Baltimore Ravens’ coach John Harbaugh has begun hinting that his offense under the direction of young quarterback Lamar Jackson will be unlike anything ever seen in the NFL.
Perhaps. But history tells us that’s been said before with mixed results.
The primary change Harbaugh has hinted at is the expanded use of Jackson as a pure running quarterback in a modification of the option quarterback so long popular in college football. Told by a reporter that Cam Newton’s career high in carries was 139, Harbaugh responded in reference to Jackson, “I’d bet the over on that one. I’d bet the over for sure on that one.’’
The all-time single-season rushing leader among quarterbacks is Michael Vick, who is also the only quarterback to run for over 1,000 yards in a season. He piled up 1,039 in 2006 but missed the next two seasons due to incarceration and was never the same.
But as perhaps the best and most successful running quarterback in NFL history, Vick offered some advice for Jackson during a recent appearance on The Undisputed.
“Lamar can't do what he did last year. Not over 16 games,’’ Vick cautioned. “Self-preservation is going to be the most important thing, him protecting himself, being accountable throughout the entire season. I can't see Lamar running as much as he did last year."
Not far behind Vick on the all-time running quarterback list was strapping Bobby Douglass, who at 6-4, 225 was an inaccurate throwing quarterback locked inside a fullback’s body. In 1972 he ran for 960 yards. Within two years he was a battered shadow of the player he’d been that season.
Generally the history of running quarterbacks in the NFL is littered with ambulances and trips to the ER. Perhaps this “new’’ offense Harbaugh speaks of will be different because rules against touching the quarterback are so stringent it feels like thinking bad thoughts about one can get you a 15-yard penalty.
But the fact is that once he crosses the line of scrimmage, Jackson becomes a runner like anyone else and thus subject to decapitation. This is a problem Harbaugh would be wise to consider.
Jackson is listed at 6-2, 212 pounds, but he looks slighter. So one has to wonder if he can survive as a runner when even someone as big and strong as the 6-5, 245-pound Newton seems to realize lately that too much running is a zero-sum game for a quarterback.
In two of the last three seasons Newton had his lowest total carries and began to miss games due to injury. Not all of that was a result of running, but medical history is not on the healthy side of running quarterbacks.
Certainly Jackson is fast and elusive, but in his rookie season he had a dismal 58 percent completion rate that isn't likely to improve by taking a beating running a professionalized form of the option. Then again, his record as a starter was 6-1 in large part because he rushed for 695 yards on 147 carries.
Those numbers, it seems, have convinced Harbaugh to develop a new kind of offensive system ready to create a revolution in football.
“The game was probably revolutionized with Bill Walsh and Joe Montana,” Harbaugh recently said. “What’s the next era going to be? We’re about to find out.”
George Halas, Ralph Jones and Clark Shaughnessy said the same thing in the 1930s after rules were changed to legalize passing from anywhere behind the line of scrimmage. That led them to adapt Illinois coach Bob Zuppke’s T-formation into more of a spread passing attack, with considerable use of a man in motion.
They introduced this to pro football with a young quarterback named Sid Luckman, and it led Luckman to win four NFL titles in the 1940s and a place in the Hall of Fame. It also led to the T-formation becoming the staple of offensive play for decades.
Many of today’s offensive changes to the spread formation sprung in an evolutionary way from the basics of the "T." It is fair to say that formation actually did revolutionize the game.
But a few days before San Francisco was to play the Chicago Bears in November, 1960, then-49ers’ coach Red Hickey addressed his team as it prepared for the game at Georgetown University. He asked how many of them felt the underdog 49ers could win with their regular offense.
“No one’s hand went up,’’ Hickey said years later.
Thus was born on Nov. 27, 1960, the shotgun offense. It stunned the Colts, who were one of the most powerful defensive teams of their day. San Francisco won, 30-22, with third-string quarterback Bobby Waters leading them after both Y.A. Tittle and John Brodie were injured.
The 49ers went on to win three of their final four games and were 4-1 with wins of 49-0 over the Lions and 35-0 over the Rams the following season. A revolution had begun … until Bears’ linebacker Bill George found a weakness and exposed it on October 22, 1961.
He simply moved up to the line of scrimmage and attacked the center, whose head was down as he made the snap. This created blocking problems and havoc for the 49ers, who lost 31-0.
They went 0-3-1 in their next four games, finished the season 7-6-1 and the shotgun was unloaded until Tom Landry revised a bit of it for Roger Staubach in 1975. Today the shotgun is a part of every team's offense, but that is more a result of rules changes than revolution.
Have Harbaugh and the Ravens come up with a real revolution orchestrated by a second-year quarterback who runs better than he throws or just a gimmick that, like Red Hickey’s shotgun, won’t last for long? Probably not even the Ravens know, but Harbaugh says we are about to find out.
Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com recently wrote about what he saw at Ravens’ camp last week, raving about the multitude of offensive sets run by offensive coordinator Greg Roman. He claimed they were never in the same formation twice in a row, suggesting the variety of their attack would be like nothing seen before.
More than that, he expressed a belief that Jackson would flourish now that he’s off leash and free to stress defenses at least as much with his legs as his arm.
Harbaugh went so far as to tell The Athletic’s Dan Pompei, “I expect to change the way offensive football is played in the National Football League.’’
That’s a pretty bold statement for the leader of a team that went 10-6 and lost in the wild-card round last season. But he seems nothing if not insistent that he, Roman and their staff are conjuring up an offense that will be SKD – something kinda different – this season.
“I expect us to create something that hasn’t been seen before," Harbaugh said. "It's elements and concepts that aren’t new to football. But the way we apply them and put them together and decide how much we use in the course of a game or a season — five-step, three-step, seven-step, play-action, RPOs, double options, triple options, downhill runs, all the audibles you can run, directional runs — all of that is part of it. I think we’re going to be in more elements than any team has ever been.”
Will this be the Millennial equivalent of the Bears’ T-formation revolution or just another brief offensive revolt quickly squashed like Hickey’s shotgun? At the moment, nobody knows.
Which makes the whole thing pretty interesting -- at least until Lamar Jackson is in street clothes … or a hospital bed.