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Lamar Jackson Gives the Ravens What They’ve Been Missing: Excitement

The rookie first-rounder looked better on the ground than he did throwing the ball in his pro debut on Sunday, but the early returns were promising

Cincinnati Bengals v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Todd Olszewski/Getty Images

Ravens fans saw a glimpse of their team’s future on Sunday, and it looks nothing like Joe Flacco.

In his first career NFL start at quarterback, Lamar Jackson threw for 150 yards on 13-of-19 passing while adding 120 rushing yards on a whopping 24 carries (excluding kneel-downs) in a 24-21 victory against the Bengals. The win kept hope alive for Baltimore to reach the playoffs this season and for an exciting team in the future.

Jackson got the opportunity to start after quarterback Joe Flacco suffered a hip injury on the opening drive of Baltimore’s Week 9 loss to Pittsburgh before the Ravens’ bye week. (Flacco was seen on crutches earlier this month but is not expected to require surgery.) Jackson also leapfrogged backup quarterback Robert Griffin III on the depth chart, which was likely because of his first-round draft status and John Harbaugh entering the bye on the hot seat and needing to prove he can work with the future of the franchise.

On the Raven’s opening 75-yard scoring drive, they ran the ball 11 consecutive times. Jackson picked up both third downs on the ground and made a 21-yard gain up the gut look effortless before Alex Collins ran the ball in for a touchdown.

Jackson’s rushing, both on designed and improvised plays, opened up the rest of the offense. Gus Edwards, who is owned in 0.0 percent of ESPN fantasy leagues, ran for 115 yards on just 17 carries, which makes Edwards and Jackson the first RB-QB teammate combo to run for more than 100 yards in the same game since Colin Kaepernick and Frank Gore in 2014. The Ravens, who came into the game ranked 31st in rushing yards per attempt with 3.6, ran for 265 yards, more than double their previous season high. (Jackson failed to convert a fourth-and-1 quarterback sneak, but that’s not the type of running he is known for.)

Despite his proficiency running the ball, Jackson’s passing abilities remain a question mark after his first start. He was far from perfect as he threw one brainfart interception, another pass he bounced off of an offensive lineman’s helmet, and a few off-the-mark passes where his receivers bailed him out. But he also looked poised under pressure and didn’t automatically try to run when chased by defenders. Plays like this, in which Jackson scrambled to buy time and then converted a second-and-6 to receiver John Brown to put Baltimore in Justin Tucker range, were the most promising part of his debut.

Still, the Ravens coaching staff gave Jackson a significantly reduced passing workload, and the offense looked drastically different on Sunday than it had with Flacco. He threw 19 attempts, less than half of Flacco’s league-leading 42 pass attempts per game. Yet he made up for it on the ground. The Ravens’ dismal rushing attack has been even worse when Flacco is in the game: Remove the 50 run plays Baltimore has called this season with Jackson under center (whether he ran or handed it off) before Sunday and the team’s yards per carry drops to an abysmal 2.77, according to CBS’s Jason La Canfora. On Sunday, the Ravens nearly doubled that figure with 4.9 yards per carry on a whopping 54 attempts.

Jackson leading Baltimore to 403 yards of total offense would be impressive against anyone except the Bengals, who were the first team in NFL history to allow 500 yards of offense in three consecutive games coming into Sunday. Baltimore won after dropping eight of their previous 10 games against Cincy and their last three games overall this season. The victory against the division rival Bengals raises Baltimore’s playoff odds to roughly 1-in-3, according to The New York Times’ playoff calculator. A loss would have dropped them to roughly 1-in-10.

It’s still a complete mystery when Flacco may return, or if Jackson will keep the job if Flacco fully heals, but Flacco seemed to have a … mixed reaction.

The Ravens could save $10 million if they release Flacco this offseason, and his eventual departure is a matter of “when,” not “if.” If Jackson keeps Baltimore winning this season, Harbaugh and Co. may be hesitant to change back to Flacco when he’s healthy. And if Baltimore falls out of the playoff race, the staff may want to stick with the quarterback who’ll definitely be around in 2019. Either way, Jackson may soon go from Baltimore’s quarterback of the future to Baltimore’s quarterback.