OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Don Martindale isn’t looking at Sunday’s matchup between the Ravens and Texans as a single game, but rather a game in a historical context.
With two MVP candidates at quarterback on each side in Lamar Jackson and Deshaun Watson, the game isn’t just one that could be a playoff preview or a matchup between two of the NFL’s best, but rather a showcase of where the NFL is headed as a league.
The NFL is moving toward quarterbacks of the dual-threat variety, signal-callers that can beat teams in both the air and on the ground. Jackson and Watson are two of the NFL’s best in that department.
“It’s not just these two quarterbacks, but it’s the new era of quarterback,” Martindale said. “The lazy question is ‘Does practicing against Lamar help you for this?’ We’re preparing for more mobile quarterbacks this year than the old school, stay-in-the-pocket-and-play quarterback from the pocket.”
Jackson and Watson both entered the league with questions aplenty about whether the two quarterbacks, who relied so much on their legs, could be successful in the NFL. As of Week 10 of the 2019 season, those questions have been squashed.
Jackson has totaled 2,738 yards and 21 touchdowns through nine games and is on-pace for nearly 4,900 yards from scrimmage and 37 touchdowns. Watson has totaled 2,711 yards and 23 touchdowns through nine games, and is on-pace for 4,819 yards and 40 touchdowns.
If there are examples of the way the NFL game is headed, two of the best will be on the field on Sunday.
“I'd rather play against a quarterback that's going to stand there,” Earl Thomas said. “These quarterbacks coming now, they're able to run. They're able to throw it deep. They have the schemes. They have all the misdirection stuff. So I'm not enjoying these young quarterbacks that are coming into the league and doing all this spectacular stuff that they're doing. But, it's just the way the league is going now.”
The ability to both run and pass has left defenses flummoxed as to how to slow down the high-powered attacks, led by quarterbacks that can win with both their arm and their legs.
Last season, Jackson led all quarterbacks in rushing with 695 yards. Watson was in third with 551 yards.
“I know it's hard on defenses, because when you feel you have the offense figured out and you guys are covering everyone, the quarterback gets out, gets the first down, keeps the drive going,” Jackson said. “So, the defensive guys are on the field even longer. We're just doing our thing.”
But one of the storylines that makes Jackson and Watson’s stories so unique are the doubts they endured before taking over as quarterback.
Questions of durability, passing ability and most everything else followed both quarterbacks around from the time they were drafted to even today, where questions still persist about the viability of the running quarterback in the NFL.
“I guess I would question the questioners,” Texans coach Bill O’Brien said. “When we evaluated Deshaun, we felt, obviously, very strongly about his ability to come in here and be a winner and develop into an excellent pro quarterback, which is what he's done. I definitely evaluated Lamar and met Lamar pre-draft, and he's a great player.”
To those in Houston and Baltimore, however, the idea that both Watson and Jackson couldn’t ever be successful seems wrong.
“So, 'wave of the future,' all those different things ... I think these guys are winners,” O’Brien continued. “They were winners in college. They were winners in high school, and they're winners now.”
While both Watson and Jackson — and other mobile quarterbacks around the NFL — may not have yet reached the top of the NFL passing charts, the added dimension of what they can do on the ground has made life incredibly difficult for defenders.
“Peyton Manning was extremely hard to defend, Tom Brady was extremely hard to defend” cornerback Jimmy Smith said. “But, neither one of them could run a 4.3 (40-yard dash), so you don’t have to worry about tackling them on any given play.”
Smith added that when a quarterback breaks the pocket and gets loose for a first down, it can be incredibly demoralizing for a defense that thinks it has forced a stop.
That can be tough to prepare for, as opponents of the Ravens have noted routinely this season, when you can’t simulate the speed and movement of the opposing quarterback.
“What happens in the game where you’re playing a mobile quarterback is, when you’re practicing, you see a guy go by and say, ‘I got him,’” Martindale said. “In game, they don’t got him. So I think that’s the biggest thing, is just adjusting to the speed of it, of the mobile quarterback.”
Still, while it’s easy to draw comparisons to quarterbacks that can run and pass, and seemingly are the future of the NFL, Jackson doesn’t necessarily see it that way. Every mobile quarterback is unique, which makes them so difficult to contain.
“I play Lamar Jackson ball,” Jackson said. “I don't play nobody else’s ball.”
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