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Why Lamar Jackson stays polarizing within the NFL


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Lamar Jackson could use some help. Some assistance from a roster of agents, managers and publicists who call themselves Team Lamar. And the only purpose of Team Lamar must be to flood the mainstream with commercials featuring their No. 1 guy.

Do what Baker Mayfield’s people did. But unlike Team Baker, Team Lamar could be selling a winning product. This could make it easy for them to provide you with ad campaigns — for a sports drink, insurance company, fast food sandwich, it really doesn’t matter. Imagine the camera slowly zooming in on Jackson, standing alone in an enormous prairie. The wind is blowing those amber waves of grain, a bald eagle is soaring above, and Jackson suddenly drops back three steps and slings the football. Just throwing, throwing, throwing to utterly nobody.

If the message continues to be a bit too abstract, the spot could close with a voice-over guy — he has to sound like Sam Elliott — whispering the words: “Just take a look at that great American quarterback.”

Possibly then Jackson, who plays under center for the Baltimore Ravens, could finally fit the stereotypical image stuck within the minds of some NFL executives, coaches, scouts and players.

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The difficulty is, Jackson doesn’t employ a cabal of image-makers that may very well be tasked with elevating his profile and changing the narrative that surrounds his profession. And he hasn’t shaken free from his 2018 draft report card by which he was praised for his athleticism and running ability, with those skills showing how his game transcended mere passing. But his athletic repute then, like now, was not centered on the qualities traditionalists associate with the quintessential star quarterback.

Almost five years in, despite his 37 wins as a starter and the unanimous MVP award in 2019, too many individuals within the league still don’t see Jackson as an elite quarterback.

Judging by the survey released this week by ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler, Jackson’s a nonconformist at best and a conundrum at worst. Fowler polled a mixed bag of greater than 50 NFL folks about the most effective quarterbacks within the league, and Jackson was not named among the many top 10. A surprising development but in addition the tax paid for possessing a distinct sort of talent while attempting to thrive in a conventional space.

While the sport has evolved, thrust forward by the arrival of athletes who’re built like power lifters but as nimble as ballerinas, a specific mind-set stays stuck within the olden times. NFL quarterbacks should play a certain way.

Jackson doesn’t play like typical NFL quarterbacks. They usually actually can’t play like him. He’s a trapezoid peg within the square hole of signal callers. He doesn’t quite fit.

In sports, sometimes it’s hard to be a freak.

Just as Jackson was receiving the highest individual honor within the NFL, the NBA’s resident three-headed monster, Giannis Antetokounmpo, had began collecting his back-to-back MVP awards.

As Giannis led the Milwaukee Bucks to the championship in 2021, he still heard the cries of critics: ‘Yeah, but can he shoot?’ Similarly, while Alex Ovechkin was climbing the NHL’s all-time scoring list, the protectors of hockey purity found smudge marks on his masterpieces, labeling Ovi as lower than an entire player who didn’t care enough or play any defense.

Jackson hears the “yeah, but …” as much as any current great player, and judging by his recent Twitter beef with former NFL safety Bernard Pollard, he’s uninterested in it. After Pollard criticized Jackson’s passing, the quarterback devoted his Wednesday night rushing to his own defense, the way in which he spends Sundays escaping out of pockets. It’s not only that if a play breaks down, Jackson and his feet will take off; the Ravens have designed an offense around his powerful runs. He’s a more realized Fran Tarkenton. A faster Steve Young. An excellent more acrobatic Michael Vick. His legs and athleticism vs. your defensive position and secondary? Good luck.

Oh, and there’s a right arm attached to his body, too. It may need happened in the course of the summer months when football fans are desperate for content, but Jackson earned the mind-blown emoji from the official NFL Twitter account when he flicked a football 50 yards from his knee. It may not be as impressive, but during real games he has often shown off his throwing ability — akin to his jump pass for a touchdown last season in a Week 2 win over the Kansas City Chiefs or his 68-yard connection to tight end Mark Andrews in 2018.

They didn’t appear like the gorgeous spirals tossed by Aaron Rodgers or the bombs launched from Patrick Mahomes. But they were plays that led to the stats that matter most within the league: wins and playoff appearances. In 4 years with Jackson, the Ravens have made the playoffs thrice.

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If purists can pause the grainy highlight film of men fiddling with single-bar face masks long enough to stop holding Jackson’s skill set against him, then they might see he’s as pure football as they arrive.

He embodies the very ethos of American ruggedness, something you’ll expect to be celebrated. His team plays in one among the NFL’s hardest divisions, with the emerging Cincinnati Bengals and the perennially competitive Pittsburgh Steelers, and he still became the youngest quarterback to achieve 35 wins, beating out Dan Marino.

He says “Hell yeah!” to the stickiest of situations, akin to going for it on fourth and one late within the fourth quarter, and he shows as much as work though his contract extension has yet to be resolved. Besides a couple of odd updates to social media — Jackson modified his Twitter banner and Instagram profile pic to a screenshot of a movie character with gold-plated teeth reading “I Need $” — he hasn’t used public whining to get his way in contract negotiations with the Ravens.

This strap-up-and-let’s-go-play persona must be how he’s marketed. As spellbinding as his version of football is in a league that actively encourages kids to play the sport, Jackson would seem to be the popular superhero to represent the shield. But Jackson has not turned himself right into a pitch man. He doesn’t even have an agent. So far as we all know, Team Lamar consists of just himself and his mother.

The dearth of representation hurts his branding and possibly weakens his position on the negotiating table, but Jackson does things his way. He’s hard to determine in the identical way that he’s difficult for defenses to wrap their arms around. His way has worked, but being offset from the norm means paying a price, even when it’s symbolic — akin to not making an inventory chosen by anonymous judges.

NFL executives, coaches, scouts and players still don’t think Lamar Jackson is a top-10 quarterback. That’s because he’s one among one.

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