NFL Analysis


7 min read

Lamar Jackson Will Win NFL MVP, But the Best Is Yet to Come

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson
Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) runs onto the field during player introductions prior to the AFC Championship football game against the Kansas City Chiefs at M&T Bank Stadium. (Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports)

The tortured legacy of Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson will likely take another twist on Thursday night.

Jackson is expected to win his second NFL Most Valuable Player Award in five years as a starter. While that would seemingly put Jackson on a trajectory toward a Hall of Fame career, his legacy is also haunted by the specter of playoff failure and the many critics who deride his accomplishments as propped-up, regular-season fodder. Is Jackson really a great quarterback or a guy who does just enough to tantalize before disappointing in the biggest moments?

Front Row Seat

To one man who has watched Jackson up close and carefully from the beginning of his career, Jackson’s 2023 season is proof that he is a great player and that there is much more to come.

“He has built himself into a great thrower of the football,” said Marty Mornhinweg, who spent 35 years in coaching, including 25 in the NFL, and was the Baltimore offensive coordinator during Jackson’s rookie season. “There are a lot of guys who have made themselves more accurate and most consistent at the NFL level, like Brett Favre and Steve Young. Young worked really hard to become a better thrower.

“Lamar is like (Young in that way), and it requires patience as a team when you’re talking about someone with that kind of running talent … Lamar made a big step as a rookie, and he has made two smaller steps along the way. There’s another step to make, and I believe he’s going to get there.”

A Cut Above the Rest

The Associated Press MVP balloting results will be announced tonight during the NFL Honors program on NFL Network. Jackson is the odds-on favorite to win among the five players invited as finalists for the award. The others are Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen, San Francisco running back Christian McCaffrey, Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott, and San Francisco quarterback Brock Purdy.

While there are good arguments for all five in a season where no candidate was overwhelmingly great, Jackson’s consistency and Baltimore’s excellent regular season seem to be deciding factors in his favor. Moreover, there is an impressive statement to be made about Jackson despite his pedestrian total of 24 touchdown passes and 3,678 passing yards. 

For those like Mornhinweg who have watched Jackson closely, Jackson is a better quarterback today than in his breakout 2019 MVP season. That year, Jackson threw for 36 touchdowns and only six interceptions. He also rushed for 1,206 yards on 176 carries (an absurd average of 6.9 yards per carry) and scored seven touchdowns. 

Jackson was a human highlight reel that season with his running ability. His array of spinning moves combined with astounding speed were breathtaking. At the same time, all players eventually slow down, and the toll of playing that style would never allow it to last, especially when facing disciplined defenses that could limit his impact as a runner and force him to throw.

When Jackson was knocked out of the playoffs, the criticisms of his passing ability began to mount, and they have only gotten more pronounced over the years.

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) prepares to throw the ball as Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Drue Tranquill (23) defends during the first half in the AFC Championship Game at M&T Bank Stadium. (Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)

Growing as a Passer

But the criticisms have also ignored real gains by Jackson as a passer, particularly as his “quarterback instincts,” as Mornhinweg termed it, have become more apparent.

This year, Jackson had career highs in completion percentage (67.2), yards per pass attempt (8.0) and pass attempts (457) while decreasing his running attempts per game (9.25) to a career-low. He also posted the second-lowest interception rate (1.53) of his career. The decrease in interception rate is particularly impressive after three straight seasons at more than 2.1 and one season at 3.4.

“What you saw early in his career was a great runner who could throw it enough to be dangerous and create havoc for the defense,” said a long-time NFL defensive coordinator. “I really thought he was just going to come and go, have a few great seasons, then disappear. Now, I think he’s a problem because he has the perfect mix. He runs enough to force you to deal with it, but he runs more to pass now, and he’s a way better thrower."

“You usually don’t see guys like that get more accurate. I always thought that if a guy wasn’t accurate early in his career, he never gets there. Jackson and Allen have proved me wrong.”

Former NFL Coach Marty Mornhinweg

Combining Consistent Passing, Explosive Running

Jackson and Allen completed well below 60 percent of their throws in college. They are now well over 60 percent in the NFL. The key for Jackson, Mornhinweg said, is that he has transitioned his game by taking advantage of his extreme quarterback instincts.

“When you watched Lamar in college, you saw it. He could feel the rush, or he could see that receivers were about to come open faster than other people. It’s like with guys like Peyton Manning. You don’t necessarily have to be fast, but you have to have the peripheral vision combined with the quickness in your mind to just react faster than other guys,” Mornhinweg said.

Mornhinweg said that the other element to Jackson’s improvement has simply been about learning to play in more conventional offenses as time has gone on. That evolution started in Jackson’s rookie year but has been combined with Baltimore’s ability to take advantage of Jackson’s unique running ability.

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) runs the ball against Houston Texans defensive end Jonathan Greenard (behind Jackson) during the second quarter of a 2024 AFC divisional round game at M&T Bank Stadium. (Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports)

Far From a Finished Product

For example, Mornhinweg was let go as Baltimore’s offensive coordinator in favor of Greg Roman, who emphasized more of Jackson’s running ability. Now that Jackson has become a more judicious runner, Baltimore switched from Roman to Todd Monken, as Jackson took a step forward as a passer.

“This is all part of a long-term plan with Lamar. It started in the very first rookie mini-camp after he was drafted,” Mornhinweg said. “You talk about lightening the base, getting him into a wider stance with a shorter step. Then, keeping yourself more open and not throwing across your body.

That stuff doesn’t just take hold in one year. It takes thousands upon thousands of reps, but you always knew that Lamar had the instincts and the work ethic to make it happen.

Former NFL Coach Marty Mornhinweg

“Now, there were always things you had to do to help him, like have a good running game on first and second down, including running him just enough to stretch the defense and keep him out of a lot of third-and-7 situations. That’s still a problem for him, but you can see how he’s getting better.”

To wit, Jackson was only two of five and was sacked twice on third- or fourth-down passes in the playoff loss to Kansas City this year. Still, Mornhinweg said the performance is coming along.

“You have a guy who is about to win his second MVP, and he’s not a finished product yet. He’s still coming along, but he’s a great player. I know I’m biased, but I truly mean it. There’s more to come with him.”