Winning games in the NFL is difficult. That’s a cliché, but as someone who doesn’t have a single league victory to his name, I have no choice but to assume it is true. The sport is tough at any level, and professional franchises employ small armies to gather intelligence and give them an edge over every opponent. No team does this better than the New England Patriots, which makes Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson’s weekend heroics against the team all the more impressive. Jackson and the Ravens handed the Patriots their first loss of the season on Sunday, and the 37–20 victory helped push the second-year QB into the MVP conversation.
People who dislike the Patriots (gasp!) will revel in any misfortune that befalls Tom Brady and co., but the Ravens’ win wasn’t a matter of luck. Jackson menaced New England’s celebrated defense, a unit that haunted fellow second-year quarterback Sam Darnold to such a desperate point two weeks ago that the New York Jets’ man was caught on mic complaining about “seeing ghosts“ during New York’s 33–0 loss. On Sunday, though, it was Jackson who had the Patriots grasping for phantoms.
Jackson was his usual elusive self, running for 61 yards and a pair of touchdowns, but the Patriots were well-aware of his strengths going into the game. Bill Belichick is the best coach in NFL history because he plans for his opponents’ tendencies and pushes them into uncomfortable positions where they’ll make mistakes. His plan for Jackson was predictably unpredictable, including heavy pressure and a cover-zero scheme intended to confuse the young QB. But Jackson refused to take the bait, and he helped Baltimore maintain its lead after jumping out to a 17–0 advantage. He made good decisions all evening, and his accurate passing (74 percent completion percentage, 1 touchdown, 0 interceptions) at once put New England on its heels and kept the Ravens moving down the field. When the Patriots threatened to mount a comeback, Jackson calmly wadded them up inside a square of toilet paper and flushed them down the toilet.
Belichick was characteristically laconic after the game. When asked how Jackson is different in person than he was on tape, Belichick said, “I don’t know. Right now, they are not on the schedule, so we don’t have to worry about them.” His assessment of whether he could have game-planned better was even more brusque: “It’s obvious.”
Catching Belichick unprepared is a rare feat. He asked Jackson to pick a card, any card, and the quarterback responded by sawing his defense in half. The Ravens might not be on the Patriots’ schedule right now, but you better believe Belichick will be obsessing over ways to stop Jackson next time around. He won’t be alone.
Whenever a team or player does something interesting in the NFL, coaches around the league dedicate themselves to preventing it from happening ever again. This drive comes from a desire to win—that most difficult achievement—but I like to think that it is also born from fear. No one wants to be made to appear foolish and, right now, Jackson is making plenty of people look stupid.
The Ravens are 6–2, and Jackson is on pace to finish the season with 24 passing touchdowns and 10 interceptions. This tidy offensive haul is made even more impressive when you add the five rushing touchdowns he already has, tying the Houston Texans’ Deshaun Watson for the league high among quarterbacks so far this year.
Jackson is a unique player. He only started seven games during his rookie year but had 147 rushing attempts, the most for a quarterback since the league merger. The Ravens have opened up the playbook and are relying on his passing more this season, but, after eight games, he’s still on pace for 198 rush attempts. This rushing prowess, along with his huge arm and decision-making abilities, makes him unpredictable. And in a sport that’s obsessed with pragmatism, unpredictability can result in silly amounts of fun.
Remember the wildcat? The 2008 Miami Dolphins deployed this unconventional offense where running back Ronnie Brown took snaps behind center. It gave defenses fits and helped the Dolphins achieve a 11–5 record just one year after they lost 15 games. I bring this up not because Jackson reminds me of Brown (he doesn’t—at all), but because the confusion the wildcat caused yielded similar results against a familiar foe.
By the time New England and Miami met again, Belichick had solved the wildcat, and the Patriots won 48–28. Needless to say, it was not as much fun as that first game.
Jackson won’t be as easy to figure out. He is a system unto himself, one that updates and adjusts to defenses in real time. He has proved to be increasingly unsolvable halfway through his second season and just passed his most difficult test with aplomb. May opposing coaches spend the rest of their careers scrambling for a solution.