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The Ravens Have Always Had a Star in Lamar Jackson. Now, They Have the Offense to Match.

The no. 1 seed Ravens have come a long way from an offseason when it seemed they might lose their quarterback. Now the team enters the divisional round with a new offensive coordinator, a fresh, pass-focused scheme, and a QB who has deservedly high expectations.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The truth is, Lamar Jackson didn’t want to leave Baltimore. Despite the awkward six-week stretch last spring when the Baltimore Ravens placed the nonexclusive franchise tag on the 26-year-old quarterback and he was technically available for other teams to attempt to sign, Jackson said he didn’t consider moving on from the franchise that drafted him.

“To be honest with you, I really didn’t care for other teams,” Jackson said in a May press conference. “I just really wanted to get something done here. I wanted to be here. Other teams [are] cool, but I want to be a Raven.”

That was a marked departure from a public statement he made in March, when he said, “I requested a trade from the Ravens organization for which the Ravens has not been interested in meeting my value. … I had to make a business decision that was best for my family and I.” But even during Jackson and Baltimore’s month-and-a-half-long standoff, it still seemed far-fetched that the former MVP would end up somewhere else. First, because Baltimore had the right to match any offer a team made for Jackson. And second, because no teams stepped up to the plate. In fact, a handful of QB-needy teams, including the Falcons, Raiders, Commanders, and Panthers, were almost immediately reported to not be interested in signing the star, for a variety of reasons.

Some said it was because of the cost of a potential deal (the money, plus two first-round picks that would have gone to Baltimore). Falcons owner Arthur Blank cited concerns over Jackson’s durability. At his end-of-season press conference earlier this month, Blank was asked whether the team had made a mistake not going after Jackson.

“I don’t think so,” Blank said. “I mean, it’s easy to say ‘yes’ given his year, and he’s obviously an incredible player. You know, we did not have the cap space. I think the coaching staff felt—coach and personnel, all of us felt collectively … we had an answer in [Desmond] Ridder, a younger player without that kind of contract that would’ve kept us from actually building the team we wanted to build.” That team the Falcons wanted to build finished 7-10 with a bottom-five offense, and led to Blank’s firing of head coach Arthur Smith. The Commanders, Raiders, and Panthers are all looking for new coaches, as well.

Eventually, Jackson and the Ravens agreed on a five-year, $260 million contract that at the time made Lamar the league’s highest-paid QB. And he spent this season making the teams who passed on him look pretty ridiculous by leading the Ravens to the AFC’s no. 1 seed and becoming the MVP favorite.

But teams’ refusal to pursue Jackson this offseason wasn’t totally surprising—because it wasn’t new. This is, after all, a league that let Jackson slip to the bottom of the first round of the 2018 draft after he dominated college football for two years. Even the Ravens passed on him with their first pick that year—and dragged their feet about giving him a big-money extension. They didn’t even offer him the more common exclusive franchise tag, instead going with an option that, according to ESPN, only three quarterbacks have received since 2000: Drew Brees before he became Drew Brees (and when he was coming off a career-threatening shoulder injury), Matt Cassel in New England after he filled in for an injured Tom Brady, and Kirk Cousins in Washington after he broke out in the last year of his rookie deal.


There was uncertainty surrounding all of those guys—and fair or not, teams have been uncertain about Jackson, too. He’s faced questions about his passing prowess since his days at Louisville, and those questions were still being asked when his rookie contract expired in March. Some of the skepticism stems from the last time Jackson and the Ravens were in the position they are now: holding the best record in the NFL, with the MVP favorite at quarterback and expectations to win a Super Bowl. That was the 2019 season, when Baltimore went crashing out of the playoffs after the league’s leading offense came out flat against an underdog Titans team. Jackson was intercepted a couple of times, his receivers dropped key passes, and the unit never really got on track in the 28-12 loss. Tennessee deployed a unique defensive game plan that aimed to limit Jackson’s run threat and make him a passer. And in the following years, opposing defenses co-opted that general blueprint and found success.

Baltimore spent the three seasons after that Tennessee loss trying to recapture the magic. And now four years later—under a new offensive coordinator, with an enhanced receiver group and a leveled-up Jackson who’s playing with something to prove—the Ravens have done it. The offense finished fourth in the league in scoring, sixth in success rate, and ninth in expected points added despite losing several key pieces to injury. And more important than the results is how Baltimore has gone about achieving them. Jackson is once again leading the Ravens into the playoffs, but he’s doing so in a way that has made his previous detractors look silly—and in a way that has his team visualizing a championship.

Miami Dolphins v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images

“Elite.”

That was the first word out of Todd Monken’s mouth when he was asked about Jackson in his introductory press conference last year. There may be front offices and coaches around the NFL who remain skeptical of Jackson’s ability as a passer, but the first-year Ravens offensive coordinator is not one of them. “It’s obvious when you watch him on film,” Monken said. “The things he can do with the football and the plays that he makes. I think he’s underrated as a passer in terms of his ability to make plays and throw it down the field. You’ve all seen it. I’m like you. … I watch what you guys watch, and it’s pretty amazing.”

Monken’s praise of Jackson as a passer has extended throughout the regular season, and when I tried to give the coach a bit of credit for aiding Jackson’s development in November, he quickly deferred it to his star pupil. That’s typical of Monken, who is a player’s coach through and through and who understands that football is a sport in which success is governed by the talent on the field, not the coaches on the sideline. “Players dictate style of play,” Monken said. “There’s no way around it.”

Monken has been labeled an Air Raid coach at times, like during his days as the Oklahoma State OC under Mike Gundy. But the offense he ran at the college level a decade ago looks nothing like the one we’re seeing in Baltimore this season. The Ravens do a little bit of everything: They can play big or small and will toggle between pass-first and run-first game plans based on the defense they’re facing—a big departure from the distinct run-first offense former coordinator Greg Roman relied on. And when Baltimore went looking for Roman’s replacement after firing him early last year, schematic versatility was the priority.

Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said Monken’s “focus on building an offense around the talent” was what ultimately got him the job. “[He’s] not necessarily a one-system type of an approach—like, ‘This is our system, and we fit the players to the system’—but a player-driven approach that, ‘We’re going to build the system around the players and around the personality of the team.’”

From the receivers to Jackson, Ravens offensive players seem to love playing for “Monk.” The receivers, a group now led by Zay Flowers and Odell Beckham Jr., are invested because they’re getting more work compared to last season. Ravens wideouts combined to play 2,693 snaps in 2023. Last season, under Roman, Baltimore finished dead last (with 1,837) by a wide margin, according to TruMedia. “You’re always happy if you’re out there and it might be a pass,” Ravens assistant receivers coach Keith Williams said about his group in training camp. In Monken, who started his NFL career coaching receivers in Jacksonville, Williams says the players have a coordinator who “understands the plight of the receiver.”

The receivers aren’t the only happy ones, though. The most important piece of the offense, Jackson, is enjoying the freedom he’s found in the system. “Coach [Monken] is basically giving us the key to the offense,” Jackson said in August. The Ravens are getting to the line of scrimmage faster than they have in the past, which Monken says is a must if you want to give the quarterback a chance at making the proper pre-snap reads and adjusting based on what he sees. And Jackson is making more pre-snap changes than he ever has before. “We’ve been in that world before, but not to this degree,” Harbaugh said. “To me, the offense starts in that world more than it did before, and I’m excited about that. I know Lamar is excited about that.”

That excitement is ultimately what Monken is trying to cultivate. He believes that when a quarterback takes more ownership of an offense by getting involved in the game-planning and play-calling processes, the offense can go from here, he said raising his hand, to here, raising it even higher. “I’m a firm believer that [if] you want your quarterback to play his best, you’ve got to empower him,” Monken said.

That Monken quote was from August, so I asked him this week how Jackson has been advancing in that area. “It’s always a work in progress—I don’t care who it is,” Monken said. “[But] we’ve come a long way. … It’s just not empowerment in terms of on the field. It’s off the field. It’s everything. It’s leadership. It’s being able to communicate his thoughts, likes, dislikes, how he sees it.”

Kansas City Chiefs v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

While Jackson’s newfound autonomy has given him, and the entire Ravens offense, a boost over the course of the season, Monken’s general offensive philosophy has also helped Jackson get back to his MVP form. Structurally, the offense looks vastly different from the 2022 edition. Baltimore’s average formation width has increased by 2 yards from last season, according to Next Gen Stats. Their use of spread formations has jumped by 10 percentage points, and their use of condensed formations has dropped by just over seven points. The Ravens have finally put the league’s most dangerous space player in, well, space. And Jackson has exploited the extra breathing room.

“The more spread you are … it’s more fun if your guy is athletic,” Monken said in February. “And the more spread you get, the more space, the more—OK, wow, they start to cover down, and [if] he makes a guy miss, he can make you pay.”

Monken didn’t simply stretch out Baltimore’s offense. He also made it more dynamic from a personnel standpoint—beyond the increase in receiver snaps. At first glance, you might think there is a decent amount of overlap between this system and Roman’s last year. For instance, fullback Patrick Ricard, who became a bit of a meme last season because of his usage as a route runner, is still seeing a lot of the field. But Ricard’s official formation listing is a bit misleading. He has been a fullback for the better part of his career, and he wears a classic fullback number (42), but Monken has turned him into something of a tight end this year, which has allowed the coach to carry over some of the tactics he used to great effect as Georgia’s title-winning OC in 2021 and 2022. So, yes, technically the Ravens are still playing a lot of two-back personnel groupings, but they’re lining up in single-back formations that are more common when teams are in 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) or 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR) and pose more of a passing threat.

Ricard prefers to classify himself as a “football player.” He’s played a fullback/tight end role for most of his career, but he started out as a defensive player and even played a little guard during offseason camps. Because of all that experience, Monken can, on any play, use Ricard as a fullback, a tight end, or even an offensive lineman. Understandably, opponents have had a hard time figuring out how to match up with Baltimore when no. 42 is in the huddle.

“You don’t know who’s going to be in the traditional spots, so to speak,” Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald said of the offense this week. “But it does test your roles a little bit in some of the coverages you want to play. … A lot of times, it’s really just to put the guy they want to get the ball in a certain position, a certain matchup, too, so it’s more like a chess piece.”

While Monken deploys Ricard as a tight end most often, opposing defenses treat him like a fullback, matching with base defense nearly 88.4 percent of the time, almost 30 percentage points higher than the league average, according to Next Gen Stats. That creates matchup advantages in the passing game, but if a defense loads up on coverage players to counteract it, there’s an obvious solution. “If you have myself and Mark [Andrews] in the game, what kind of defense are they going to put out there?” Ricard asked after a training camp practice in August. “Are they going to put out a bigger front? OK … then we’re going to go play-action [pass], and Mark’s going to be in mismatches. If they try to get lighter for Mark and all the receivers, then we’re going to start running the ball.” The Ravens have done both at a high level.

EPA Per Play With Patrick Ricard On/Off Field

Play type On Off
Play type On Off
Run 0.04 -0.04
Pass 0.25 -0.02
All 0.11 -0.02
Data via Sports Info Solutions

The only non-Ravens teams with a positive total EPA on the season with two backs on the field (and a minimum of 150 of those plays) are coached by Kyle Shanahan (San Francisco) and Mike McDaniel (Miami), both of whom stem from the Shanahan coaching tree that has spread across the league. Monken has no obvious connections to that tree, but schematically there’s more overlap than you might realize. The use of Ricard is just one example of the versatility Monken has brought to Baltimore this season—including a more fleshed-out dropback passing game, an expanded package of run-pass options, and even a regular supply of screen passes.

While Monken’s schematic tricks will excite football nerds and have made things more difficult for opponents, it’s still Jackson’s robust talent—both as a runner and a passer—that fuels the offense. There is more space and speed to work with now, but the system doesn’t function like this without Jackson under center.

In the offseason, Monken said he was excited to expand the passing game after Roman’s offense had mostly focused on the run. He’s done that both literally, with the increase in spread formations, and also figuratively by, for lack of a more original phrase, simply letting Lamar cook. For the first time in his career, Jackson finished the regular season with a pass rate over expectation, according to SumerSports, meaning the Ravens are passing more often than the average team does given the situation. Baltimore’s offense is finally operating like a unit led by one of the league’s best quarterbacks—and it’s reaping the rewards. The Ravens have scored at least 30 points in eight of their past 10 games—not including the Week 18 contest when starters were held out—including dropping 56 on the Dolphins in Week 17.

Jackson, as a passer, has been a difficult player to evaluate for some, which the entire league proved by turning down the opportunity to offer him a contract last offseason. He doesn’t have perfect mechanics, which can lead to some bad misses, and he’s played most of his career in a run-first offense with a rudimentary passing game, which has dragged down his production. But like Monken said, you just have to watch him throw a football to recognize how special he is. Jackson can throw from any arm angle. It doesn’t matter whether his feet are firmly on the ground, entirely in the air, or somewhere in between. Jackson can get the ball to his intended target with the flick of a wrist.

And the most impressive part of Jackson’s passing acumen is his innate feel for the game and what defenses are trying to do. That’s something both of the offensive coordinators he’s worked with in Baltimore have noticed. “He can do things you can’t coach in the passing game. He has really, really good field vision,” Roman said after taking over the OC job in early 2019. “You could put a progression to a passing route, like, ‘Hey, I’m going one to two to three.’ You could have him read the coverage and figure out where to throw it. But oftentimes, he’ll just see guys open. He’ll see leverage take place. Not all guys are like that, so that is a great starting point.”

Monken seems to agree. “I do think he sees the field very well,” he said of Jackson last month. “We’ll talk about the scrambles first … but even beyond that, I think he’s able to communicate what he sees and what he anticipates [from the pocket]. Then, when he gets outside the pocket, [he] does a great job of seeing things.”

Monken pointed to Jackson’s wide-open touchdown pass to Flowers against the 49ers in Week 16 as an example of his vision and feel.

From an outsider’s perspective, it looks like an easy pitch-and-catch that any NFL QB could make, but Monken says Flowers wasn’t really included in the read. “More times than not on that [play], we’re trying to get the defense to move laterally, and we’re thinking outside post to rail to the back [in the flat]. I don’t even know if we ever hit Zay one time on that part of it, but [Jackson] saw the reaction of the safety and made an unbelievable play, to be real honest.”

Monken should probably give himself a bit more credit for the play, which is a good illustration of how this offense has evolved over the past 12 months. The lateral stretch of the defense creates the space for Flowers. The funky alignment—did you notice the right tackle aligned outside of the tight end?—along with the play fake slows down the pass rush. The well-designed pass concept provided the quarterback with several viable options in the red zone. And, of course, Lamar is really freaking good at throwing a football. He always has been—it’s just more obvious now that he’s playing in a passing game fit for a top quarterback.

Miami Dolphins v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Todd Olszewski/Getty Images

Weeks before the 2022 season kicked off, when Jackson was still locked in contract negotiations with the Ravens, former 49ers quarterback and Hall of Famer Steve Young called for Baltimore to move on during an appearance on ESPN. Young wasn’t advocating for the Ravens to trade Jackson, of course—the two-time MVP was a dual-threat quarterback himself back in the day and said the Ravens star could be “the greatest player in the history of the league.” Instead, Young wanted to see the team move on from Roman’s “unsophisticated” offense.

“My position is they will never get to championship football without a sophisticated passing game,” Young said. “That’s not anything to do with Lamar Jackson. Lamar Jackson is a complete player that is not trained in being a sophisticated passer. They doubled down again, back to do all the great things that Lamar does [in the running game]. Great. But until he gets the chance to show that he is a sophisticated passer of the football in a sophisticated passing game that they have invested in, … Lamar Jackson is damned because of what the Ravens are doing—not Lamar Jackson.

“I want the full measure of who Lamar Jackson is. And the full measure is not being brought forward by the Ravens. And if that’s not the case, then they should go out and find [an offensive coordinator] who will.”

Months later, the Ravens took Young’s advice by not only moving on from Roman, but also hiring an offensive coordinator on the opposite side of the philosophical spectrum. Just compare their introductory press conferences. Both coordinators were asked about how they like to build around a quarterback. Roman started his answer by mentioning a strong, powerful offensive line, then went to running backs next, tight ends after that, and finally receivers—but not without stressing the importance of their blocking. Monken also started with the offensive line, but only mentioned its ability to protect the quarterback, before going straight to the importance of playmakers.

It’s one thing to just say you want playmakers around the quarterback, but Monken is putting Baltimore’s overhauled skill group, headlined by the additions of Flowers and Beckham, to good use. Ricard is making the biggest impact of his career. Second-year tight end Isaiah Likely has broken out while Andrews has been recovering from torn ankle ligaments and a fractured fibula. Before a season-ending injury in November, rookie running back Keaton Mitchell was a walking explosive play. It’s no longer just Jackson and Andrews against the world in the passing game, which has made the QB’s job easier. And Jackson has obviously made Monken’s job as a play caller easier. The fear of Jackson gashing the defense with his legs takes the teeth out of the pass rush. The defense can’t play too much man coverage for the same reason. And having a quarterback who can make any throw from any platform also helps spark a play designer’s imagination. The Ravens are making use of every bit of Jackson’s talent, and because of that, Baltimore can change its identity from game to game—switching from a downhill-run/heavy-play-action approach to a spread, pass-first setup.

The 2019 Ravens offense couldn’t do that. Not because Jackson wasn’t capable—he’s a more polished quarterback now, but he was still one of the 10 best passers in the league at the time. The issue was the scheme. It had its hallmark—running the ball from condensed, heavy formations to eventually set up the pass—but if a defense disrupted its flow by stopping the run or just repeatedly blitzing the hell out of the quarterback, there was no plan B. They couldn’t play a “different kind of football,” as Harbaugh put it.

This Ravens team can, and it will serve them well over the next few weeks as they try to win the franchise’s third Lombardi Trophy. They’ve had the quarterback to do it for five years. Now, they’ve finally built him an offense to match.

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