The Lamar Jackson Overcorrection
stupid doubters, defensive fans
Lamar Jackson is a very good football player, playing the most coveted position in sports, for the most profitable league in the United States. He absolutely deserves a long-term contract that’s near the top of the market. With guys like Daniel Jones now collecting north of $40 million a year to play quarterback, I don’t see how that’s disputable. And while prying him from the Ravens would take two first-round picks as well as cap space, thanks to the non-exclusive franchise tag, there are probably 15 or more teams in the league who would benefit from that transaction. The speed with which the Panthers, Dolphins, Falcons, and Raiders reportedly indicated that they were not interested in Jackson certainly suggests collusion. Jackson may be suffering because he doesn’t have an agent, but the league’s owner-friendly system is surely hurting his earning potential. The NFL needs a stronger players union.
Jackson’s a dynamic, exciting fan favorite, and one of the hardest QBs to gameplan against in the league. He’s been a good passer, particularly in his remarkable MVP year in 2019. He’s also an electric runner, when healthy - some say the best running quarterback in NFL history. (I would still give that laurel to Michael Vick, and Justin Fields probably surpassed him as currently the best in the league this past season, but he’s right up there.) Jackson can do a lot of great things in the most important position in football, and he’s a deserving star. I also think, frankly, that since his contract status has become a constant source of news and analysis Jackson has been generally overrated compared to his recent production, and I think I know why.
For all of his gifts, it’s strange to see so many people talk about him as a no-doubt, unquestionable top-of-the-league starter right now. I think you’d have to look at his career since the MVP year and call it disappointing. This past year, he ranked 19th in the conventional passer rating stat; in 2021, he was 23rd, 16th in 2020, and 3rd in 2019, his MVP year. From 2019 to 2023 combined he ranked 14th. However, passer rating has attracted justifiable criticism for ignoring the value a QB adds with his feet. Unsurprisingly, Jackson looks better in ESPN’s QBR metric, which includes rushing performance; he ranked first in his MVP season in 2019. Since then, he’s ranked 7th in 2020, 17th in 2021, and 9th this past season. This last year, as a rusher Jackson ranked second among quarterbacks in average yards before contact and first in average yards after contact, proving that he can still get it done with his feet. Passing stats are less rosy. In the Football Outsiders stat defense-adjusted yards above replacement, which compares performance to a replacement-level player and which adjusts the metric based on the strength of defenses played, Jackson ranked 19th this past year, 21st in 2021, 22nd in 2020, and 5th in 2019. In completed air yards per attempt, which tells us the average of how far the quarterback threw the ball for completions in the air (that is, without yards after the catch) per pass attempt, Jackson ranked 9th in his MVP year of 2019, 13th in 2020, 3rd in 2021, and 14th this past season.
To me, this looks like one exceptional season and several above-average seasons that fell short of excellence. I’ve left off traditional counting stats like yards and touchdowns not just because they’re inferior to the alternatives but also because Jackson has missed so much time that the comparisons wouldn’t be fair. But that leads to the inevitable next point: Jackson has missed 15 games over the past two years, which amounts to fully a third of the offensive snaps played by the Ravens. This has lent some credence to longstanding concerns that Jackson is too slight of build and plays into contact too often to survive the rigors of a long NFL career.
All in all, I think the best way to look at Jackson is as a very good but not great player, one who is no doubt worth it for many of the teams in the league but who comes with definite worries and question marks. If I were any team in the quarterback market this offseason, looking ahead to the next four or five years, I would see Jackson as far and away the best choice. (I doubt Aaron Rodgers plays more than two more years.) If I’m the 49ers, Packers, Falcons, Commanders, Texans, Panthers, Raiders, Lions, Colts, Buccaneers, Titans, Rams (yes), or Vikings (yes) I’d want Jackson. Jackson is better than Russell Wilson, Justin Fields, Daniel Jones, Kyler Murray, Kenny Pickett, Derek Carr, and probably Deshaun Watson, but they aren’t going anywhere. I assume the Jets do get Rodgers. I think the Dolphins should give Tua one more year, I presume the Cowboys aren’t ready to declare defeat on Dak Prescott’s contract, it wouldn’t be “the Patriot way,” and the Seahawks just resigned Geno Smith, but I think those four teams do get significantly better if they add Jackson. He’s a really good player! But I don’t think he’s better than Patrick Mahomes, Joe Burrow, Josh Allen, Jalen Hurts, Justin Herbert, or Trevor Lawrence at this point. I think he’s a B+ at QB rather than an A. And I don’t think that’s a crazy thing to say.
But I haven’t really seen that in discussion of his contract. I’ve seen people talking about Jackson like he’s a slam-dunk top-three guy, right now. There’s some focus on his durability, but little on the actual quality of his play. People are complaining about the likely collusion, which is a good thing, but in their zeal to do so aren’t examining recent evidence of Jackson’s recent level of performance. People are talking as if, barring injury, getting Jackson for four or five years gives you a great chance at 50+ wins and a Super Bowl.
And I just don’t see it. I acknowledge that the receiving corps in Baltimore has been underwhelming, but I don’t agree that the Ravens have had a uniquely bad roster since 2019. In fact, the Ravens have a reputation for being one of the best-drafting teams in the league, and they had six Pro Bowlers last year, trailing only two teams that had seven. They’ve also repeatedly been said to have crafted their roster to specifically suit Jackson’s abilities. The result over the past four seasons has been a 43-23 record and a 1-4 playoff record. (Yes, I’m including games in which Jackson was injured, because you have to price in his injury history.) That regular season record is definitely enviable. But I’m not sure this whole package looks as good as people are selling, and there’s a major bias toward viewing Jackson through a 2019 lens rather than a 2023 lens. It’s all over social media, but for an example from ESPN, you might consider this clip, where Jackson’s future is debated for twenty minutes with no serious consideration of how good he really is. (Josh Allen catches a stray from Keyshawn Johnson, but they share a draft class, and since that draft the Bills have more wins in the regular season and three more playoff wins, while Allen has been the better quarterback by almost any statistical measure and hasn’t missed a game.) Stephen A. Smith is a good example of someone who has confused the complaints about collusion with a referendum on Jackson’s value.
Here he’s referred to as a “generational talent,” which has been a whole trope in this discussion. But what can that mean? If it means anything, it should mean “a once-in-a-generation talent.” But… Patrick Mahomes is in Jackson’s generation. In no year since 2019 can you make a halfway credible argument that Jackson was the game’s best QB. How can this support a claim of being a generational talent? Yet this rhetoric is everywhere. Everybody seems to want to root for Lamar.
Why? I think the answer is obvious: as a college player and early in his career, Jackson was subject to a lot of ridiculous criticism and scrutiny, in a way that exceeded what was reasonable. Despite winning a Heisman award, Jackson was dismissed by many as a running back who couldn’t really play the position. Former Colts GM and dimwit Bill Polian notoriously said that Jackson should enter the draft as a wide receiver. There was a lot of substance-free handwringing about Jackson’s ability to read a defense or be a leader. As many people have pointed out, all of this has a racial valence. The unfair critiques of Jackson played into the old narrative of Black athletes as natural athletes who get by on talent, while white players have work ethic and intelligence. Doubts about the abilities of Black quarterbacks dogged the NFL for decades and have only begun to abate in recent years thanks to consistently excellent play from several Black QBs. And Jackson by all accounts is a good guy who’s well-liked by teammates and respected around the league. So many fans and people in the media are naturally defensive about him and have their antennae up for unfair criticism. The very forgivable tendency is to overreact to any perceived criticism of Jackson, for fear of echoing bad-faith critics.
Luckily, we can recognize the stupidity of those critics while maintaining a fair apprehension of Jackson’s situation: he’s a rightfully-lauded performer at a premium position who can and will receive a huge contract, but who has underperformed relative to the standard he set in 2019 and who has legitimate injury risks given the number of games missed in the past several years.
This is a generalizable condition, by the way: whenever someone or something receives undue, unwarranted, or inaccurate criticism, the natural tendency is to overcorrect and dismiss any critiques. This problem is of course exacerbated by the ravenous takes industry and social media, where conversation is so constant that there’s time for many cycles of hype, backlash, and backlash to the backlash. And of course no one agrees about how much criticism a given target is receiving, what or who’s overrated or underrated; Everything Everywhere All at Once’s rabid stans talk about a nefarious plot to disrespect the movie, while its critics (like me) watch it win award after award. In sports, at least, we have more objective data to go on. Anyway, it’ll be fine - by the Ravens or Falcons or someone else, Jackson is going to get paid, and it will be well deserved.