins rookie in 2012. With­out that level of game ac­tion, he said, Jack­son prob­a­bly doesn’t know where he stands as an NFL quar­ter­back. But that’s not a bad thing.

“I think right now, La­mar is work­ing in a way that he doesn’t un­der­stand how help­ful those ses­sions can be,” Grif­fin said. “I don’t know if he’s re­ally gaug­ing it like a 28-year-old quar­ter­back would gauge it. He’s re­ally just go­ing out and play­ing right now. Later, down the line, he’ll un­der­stand the im­por­tance of what we did this year and what we did after prac­tice ev­ery sin­gle day.”

Even as he tries to keep him­self in game-ready form, Grif­fin ad­vises Jack­son on how to get the most from their ex­tra work.

“It’s easy to dis­con­nect from it and not pay at­ten­tion and not get bet­ter,” Grif­fin said. “I just try to add any as­sist that I can from my play­ing ex­pe­ri­ence — go­ing through how to tinker with your tech­nique with­out go­ing off your rhythm. Be­cause throw­ing a foot­ball and play­ing in the NFL is like danc­ing. It’s more chaotic danc­ing, be­cause there are a lot of dif­fer­ent vari­ables, but I just try to help him stay loaded and stay ready to throw.”

Jack­son said they don’t pin­point any one area of his game, though he spent the sum­mer work­ing on widen­ing his base to im­prove his throw­ing con­sis­tency.

“Every­thing,” he said when asked about his to-do list with Ur­ban. “Ac­cu­racy, tim­ing, every­thing. It’s al­ways im­por­tant, even if I was in the game throw­ing them. It’s al­ways im­por­tant; you’ve got to keep work­ing on your craft, try­ing to bet­ter your­self. I don’t care if you’ve been in the league 15 years. You al­ways want to bet­ter your­self.”

He joked that on game days, he stays warm by stalk­ing Ur­ban step for step on the side­line. “Stay ready! Stay ready!” Ur­ban tells him as Jack­son plays the role of NFL re­lief pitcher.

It’s pos­si­ble the wider world won’t see the full fruits of his la­bor un­til next sum­mer, when he’ll again take the reins of the Ravens’ of­fense in pre­sea­son games. Given Flacco’s resur­gent play and the team’s sta­tus as an AFC con­tender, it’s im­pos­si­ble to pre­dict the con­text Jack­son will face in his sec­ond sea­son. The Ravens could save $18.5 mil­lion if they des­ig­nate Flacco a post-June 1 cut, but would they truly con­sider such a move if he leads them to the play­offs this sea­son?

It’s not an is­sue any­one in the or­ga­ni­za­tion is will­ing to touch at the mo­ment.

But there are pe­ri­odic re­minders that Jack­son is no or­di­nary rookie backup. As the Ravens pre­pared to play the Pan­thers, Carolina quar­ter­back Cam New­ton, the league’s 2015 Most Valu­able Player, pro­claimed him­self a La­mar fan.

Jack­son of­fered a sheep­ish grin when re­porters in­formed him of this Thurs­day. He said he’d love to ex­change jer­seys with New­ton — whom he de­scribed as “my Heis­man brother” — after the game Sun­day. But he won­dered whether that would be overly pre­sump­tu­ous for a first-year player.

“I wish I could give him mine, but I’m a rookie, so I don’t know how that goes,” he said.

One more item for his NFL study list.

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