Lamar Jackson will undoubtedly take over as the starting quarterback of the Baltimore Ravens some day. For now, it’s Joe Flacco’s job. But that isn’t stopping the Ravens from trying to figure out a way to use their first-round rookie while Flacco is still the starter.
“Gosh, I’d sure like him out there helping us,” Harbaugh said of Jackson on Tuesday. “And he can play quarterback. If we put two quarterbacks on the field at once, what options does it create for our offense? That’s what we’re trying to figure out.
“He’s back there throwing the ball, he’s back there doing other things. And Joe’s got to be able to do other things, if [Jackson]’s back there throwing the ball. So it gets to be — I don’t want to say challenging — but it gets the creative juices flowing for our offensive coaches and they’ve worked hard at it.”
If your first reaction is cynicism about Jackson being used as anything other than a passer, that’s understandable. Some unjustly argued that Jackson should be moved to receiver, but the Ravens insisted from the start that he is a quarterback. So it already seems like Baltimore is going back on their word, to a degree, by suggesting Jackson could “do other things” in the offense.
Baltimore’s desire to get him on the field somehow isn’t unique, though. Just last year, the Chicago Bears wouldn’t rule out the possibility of a special package to get rookie Mitchell Trubisky on the field with Mike Glennon as the starter. It didn’t happen, mostly because it took Trubisky just four games to take over the reins full-time.
Jackson has proven his ability to do more than just pass the ball. In his ridiculously productive career at Louisville that earned him the Heisman Trophy in 2015, Jackson had 50 rushing touchdowns. It makes perfect sense that the Ravens would want to unleash that ability instead of leaving him on the sideline all year.
Has a 2-QB set ever happened before?
There are plenty examples of teams rotating quarterbacks, or subbing in passers for Wildcat sets, Hail Marys, or two-minute drills.
Way back in the early 1950s, the Los Angeles Rams had a dynamic quarterback duo in Norm Van Brocklin and Bob Waterfield. Each made the Pro Bowl in 1950 and 1951, and split the passing duties close to equally.
Splitting passing duties has often failed, though.
Tom Landry rotated Roger Staubach and Craig Morton on as often as a play-by-play basis during the Dallas Cowboys’ 1971 season — to poor results. Dallas started the year 4-3, including a seven-turnover disaster against the Bears in Week 7. It wasn’t until Staubach became the full-time starter in Week 8 that the Cowboys got the season on track and won 10 straight to become Super Bowl champions.
It was similarly problematic for the San Francisco 49ers in 1988 when Joe Montana and Steve Young were swapped frequently. Montana was eventually given sole ownership of the job and Young was sent back to the bench.
But rotating passers in and out isn’t what the Ravens are talking about. It may be the team’s eventual solution to the “How do we get Lamar out there?” question, but for now they’re talking about both Flacco and Jackson in the backfield at the same time.
The New York Jets did it in 2012 when Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow were on the field at the same time for a handful of plays.
Tebow finished the year with six completions on eight attempts, but it was a mostly ineffective package. Tebow averaged just 3.2 yards per carry as a rusher, and the only pass thrown his way bounced off his helmet.
New York was much more successful with former college quarterback Brad Smith, who had seven passes thrown, 98 rushing attempts, and 104 receptions in his five seasons with the Jets.
The difference was that Smith was a receiver first, a rusher second, and a passer third. Having him on the field didn’t tip the Jets’ hand that trickery or creativity was on the way. The Ravens really wouldn’t have that luxury.
What would a 2-QB set look like for the Ravens?
This is the $64,000 question for which Baltimore still seems to be searching for an answer. For now, it’s fun to use your imagination and think of the possibilities.
Flacco takes the snap, pitches to Jackson, who runs the triple option with running back Alex Collins. Hell, you could even call it the quadruple option with Flacco deciding if he wants to pitch it.
One of the quarterbacks could motion out to wide receiver where he either runs a route, plays decoy, or steps back and takes a lateral on a screen pass. Flacco was split out wide a few times in 2013 to make way for Tyrod Taylor running the Wildcat, although Flacco wasn’t too enthusiastic about the formation.
“I’m just not a huge fan of it,” Flacco said, via ESPN. “I’m the quarterback. I want to be behind the line of scrimmage, I want to be taking the snaps. That’s really the only thing. I don’t necessarily take it personally, either, in terms of our offense trying to get better. I just think it makes us look like not an NFL team.”
On Thursday, Flacco said it’ll be interesting to see what the team comes up with, but for now it’s a little too easy to sniff out.
Joe on having two QBs on the field: pic.twitter.com/li46rovpKp— Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) June 14, 2018
“It’ll be interesting what we do,” Flacco said. “I feel like a lot of the stuff we’ve done out here, the defense knows we’re cooking up something as soon as it happens. At this point, it’s pretty obvious. But if we can use that to our advantage and help us win football games then we’ll see how it goes.”
Jackson was a little more optimistic about it.
“It’s pretty cool,” Jackson said. “It’s just to throw the defense off. It’s pretty much good disguises, we’ve got two quarterbacks who can throw the ball. Joe can run a little bit — I know you guys have seen him out there — and it’s pretty cool. We’ve got to hit ‘em where it hurts.”
There are many ways to imagine using two quarterbacks, but it’s not quite as simple as drawing up X’s and O’s.
Will the Ravens actually do it?
A formation with both Lamar Jackson and Joe Flacco in the backfield makes sense, if:
- Flacco is a better passer than Jackson. Otherwise, what’s the point in having Flacco on the field?
- Jackson is a threat to throw, not just another skill position player.
- Ravens coaches find a way to keep Flacco and Jackson from hits.
The first two points require a balance where Jackson isn’t quite ready to supplant Flacco, but still good enough to make the team better by being on the field. But the last point may be the main reason it doesn’t happen much.
Quarterbacks have special protections that prevent them from taking hits. Those protections wouldn’t be afforded to Flacco or Jackson just for wearing a jersey number in the single digits.
Only one player can take the snap, leaving the other wide open for a hit from every defensive end who spends his life dreaming of laying out quarterbacks. The Ravens would have to be very careful not to expose their passers to unnecessary hits. (One of the other quarterbacks currently on the Ravens roster is Robert Griffin III, a perfect cautionary tale about letting a young passer get hit too often.)
Maybe the most realistic solution is a package where Jackson comes on to run read-option plays and Flacco goes to the sideline. It’s not quite the novelty of a two-quarterback set, but it’s still fun.
Either way, don’t expect Jackson to spend his entire rookie season standing on the sideline with a clipboard. And for that, we can be thankful and excited.