Standing in front of the team, Harbaugh said the Ravens weren't going to chase the long-standing model of the drop-back passer. Baltimore is going to break the mold of NFL offenses, the head coach told his players.
"He was getting me pumped up talking about the new revolution," Jackson said. "I was thinking we were about to play today. I was like, 'OK, Coach. I’m all-in!'"
Actually, the Ravens are all-in on Jackson. The organization pushed all of its chips to the middle of the table when it drafted Jackson with the last pick in the first round a year ago.
Baltimore decided the odds weren't in its favor to chase after the prototypical passer long coveted by NFL teams. The Ravens tried to go along with the crowd with Joe Flacco, and the franchise thought it had maxed out what it could do with a passer who, at best, was in the top half of the NFL.
Like a Jackson cutback to avoid a tackler, the Ravens determined that their best chance to capture a third Lombardi Trophy was to go against the grain and take an electric playmaker who had a skill set unlike that of any other quarterback in the league. To make Jackson a franchise quarterback, the Ravens knew they had to build a new and unconventional system around him. Jackson wasn't going to excel in a traditional NFL offense, much like Tom Brady or Drew Brees wouldn't succeed orchestrating run-pass options.
Baltimore promoted Greg Roman to offensive coordinator because he was the architect of offenses that tailored to athletic quarterbacks such as Colin Kaepernick and Tyrod Taylor. The Ravens spoke to as many coaches as they could to gain expertise and knowledge and learn the intricacies of option-based and spread offenses.
As Harbaugh points out, the game was changed four decades ago when Bill Walsh and Joe Montana ushered in the West Coast offense. What's the next era? Harbaugh believes everyone is about to find out.
"We’re probably doing iPhone 1 now. We have a whole new idea," Harbaugh said. "It’s not that there is anything new in there, concept-wise, that has never been done in football before. But the way we put it together, to me, is unique and different."
On any given play, the Ravens will run a bootleg, screen, misdirection play, run-pass option, speed option, double option or even the favorite play of Harbaugh's father: the mid-line dive option. Jackson will line up under center, in the pistol or in shotgun.
The Ravens will ask Jackson to take three-, five- and seven-step drops, read coverages and deliver passes downfield. More often than not, Baltimore wants Jackson to read the defensive end or outside linebacker and take off for 25 yards if he spots a running lane.
"The way we have this offense going is going to give teams fits because -- I’m not going to say it’s college-ish -- but it’s definitely something that’s new that people haven’t seen," cornerback Jimmy Smith said. "They’re going to have to really practice to even understand what we’re doing."
How many runs for Jackson?
Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti created national headlines in May when he said Jackson won't run 20 times per game this season.
The reality is the team won't limit Jackson. The core of this outside-the-box offense is Jackson running the ball (or, at least, the threat of him doing so). There will be times when Jackson runs only five times per game. There will be other games in which he jump-cuts and spins around defenses 20 times.
How many times will Jackson carry the ball? The correct answer is however many times it takes for Baltimore to win.
In talking about Jackson's capacity to run, it was pointed out to Harbaugh during an NFL Network interview that Panthers quarterback Cam Newton's high was 139 rushes in a season. Harbaugh responded, "Take the over."
This shouldn't come as a surprise because Jackson set the NFL single-season record with 147 rushes by a quarterback last season, and he started only seven games. It's possible that Jackson's workload this season could come close to 200 rushing attempts.
Jackson's teammates, especially those who face him in practice, certainly don't want him to run less.
"Lamar changes the game because he makes you have to cover him," Smith said. "If, for one second, a pass-rusher gives him a crease, Lamar will go for 40. The fact that he has that Michael Vick ability to run changes the game completely."
Jackson bulked up this offseason, adding seven-to-10 pounds of muscle to help him withstand the pounding a running quarterback absorbs. The narrative, though, is that Baltimore can't have long-term success with this style of play.
"Do I think it’s sustainable over 16 games? I think the quarterback runs are," said Matt Bowen, a former NFL defensive back who is now an ESPN analyst. "I would not limit my quarterback. You can say, you can have injuries. Well, you can get injured throwing the ball out of the pocket. I’ve seen that happen quite a bit."
Short passing game
The Ravens love Jackson's vision. He sees the field better than Flacco.
This is critical to the Ravens' short passing game, which works off their running game. If Jackson sees the defense being light in the box, he's going to hand off the ball in the RPO (run-pass option) or keep it himself. If the other team stacks the line, he will hit his receiver on a quick slant or shallow crossing route.
"We’re so dynamic, and we’re able do so many things, and we have so many pieces," tight end Mark Andrews said. "You’re going to have to pick your poison with us. Whatever you pick to stop us, we can hurt you with other things."
The assumption was that the Ravens added deep threats in drafting two wide receivers with their first three picks. First-round pick Marquise Brown and third-rounder Miles Boykin are two of the fastest rookies coming out of the draft.
The Ravens will take their shots downfield, but in this scheme, Brown and Boykin will use that speed to turn short passes into big gains. If Jackson can connect on those high-percentage throws off play-action and RPO, Baltimore will be not only more efficient but also more explosive.
"You have an electric athlete at the quarterback position who is going to be much better throwing in Year 2 in the NFL," Bowen said. "So let’s put him in a position where he’s comfortable and, more importantly, put in a position that creates production."
Revolutionize the NFL?
From talking to Ravens coaches and players, it seems that this offense is as retro as it is revolutionary.
Baltimore believes that part of this offense has a lot of elements from old-school football, especially the option style. This offseason, the Ravens spoke to Mississippi State coach Joe Moorhead, Toledo coach Jason Candle and Tulane offensive coordinator Will Hall about ball-handling drills, footwork and how plays are read. Former Georgia Tech and Navy coach Paul Johnson, an expert at the triple option, visited during organized team activities.
"I don’t know if the term 'revolutionary' is really going to happen," Bowen said. "You’re going to see more quarterbacks that come from that background, where they have the football in their hands a lot, playing in read schemes or playing in more modern spread systems."
Roman used different wrinkles in San Francisco and Buffalo, where he had the likes of Kaepernick and Taylor running his offense. In five seasons as an offensive coordinator in the NFL, Roman always has had a rushing attack that ranked in the top 10, but his passing game never finished higher than No. 23 in the league.
Asked if the Ravens' offense is different than the ones he had with the 49ers and Bills, Roman said it's "definitely a next-level type" of scheme, compared to what he has been done in the past.
Does Roman enjoy being counterculture in the NFL?
"I enjoy winning," Roman said. "So we’re going to do whatever it takes to win."
The Ravens don't have all the details outlined. As Roman said, the offense is still in the stage of pouring the concrete.
Each day this spring and during training camp, Baltimore is finding out which concepts are -- and aren't -- working for Jackson and his teammates.
"Where it goes and how it all fits together is to be determined," Harbaugh said.