OWINGS MILLS, Md. — John Harbaugh stood in the middle of a practice field cut out of the suburban Baltimore woods, talking above the roar of the two CH-47 Chinooks and one UH-60 Blackhawk waiting to take his team on a joyride above the city.
The Baltimore Ravens were hosting members of the Maryland Army National Guard on this Friday when a visitor raised the kind of big-picture subject coaches like to dodge the way Lamar Jackson dodges would-be tacklers in the secondary.
Those who know Harbaugh know that he is acutely aware of what it means for Baltimore, with a population that is 63% African American, to have a black star at quarterback, and that he recognizes what it meant to Jackson — and the larger cause of equal opportunity for black quarterbacks — in January when he didn’t bench the overwhelmed rookie in favor of Joe Flacco late in Baltimore’s playoff loss to the Los Angeles Chargers.
Harbaugh said there will be a better time to talk at length about the deeper significance of his decision to trust Jackson to run his team. But he budged when told that years from now, his choice to stick with Jackson over a Super Bowl MVP might be viewed as a seminal moment in the black athlete’s journey beyond vile stereotypes and toward full acceptance at the sport’s premier leadership position.
“That’s great,” Harbaugh told ESPN.com. “It will be good to be remembered for something, especially something good like that. If that turns out to be the case, I’ll be very proud of that.”
At 8-2 and owners of a six-game winning streak, the Ravens are being rewarded for recognizing Jackson’s staggering potential before anyone else did. They traded up to take him with the final pick of the first round of the 2018 draft, after four other quarterbacks were selected in the top 10. By midseason of Jackson’s rookie campaign, facing a possible firing at season’s end after 11 distinguished years on the job, Harbaugh needed Jackson as much as Jackson needed him.
They had a fair amount in common too. Nobody ever really wanted John as a player, or as a coach, like they wanted his younger brother, Jim, a longtime starting quarterback in the NFL. John was a partial scholarship reserve at Miami (Ohio), before spending nearly a quarter-century as a college and Philadelphia Eagles assistant who never rose to offensive or defensive coordinator. The one NFL team that interviewed him for its head coach opening, Baltimore, really hoped to hire Jason Garrett, who chose to stay with the Dallas Cowboys and stuck the Ravens with their second choice.
Jackson? He was a three-star recruit out of Florida’s Boynton Beach Community High School who was seen by some big-time college programs as a wideout in the making and who needed a University of Louisville assistant — former NFL and University of Miami wide receiver Lamar Thomas — to hard-sell head coach Bobby Petrino into believing Jackson could be their guy. Three years later, the NFL wanted Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen and Josh Rosen a lot more than it wanted Jackson and the alleged injury risk associated with ultra-mobile quarterbacks.
The same franchise that gambled on Harbaugh decided to gamble on Jackson too. The new quarterback couldn’t have been more different than the old quarterback, Flacco, who had rushed for 757 yards over 10 NFL seasons before the arrival of Jackson, who had rushed for 4,132 yards over three college seasons.
“We got a steal because everyone passed Lamar up because they didn’t want to go with a running quarterback. But John goes, ‘We can do this. We can mold our offense to him.'”
John Harbaugh’s wife, Ingrid
The result is a partnership that has won 14 of 17 regular-season games over two seasons, including Sunday’s 41-7 shredding of the Houston Texans, and that has moved Baltimore into position to contend for its first Super Bowl appearance since John Harbaugh (and Flacco) beat his brother’s San Francisco 49ers seven years ago in New Orleans.
“John was close to Joe too,” Harbaugh’s wife, Ingrid, said Sunday in a quiet moment in back of the winning team’s locker room. “But it’s just a different level with Lamar.”
That level was obvious during Baltimore’s blowout victory at the Cincinnati Bengals earlier this month, when a microphone caught a bench exchange that opened a window for the football world on the Jackson-Harbaugh relationship. The coach told his quarterback that most of his peers worry about stats and that he appreciated his selfless leadership. Harbaugh and Jackson expressed their love for each other, and the coach for the player’s attacking style.
“You changed the game, man,” Harbaugh told him. “You know how many little kids in this country are going to be wearing No. 8 playing quarterback for the next 20 years because of you?”
“I can’t wait to see it,” Jackson said, “when I get older. But right now I’ve got to get to the Super Bowl.”
“You changed the game, man.”
— Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) November 11, 2019
Harbaugh showed something NFL coaches rarely show in a game — his humanity. Jackson responded by showing his own, and by reminding his coach of the singular mission he publicly states more than most young quarterbacks — getting to, and winning, a Super Bowl.
Harbaugh said the Ravens posted that conversation on social media without asking him or PR chief Kevin Byrne for permission “because they know we would’ve both said no.” Jackson said his coach “always comes up to me, talks to me about stuff like that,” and now Harbaugh is happy one of their exchanges was made public so millions could see the bond he has forged with his energetic star.
Truth is, the Jackson-Harbaugh partnership could challenge, and surpass, the Patrick Mahomes-Andy Reid partnership for long-term AFC supremacy whenever Tom Brady and Bill Belichick call it a day. Jackson, at 22, is now the front-runner for league MVP, and even a true believer like Harbaugh, at 57, could not have seen this coming, this soon.
Who could, other than the men and women who were there when Jackson first started beating the odds stacked against him?
Joshua Harris, a former defensive end at Tennessee State and a former lawyer, was head coach at Highlands Christian Academy in Jackson’s hometown of Pompano Beach, Florida, and relentlessly studied the quarterback position after his son Hezekiah started playing it. Jackson’s mother, Felicia Jones, and youth coach, Van Warren, thought Harris was the right man to refine Lamar’s skills. Years later, Harris was scripting Jackson’s pro day workout and charging his student to take all 59 snaps from under center — to prove to the NFL he could do it.
At that pro day, Harris said only one NFL assistant engaged him in an extended and meaningful conversation — Ravens quarterbacks coach James Urban, who informed Harris he was the Philadelphia Eagles position coach when Michael Vick, Jackson’s childhood idol, was their starter.
“So I was like, ‘Wow, they already know how to use Lamar,'” Harris said. “That intrigued me. After that day, my leader in the clubhouse was the Ravens. … Other organizations might have tried to mold Lamar into what they wanted him to be.”
Of course, the smart coaches design schemes that emphasize their athletes’ strengths, rather than force their athletes to conform to an inflexible system. Rick Swain was coach at Boynton Beach Community High School when two of his players, Trequan Smith (now at Northern Illinois) and Kyron Brown (now with the New York Jets) raved about a skin-and-bones quarterback who had just transferred into the school. Swain was beyond skeptical. He had run the wing-T offense at Boynton Beach, with a pocket passer, in 2012, and was planning on running a shotgun wing-T in 2013.
“And then we go out the first day of spring practice,” Swain said, “and Lamar stuck his foot in the ground and went 60 yards untouched. I looked at my assistant on offense and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got to talk when we go in. We’re changing what we’re doing.’ So we changed the first day we saw him.”
Swain and his staff scoured the internet for the right fit and settled on a version of the pistol offense popularized by Muskegon High School in Michigan. The pistol formation lines up a running back behind the quarterback, who stands closer to the center than he would in the shotgun. “With the running back behind him,” Swain said, “it gave Lamar the ability on the read option to see what the defense is doing and then to choose from a lot of different things.” Jackson slashed and gashed opposing defenses, and nobody questioned whether major colleges would recruit him. People did question whether major colleges would recruit him to play the only position he wanted to play.
Swain called Thomas, his former player at Buchholz High School in Gainesville, Florida, and told Thomas that he needed to recruit the best athlete Swain had ever coached. Thomas felt disrespected and was no less skeptical about Jackson than Swain was when he first heard about him. If Thomas himself wasn’t the best athlete Swain had ever coached, the Louisville assistant figured that distinction surely belonged to 13-year NBA player and former all-state football star Vernon Maxwell.
“And then I went down,” Thomas said, “and I was amazed at what I saw.”
Thomas told his boss at Louisville that Jackson would be the greatest quarterback in the history of a school that suited up Johnny Unitas and Teddy Bridgewater, and Petrino barked back that Thomas didn’t know anything about the position, even though the former receiver had played with a Heisman Trophy winner (Gino Torretta) and an all-time NFL great (Dan Marino). Thomas persuaded Swain to edit Jackson’s highlight tape — to move his impressive throws ahead of his impressive runs on the video — and then delivered it to Petrino. The Louisville coach kept rewinding Jackson’s flawless 50-yard throws on the run, which the assistant took as an encouraging sign.
“Can we get this guy?” Petrino finally asked.
“I got him,” Thomas answered.
He got Jackson by making a promise to Jackson’s mother that the major in-state recruiters weren’t making: Louisville would never, ever move her son to receiver or defensive back. After Jackson’s father died when Lamar was young, Felicia Jones raised him on her own and fiercely protected his quarterbacking dreams. Jones ran with Lamar in the searing summertime heat, performed contact drills with her son in their yard and lorded over his practiced dropbacks in the seaside sand.
Pat McAfee says Lamar Jackson is doing something that nobody else can do right now in the NFL.
“Lamar was throwing a tight spiral 30 yards at the age of 7,” said one of his youth coaches, Terrance Blue, a friend of Jones’. The men who coached him in Pompano Beach — Blue and Warren and Ron Thurston — all heard from Jackson’s mother that the child they would call Little Michael Vick and Baby Vick would grow up to play Vick’s position. The one and only time Swain moved Lamar to a different spot in high school — to the secondary, to protect a small lead late in a playoff game — he was approached immediately afterward by Lamar’s mother.
“He’s a quarterback, not a safety,” she said.
Early in Jackson’s freshman season at Louisville, Petrino made the mistake of asking the young quarterback to return punts in a practice. “He caught the ball so smoothly too,” said Thomas, who would leave Louisville for Kentucky in 2016, “and he took off running, and everybody was looking at each other like, ‘Holy crap.’ And then we all got inside and checked our phones. I already had a bunch of missed calls.”
Someone had leaked this development to Felicia Jones. Lamar Jackson would never line up at punt returner again.
The kid rebounded from a disastrous first pass at Louisville in 2015 — an interception off a trick play — to use his arm and legs over three seasons to accumulate 13,175 yards, 119 touchdowns and one Heisman Trophy while running a system that co-offensive coordinator Lonnie Galloway described as “the pistol, five wides, 12 personnel, three tight ends, every formation you can imagine.” During one thrashing of Florida State, Vick tweeted, “Lamar Jackson 5x better than what I was at V-Tech.”
After his junior season, Jackson chose to enter the NFL draft, represent himself, hire his mother as his manager and refuse to run the 40-yard dash at the combine to ensure that his speed (he ran a 4.34 at Louisville) would not be held against him. He would later say in a Ravens podcast that he was stunned when a Chargers scout had asked if he would work out as a receiver.
As it turned out, Baltimore made all the sense in the world for the all-purpose Jackson. Urban had worked with Vick, and another Ravens assistant, Greg Roman, had worked with Colin Kaepernick in San Francisco and Tyrod Taylor with the Buffalo Bills. Ozzie Newsome, the league’s first black general manager and one of its very best executives, was running his final draft for the Ravens and needed a successor to the declining Flacco. Steve Bisciotti, the team owner, knew that his franchise — forever defined by a bone-crushing defense and a methodical offense — desperately needed a dynamic playmaker on offense. Harbaugh, the head coach, knew that he likely wouldn’t survive a fourth straight season of missing the playoffs and that something significant had to change.
Harbaugh talked to Jackson before the draft, then gave his wife the scouting report.
“They just hit it off right away,” she said. “John’s such a positive, open-minded person, and he sees the good in everybody. … We got a steal because everyone passed Lamar up because they didn’t want to go with a running quarterback. But John goes, ‘We can do this. We can mold our offense to him.'”
The Ravens had lost three straight games to fall to 4-5 in 2018, and Flacco had injured his hip. Even though he had three AFC Championship Game appearances and only one losing record in his first 10 seasons, Harbaugh worried for the first time that he might get fired.
“It was a very small window, but no question it was there,” said his brother-in-law, Tom Crean, the basketball coach at the University of Georgia. “But John worked right through it. He always re-centers himself, and that’s such a gift. He was able to coach out of complete peace of mind.”
The rookie was the one who put Harbaugh at ease. Jackson’s drive and personality made him an ideal fit for a coach willing to ignore the doubters and haters and alter his entire system for what was perceived to be an unconventional talent.
“He’s got a great feel for people,” Harbaugh said of his quarterback. “And he cares about football; that’s what he thinks about all the time. As a coach, you appreciate that; but the other part is, there’s a trust there because he knows we believed in him when not too many other people did. We didn’t go halfway with him. We didn’t dip our toe.”
“He could have gone to another team and not nearly be the quarterback he is now. It’s to the Ravens’ credit that they understand that Lamar can make their team into a championship team, while other teams might try to make Lamar into their kind of quarterback instead and limit their chances.”
Former Louisville co-offensive coordinator Mike Summers, who coached Jackson in 2017
The Ravens went headfirst into the deep end this offseason by trading Flacco to the Denver Broncos, by drafting and acquiring talent that would complement Jackson’s skillset and by promoting Roman to offensive coordinator and instructing him to rewrite the playbook. The coordinator Roman replaced, Marty Mornhinweg, denied a report on Tuesday that he preferred moving Jackson to receiver, and Harbaugh said the organization was “on the same page” in the drafting and developing of the prospect. This much is clear:
The coaches who molded Jackson — and ultimately delivered him to Louisville and to the Ravens — have carefully watched how Harbaugh has connected with the player and shaped him into a quarterback who could beat Russell Wilson, Brady and Deshaun Watson over a four-game period. They see a near-perfect marriage of a coach and athlete who renewed their vows in January’s playoff defeat.
Jackson was dreadful for much of that game, playing exactly how the doubters predicted he would. After winning six of seven regular-season starts following Flacco’s hip injury, Jackson was a bumbling, fumbling mess who, into the fourth quarter, had a total of three completions for 25 yards, an interception and a passer rating of 0.0. The fans were booing him, and some were chanting for the veteran he had replaced. With the Ravens down 20, Harbaugh seriously considered asking Flacco, who had won 10 playoff games, to try to win No. 11.
The coach stayed with the youngest quarterback to ever start a playoff game, Jackson, who responded with two touchdown passes before getting sacked for the seventh time and fumbling away Baltimore’s final chance.
“At that point in time, Lamar was our quarterback,” Harbaugh said. “So I’m going to take our quarterback out? That’s the main thing. And the second thing, honestly, do you want to win that game? There’s no question in my mind that Lamar gave us the best chance to win that game, even when things weren’t going well. So it was also a football decision.”
And one that meant a ton to the betting favorite to win league MVP.
“Coach Harbaugh showed he was all in [during that playoff game], and Lamar loved that,” said Harris, Jackson’s personal tutor. “Lamar’s biggest thing is loyalty, and he loves to see his loyalty reciprocated.
“The greatest thing I’ve seen from Coach Harbaugh is he’s bought into who Lamar is. Any time I talk to Lamar about him, he talks about him in an endearing way. He’s Harbs. He’s a person Lamar feels has his back.”
Mike Summers, Louisville’s co-offensive coordinator in 2017, understands how important trust is to Jackson. Summers arrived from the University of Florida after the quarterback’s Heisman season and yet found Jackson still willing to be coached “whenever he sees someone trying to make him better.” The retired Summers praised Harbaugh and his staff for incorporating the pistol principles that were used at Louisville. Harbaugh and Roman have run the pistol on 46% of their offensive plays this season, while the other 31 NFL teams have used that formation on 1% of their plays, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
“He could have gone to another team and not nearly be the quarterback he is now,” Summers said of Jackson. “It’s to the Ravens’ credit that they understand that Lamar can make their team into a championship team, while other teams might try to make Lamar into their kind of quarterback instead and limit their chances.”
Jackson worked last offseason on his accuracy, on creating a wider base with his feet, and his completion rate has jumped from last year’s 58.2% to this year’s 66.3%. He leads the NFL in yards per carry (6.9) and ranks 10th in total rushing yards (788). But Jackson also leads the only team to score more than 300 points so far (341), and he ranks third in Total QBR (77.8) and fourth in touchdown passes (19). He has thrown for more scores than Aaron Rodgers.
As Jackson famously said after posting his first perfect passer rating against the Miami Dolphins in Week 1, “Not bad for a running back.” Harris is constantly hammering home the point that for all of his unique athleticism, Jackson wants to be as efficient as all the decorated pocket passers who preceded him.
“He wants to be Tom Brady with 4.4 speed,” Harris said.
Domonique Foxworth would choose Lamar Jackson over Deshaun Watson to start an NFL franchise because of how quickly he has turned around the Ravens’ offense.
On Sunday afternoon, Jackson executed an electrifying dash through the Houston defense that made five defenders miss and nearly matched the spinning, ankle-busting run he made against Cincinnati. He also threw four touchdown passes, completed 13 straight passes after a 1 for 6 start and showed off more arm angles on delivery than you’d find in the most diverse big league bullpen. Yes, Jackson earned those “M-V-P” chants while advancing a season of perfect passer ratings and player of the week awards.
He also showed again why he is Baltimore’s nominee for the Art Rooney Sportsmanship Award. After a wide-open Nick Boyle dropped a pass to end the first quarter, Jackson followed him 30 yards up the sideline to pat him on the helmet. Seated with two teammates in the Ravens news conference room afterward, Jackson insisted Mark Ingram, a nine-year veteran, go ahead of him to the podium so that the running back wouldn’t be left waiting for the second-year quarterback to finish. Ingram thanked him by ending his session with a Michael Buffer-like introduction, calling to the podium, “The man … the myth … the legend … the MVP front-runner.”
Only Jackson rarely, if ever, acts that way. Asked by a fan to cite the most important lesson he had learned over the last year on a Facebook Live Q&A, Jackson said, “Just treat everybody with respect. I’m all about respect. Each and every day, no matter what, who it is, be kind to somebody. You never know what type of day they’re having.”
The same superstar who is always high-fiving fans and who lifted and comforted a female photographer he had accidentally run over last month (before sending her a direct message to check on her condition and compliment the picture she took on the play) bounced around his locker room on Sunday to congratulate teammates and pose for a photo with visitors in front of his stall.
“His personality is so dynamic,” Ingrid Harbaugh said, “that it lifts everybody up around us.”
Including her husband. John goes on and on about Lamar’s beautiful football mind and his ability to quickly process the play clock, the playcall, the personnel and the defensive formation on the fly. Jackson helped Harbaugh earn a four-year contract extension and a chance to enhance his legacy by winning a second Super Bowl with a radically different quarterback than the one who helped win him his first.
So that’s why Harbaugh let Jackson talk him into going for it on fourth-and-2 against the Seattle Seahawks — and the quarterback rewarded his faith with an 8-yard touchdown run. Harbaugh was hotter than hot once, as one of four NFL coaches ever to win 10 postseason games before suffering his first losing season. Jackson gave the coach new life, and yet Baltimore residents often thank Harbaugh for giving Lamar a chance to play the position he was born to play.
“John goes, ‘It’s amazing what people say to me,'” his wife said. “John always thought of him as just a quarterback.”
And a damn good one too.
For now, the coach nobody really wanted is focused on winning it all with the franchise player nobody really wanted.
The scary part for all those AFC teams that have been waiting and waiting for Brady and Belichick to finally retire?
Jackson and Harbaugh are just getting started.