My two favorite quarterbacks will play each other Sunday afternoon in Baltimore: Kyler Murray, the first pick of the 2019 NFL draft, and Lamar Jackson, the last pick of the first round of the 2018 draft. Both are coming off of spectacular Week 1 performances; Jackson obliterated the Dolphins for 324 passing yards and five touchdowns in a 59-10 rout, and Murray rallied the Cardinals back from a 24-6 fourth-quarter deficit to secure a 27-27 tie against the Lions. (Yes, I was excited about the tie.) Both are also spectacular athletes who won the Heisman Trophy and still faced doubters unsure whether they could play quarterback in the pros.
A dynamic runner (and expert of jukes and hurdles) who’s occasionally been shaky with his accuracy, Jackson had his throwing skills questioned throughout his college career and during the draft process, in spite of making highlight-reel throws like this, this, and this. Longtime NFL general manager Bill Polian infamously argued that Jackson should transition to wide receiver upon going pro, and a Chargers scout asked Jackson whether he would complete receiver drills at the 2018 NFL combine.
While these were fringe opinions, they were opinions that other QBs in Jackson’s class weren’t subjected to, and the premise of Jackson being a run-first quarterback whose passing skills had a ceiling certainly affected his draft stock. He was the fifth quarterback taken in 2018, going behind Josh Rosen, who might not be in the league next year at this rate, and Josh Allen, a Pro Bowler according to the good people of Western New York and no one else. Jackson turned a 4-5 team into a 10-6 playoff team as a rookie and has now recorded one of the most efficient statlines in football history in his first sophomore outing.
Suffice it to say, Murray’s story is less common. Every once in a while, I pinch myself remembering that Murray is the starting quarterback for an NFL team, considering that at this time last year he was almost certain to honor a multimillion-dollar deal to play baseball for the Oakland A’s, who took him with the no. 9 pick in the 2018 MLB draft. Did you forget that happened? It seems like another lifetime. But for a while, it really did seem like Murray would be in the minor leagues right now—after all, what NFL team would use a top draft pick on a 5-foot-10 running quarterback?
Luckily, it became apparent over Murray’s lone college season as a starter that he was a singular football talent, and perceptions of the importance of quarterback height have changed. And Murray had a fan in Kliff Kingsbury, the first-year coach of the Cardinals, the team with the draft’s no. 1 pick.
Jackson’s and Murray’s athletic traits were once considered more valuable than their passing skills. Now, both have found coaches who accurately view their mobility not as a demerit against their throwing ability, but as a force multiplier which makes them all the more valuable. But that’s where their stories diverge. Jackson and Murray are the poster children for two vastly different approaches to playing smart football in 2019.
The Ravens exploited a smart analytics trend more than any other team in Week 1: play-action passing. Last year, the percentage of NFL passes out of play action spiked to 24 percent, the highest mark in league history, with the Rams leading the way at 36 percent. Last Sunday, the Ravens used play action on half of their passing plays. Fifty percent!
This was wildly successful. Jackson threw for five touchdowns on 20 passes and averaged over 16 yards per attempt. Here’s Jackson’s first touchdown pass of the day, a run-pass option in which Jackson fakes a handoff to Mark Ingram and tosses a slant to hyperfast rookie Hollywood Brown. (He was Kyler Murray’s favorite target at Oklahoma!) Because the Dolphins’ middle linebacker and free safety sprint out of the middle of the field to defend the fake, Brown is able to sprint 47 yards to the end zone.
Jackson threw only 20 passes in Miami, so that 50 percent figure is likely to drop. And he did this against the Dolphins, who are currently tanking like it’s the Battle of Kursk.
Still, when Jackson supplanted Joe Flacco as Baltimore’s starting quarterback last season, the Ravens morphed into one of the most run-heavy teams in recent league memory, with the QB averaging 17.1 carries per game. On Sunday, Jackson had three carries. If the way the Dolphins bit on that RPO is any indication, though, they still considered containing Jackson’s running abilities to be a top defensive priority.
Conventional football wisdom has long suggested that play action is most effective when offenses establish the run. Analytics show that it remains effective even if offenses don’t run particularly often or well. In the case of Jackson against Miami, both things were true. Jackson didn’t need to run the ball for play action to be effective, but after his efforts in 2018 and an offseason in which Baltimore’s coaches talked up his rushing ability, the Dolphins expected him to run the ball. This would be an ideal blueprint for Jackson: having defenses plan to stop him based on his running reputation, and then dissecting those opponents with a steady dose of play action.
The Cardinals led the league in an entirely different category in Week 1. Arizona played 55 snaps out of 10 personnel, meaning plays in which they lined up with four receivers, one running back, and no tight ends. While the play action attempts to sell defenses on the threat of a run, 10 personnel signals to defenses that there’s no chance in hell that a run is coming. The rest of the league ran 44 combined snaps from 10 personnel in Week 1. No NFL team ran more than 47 total snaps out of 10 personnel last season.
This is the Air Raid, the system in which Murray won the Heisman at Oklahoma. In the fourth quarter of Week 1, operating almost exclusively out of that lineup, he went 15-of-19 passing for 154 yards with two scores. Here’s Murray’s first touchdown, a play run out of 10 personnel in which running back David Johnson goes vertical against a linebacker while all the cornerbacks and safeties attend to the four receivers spread across the field:
Here’s Murray’s game-tying drive. Not every play uses 10 personnel—some are run out of 00 personnel, which features five wide receivers. The weird thing about running such a pass-heavy offense is that it actually circles back around and makes running the football effective again. Look at how much space Murray has on this designed zone read:
After the game, Kingsbury insisted that the abundance of 10 personnel was an aberrance, since the team was trailing and had to score quickly. That’s true: 22 of the Cardinals’ 25 fourth-quarter snaps came out of 10 personnel as they stormed back from 18 points down to force overtime. But Arizona also lined up in 10 personnel on 50 percent of its first-quarter offensive plays, significantly higher than anyone else in the league. The Air Raid mantra is to run the most effective offense for an entire game, not simply when a team needs offense—and the Cardinals were clearly most effective out of 10 personnel.
One downside to the rise of sports analytics is an increase in homogeneity. As leagues develop a top-down emphasis on maximizing efficiency, those leagues create players capable of accomplishing only specific tasks. Baseball lineups are now packed full of players who excel at hitting home runs and drawing walks; the era of the midrange god in basketball is dead.
In football, it has become apparent that passing the football is significantly more efficient than handing the ball off. This could put the sport at risk of growing dull. It would be boring if every NFL team had roughly the same offensive philosophy.
But that’s what so great about players like Jackson and Murray. They show that variety can still exist in a world that craves efficiency. Passing is too broad a category to be uniform. There are quarterbacks who can be efficient by completing a high percentage of short passes; there are QBs who can be efficient completing a smaller amount of bombs; there are quarterbacks who can be efficient by leveraging their ability to run. If anything, the sport’s old standard—in which most quarterbacks were about 6-foot-5 and teams believed it was mandatory to run the ball between the tackles 20 times per game—represented the peak of football homogeneity.
Jackson is the NFL’s new king of play action, a mobile threat who can take opponents’ fear of his legs and punish them for forgetting about his arm. Murray is spreading the Air Raid revolution in the pros, and will scurry through any holes defenses leave open as they try to cover his receiving corps from the line of scrimmage to the end zone and sideline to sideline.
Jackson and Murray are uniquely suited to be excellent in their football worlds, and they’re primed to put on a show Sunday. It’s a matchup that lets us dream of one-of-a-kind football futures to come.