Many people have described Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson as having “video game numbers.” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney did it just the other day. The metaphor is simple: Sports video games have long aimed to be more entertaining than realistic, and therefore allow players to put up preposterous statistics. Jackson’s stats—he racked up 5,114 total yards with 51 touchdowns last season, and he already has 1,010 total yards with eight scores through two games this year—can be summed up only with comparisons to the unreal.
But Jackson, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner whose 14th-ranked Cardinals (2-0) will host no. 3 Clemson (2-0) on Saturday night, doesn’t just score like a video game character. He plays like one, too. It doesn’t seem to matter who Jackson’s teammates are or what defense he’s playing against. He looks like the lone player-controlled avatar on a field otherwise populated with mindless sprites.
Look at that play above. After effortlessly slicing through North Carolina’s defensive line in a 47-35 victory last Saturday, Jackson had a clean route to the end zone. Did he run straight? No. He cut left across the face of a Tar Heel defender, taking the scenic embarrassment route to six. That’s not a move humans make in real football games. That’s a decision bored gamers make when trying to add flair to their 13th touchdown against the CPU.
And while other quarterbacks appear to require time and effort to calculate the proper strength and angle to make a throw, it seems like Jackson just presses a button—SQUARE!—and the ball flies downfield without much effort, reaching his receiver with the proper touch and power.
Lamar Jackson makes NFL throws every weekpic.twitter.com/ESWZeoJpCu— 2018 NFL Draft (@DraftRT) September 9, 2017
Jackson is both college football’s most valuable player and its best player. No one else is more individually meaningful to his team; no one else as unstoppable in so many ways. And yet, many stories about Jackson’s junior campaign haven’t focused on his penchant for throwing missiles through defenses. They’ve been transfixed by what he might not be capable of accomplishing, rather than the countless things that he already has.
Jackson entered the 2017 season as the third-most likely player to win the Heisman, at least according to the Vegas betting odds. And while he won the award comfortably last December, there’s some logic to him not being the favorite, as no one has repeated as Heisman winner since Ohio State’s Archie Griffin did so in the 1970s. In fact, nobody has come close. Heisman voters have long shown a tendency to vote not by the award’s publicly listed criteria, but instead by some communal understanding of what the trophy is supposed to mean. (The Heisman Trust’s mission statement doesn’t say anything about ignoring defensive players, but somehow the award always goes to offensive players, often to the best offensive player on the best team.) And that communal understanding seems to heavily discourage voters from backing a player who has already won, even if he puts up equally impressive statistics during the second season of his candidacy.
For Jackson, this trend has forged a narrative that’s followed him ever since he hoisted the trophy. The story is no longer whether Jackson can dazzle onlookers with his play; it’s whether he can be more dazzling than he was as a sophomore. But perhaps more pervasive than the Heisman talk this fall has been the conversation about how Jackson’s talents will translate to the NFL. Some pundits have labeled the 6-foot-3 211-pounder as the fourth- or fifth-best quarterback potentially available in the 2018 NFL draft, behind guys like USC’s Sam Darnold, UCLA’s Josh Rosen, and Wyoming’s Josh Allen. Some say he’s too inaccurate; others that his frame is too frail for a quarterback who likes to run. As with so many black quarterbacks, it has been suggested that Jackson can’t make the reads required to lead more sophisticated NFL offenses and that he should move to wide receiver.
To any Heisman voters reading this: Don’t be stupid. Jackson is the definition of everything that the Heisman Trust seeks in a winner. It’s possible that another player could emerge and win the 2017 trophy; after all, Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield is legendary. But if Jackson is the most excellent player in the country this year, he shouldn’t be docked for also being the most excellent last year.
To any NFL general managers reading this: Please, don’t be stupid. Jackson is generationally explosive, and possesses a rocket for an arm and plays in a pro-style system. Heck, he went to Louisville explicitly because it uses a pro-style scheme. There might be things NFL quarterbacks need to do that Jackson hasn’t done yet, but there’s nothing that he has demonstrably failed at over the course of his career.
And to those reading this who are neither Heisman voters nor NFL draft analysts: For the love of all that is holy, don’t be stupid and don’t concern yourself with Heisman odds or big-board shuffling while watching Lamar Jackson. I don’t know if Jackson will become the first two-time Heisman winner since Griffin, and I don’t know if he’ll turn out to be great in the NFL. I just know that the most exciting player in the country is about to take on the defending national champion—a rematch of last fall’s 42-36 classic, in which Jackson passed for 295 yards, rushed for 162 more, and came a few feet shy of completing a thrilling second-half comeback—and fireworks are all but certain to ensue.
At most, we have 11 or 12 games left of Lamar Jackson, College Football God. I’m not going to waste any of that time worrying about anything other than my sheer enjoyment of watching a packet of pixels made flesh.