Elite arm strength: Check.
Pocket passer capabilities: Check.
Off-the-charts mobility: Check.
Speed of a wide receiver: Check.
Toughness of a running back: Check.
Yes, Lamar Jackson really is an all-of-the-above quarterback.
The Giants will find out just how good he is when they face the Ravens on Sunday in what is close to an elimination game for both teams.
A win for the 5-9 Giants, and they stay alive in the NFC East race. A win by Baltimore, and the 9-5 Ravens are still in play for the postseason. Whichever team loses will have its playoff hopes dramatically reduced, if not eliminated altogether.
Jackson almost certainly will be the biggest factor in Sunday’s outcome. If the Giants somehow can contain him, they’ll have a chance. But if Jackson can unleash the repertoire of versatility that has helped redefine quarterback play in the modern age, it will be a long afternoon at M&T Bank Stadium for the Giants.
Credit Ravens coach John Harbaugh for having the wherewithal to let Jackson grow into the kind of multi-dimensional player he has become. Last year’s regular-season MVP is one of the most dynamic performers in the game, thanks in large measure to Harbaugh’s inclination to allow his strengths to surface rather than pigeonholing him into being a more prototypical passer.
"I feel like what we try to do is we try to encourage him and help him to understand that he is who he is," Harbaugh said. "He has been gifted with the gifts that God has given him, and certainly there are people out there that pigeonhole those gifts and say that they’re not conventional and that therefore they should try to be something else, but it’s not right."
There are skeptics who believe Jackson runs too much — he’s the Ravens’ leading rusher with 828 yards — and that he needs to throw more from the pocket. But Harbaugh believes it is best to let Jackson’s game evolve naturally and allow it to be dictated by the quarterback’s sense of what works best — even if that approach flies in the face of widely accepted concepts of what a quarterback should be.
"Why would you want to take a skill set and put it under a basket and hide it?" Harbaugh said. "You wouldn’t want to hide it, you’d want to use it and make the most of it. I think he’s been a pretty good pocket passer if you look at his career statistically. Why is that? Well, he can throw, plus his other abilities open up that part of the game for him, too. We try to encourage him just to make use of all of his tools and improve on everything across the board and just be the best Lamar Jackson he can be, and that’s our goal."
It’s a worthy goal, and one that has largely been achieved — albeit with a notable omission. Jackson has yet to win a playoff game, losing both postseason appearances. But Harbaugh is convinced that day will come — if not this year, then certainly down the road.
Harbaugh felt that "aha moment" with Jackson early in the process, and nothing that has happened since has changed his conviction.
"I probably felt that [moment] after the first couple of games two years ago," Harbaugh said. "There is that moment, and then you go to work and try to get where he and the rest of the team is functioning at the level that teams function at that meet the standard we’re talking about. We’re not there yet, but we’re certainly on our way there, I hope. That’s the plan."
Class of 2018 grades are (mostly) in
It was considered one of the deepest and most talented quarterback drafts since the legendary Class of 1983, when John Elway, Dan Marino, Jim Kelly and, yes, Ken O’Brien came into the NFL and provided an historic collective upgrade on offense.
The Class of 2018 has injected a heavy dose of talent, with three of those quarterbacks showing the promise of future Super Bowls. Jackson, Baker Mayfield (Cleveland) and Josh Allen (Buffalo) are realizing their potential and giving their teams plenty of hope.
But as they were in 1983, the Jets again might be on the outside looking in.
O’Brien enjoyed a decent career with the Jets, engaging in some unforgettable duels with Marino over the years, but there were no meaningful playoff runs. And Sam Darnold’s results have been disappointing.
That contrast with many of his other Class of ‘18 cohorts will be on display Sunday when the Jets host Mayfield’s Browns. While the Jets are coming off their only victory of the season in last week’s upset of the Rams, the Browns are 10-4 and within striking distance of the slumping Steelers, who have lost three in a row after an 11-0 start.
Jackson will take on the Giants as his Ravens attempt to reach the playoffs for the third straight season.
Allen has made tremendous progress in his three years as Buffalo’s starter, to the point that the Bills legitimately can claim to be championship contenders. It has helped that he has the same coach — Sean McDermott — and an excellent general manager in Brandon Beane to carefully build the roster.
The other first-round pick in 2018, Josh Rosen, has been a complete dud. Taken 10th overall by the Cardinals, he was traded to Miami after only one season, spent most of this year on Tampa Bay’s practice squad and was signed as insurance by the injury-plagued 49ers this month.
Mayfield, Allen and Jackson are on track to lead their teams for years to come, but Darnold’s future is far from certain.
If the Jets get the No. 1 pick in the draft — which now is no sure thing because the Jets’ win over the Rams put them behind the 1-13 Jaguars in the race for the first selection, thanks to a strength-of-schedule tiebreaker — they’ll almost certainly take Trevor Lawrence of Clemson.
If not, there’s a decent chance that general manager Joe Douglas will decide to keep Darnold for at least one more season and try to build around him.
Darnold’s game has regressed this season, but you can’t ignore the chaos around him as a factor. Coach Adam Gase has been an abject failure at developing him, and Douglas’ roster rebuilding has kept Darnold from enjoying the kind of stability that Allen and Jackson have had. Mayfield already has been through three head coaches, but Kevin Stefanski has settled things down in a major way this season, giving the quarterback much-needed consistency at the top.
It is far too soon to pronounce Darnold a failure; at 23, he has many years left to prove himself. Like Ryan Tannehill before him, he can overcome Gase’s poor coaching to resurrect his career.
The only question is whether that will happen with the Jets or someone else.
A Wink and a nod
Jets fans might want to pay attention to the Giants-Ravens game on Sunday, because two Ravens assistants might be in the mix for the Jets’ head-coaching job.
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman, who has done a terrific job in developing Jackson, and defensive coordinator Don "Wink" Martindale, who has consistently produced top defenses in Baltimore, are likely to be strong consideration in the next round of head-coach hirings.
Throw in the fact that Douglas has deep ties to the Ravens’ organization and there is reason to believe he might have interest in either or both of the coordinators.
Harbaugh believes both are ready to become head coaches.
"Oh, most certainly, most certainly," he said. "They’re both excellent coaches, excellent communicators with people in the building and teachers, obviously accomplished coaches. I think they’re more than ready and hopefully get an opportunity."
Reese deserves another chance
With the hiring cycle about to begin for NFL coaches and general managers, one name that hasn’t been mentioned too often is former Giants GM Jerry Reese.
But the man who took over for Ernie Accorsi and presided over the team’s two most recent Super Bowl championships deserves to run the show somewhere else. The NFL is a league of second chances, and Reese should get another shot.
Things didn’t go well toward the end of Reese’s tenure, which lasted from 2007-2017, and the Giants never got back to playoff consistency. But his overall body of work should be good enough to land him another opportunity with one of several teams looking for a new GM.
The list includes the Jaguars, Lions, Falcons and Texans, and there could be more openings in the coming weeks.
While Accorsi is rightly credited with building the Giants into eventual Super Bowl champions, starting with his trade for Eli Manning in 2004 and his hiring of coach Tom Coughlin, don’t forget that it was Reese who was Accorsi’s chief personnel assistant before ascending to the GM spot upon Accorsi’s retirement.
Manning, Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora, Brandon Jacobs, Kevin Boss and Corey Webster, all key contributors in the team’s 2007 title run, were acquired during Reese’s run as the team’s personnel director. And during his tenure as GM, his drafting of Ahmad Bradshaw, Jason Pierre-Paul, Mario Manningham and Hakeem Nicks were critical to the team’s 2011 championship season.
Among other key players drafted by Reese: Odell Beckham Jr., Landon Collins, Sterling Shepard and Evan Engram.
Sure, there were some misses, just as there are with every general manager. But on balance, there was enough good to earn Reese another shot.
Jacksonville has interest, and perhaps other teams will at least consider Reese, especially with the limited number of candidates with his kind of resume.
Consider that the hot candidate in this year’s cycle is ESPN broadcaster and former personnel executive Louis Riddick, who has never held the lead front-office role.
Plenty of other GMs have been given another shot over the years — including Dave Gettleman of the Giants, Rick Spielman of the Vikings, former Jets and Dolphins GM Mike Tannenbaum and former Kansas City and Cleveland GM John Dorsey. It’s time Reese gets his.
Irresistible force vs. immovable object
The Titans will face the Packers in an interconference game ripe with playoff implications — home-field advantage for Green Bay and playoff entry for Tennessee. It will be a game that tests the strengths and weaknesses of both teams.
Green Bay’s offense obviously is elite, thanks to Aaron Rodgers, who is having an MVP-caliber season. But Tennessee’s offense also is potent, just in a somewhat different way.
While Rodgers is the one who makes Green Bay’s offense go, it’s running back Derrick Henry who’s the engine for Tennessee.
That should concern Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, whose defense has been suspect at times this season. Getting into a high-scoring game could prove onerous for the Packers, who are allowing 110.1 rushing yards and 24.4 points per game.
Henry is having another monster season with an NFL-best 1,679 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns. Henry’s production also has opened the play-action passing game for Tannehill, who has 31 touchdown passes and five interceptions.
Rodgers leads the NFL with 40 touchdown passes and four interceptions.
Around the league
Great decision by the Giants to re-sign safety Logan Ryan to a three-year deal. Ryan, who signed a one-year contract during training camp after rookie safety Xavier McKinney was hurt, has been a terrific player and leader. He adds a commanding presence on a rebuilding team . . . The road to Tampa might go through Kansas City again. While defending champion Kansas City didn’t earn home-field advantage in the playoffs last season — the Ravens had the best record in the AFC — Baltimore’s upset loss to Tennessee in the divisional playoffs meant Kansas City hosted — and won — the AFC Championship Game. Patrick Mahomes and Co. can secure home-field advantage this year with a win over visiting Atlanta on Sunday. The Steelers’ late-season swoon opened the door for Kansas City (13-1). With the playoffs increasing by one team per conference, only one team will earn a first-round bye . . . Justin Herbert of the Chargers leads all rookies with 3,781 passing yards and 27 touchdown passes. With a touchdown pass on Sunday against the Broncos, Herbert will surpass Mayfield for the most touchdown throws by a rookie in league history. One other common theme for Herbert and Mayfield: Both took over at quarterback as rookies after opening-day starter Tyrod Taylor was injured . . . With a touchdown catch Sunday against the Falcons, Kansas City wide receiver Tyreek Hill will reach 18 and tie for the third most in NFL history behind Randy Moss and Jerry Rice, both of whom reached 23 touchdown catches in a single season.