Lamar Jackson is creating a career’s worth of highlights in this season alone. But there are still plenty of detractors on Twitter and talk radio.
“He’s just running a gimmicky college offense . . . The NFL will figure it out soon and he’ll get exposed . . . This is nothing more than a fad, like the wildcat.”
At least one coach believes that what Jackson and the Ravens’ offense are doing right now is no fluke. Dan Henning, the architect of the Dolphins’ wildcat formation a decade ago, is enamored with the Ravens’ run-based attack, with Jackson averaging 11.8 attempts and 78 rushing yards a game.
“It’s fun to see that there’s people that strategize in the game, they don’t just do the same things over and over,” Henning, retired in Florida, said by telephone this past week.
A decade after Henning used the wildcat to win 11 games and the AFC East, Jackson and the Ravens have resurrected the QB-run approach and taken it to the next level. They lead the NFL in points per game (33.3), are second in total yards, and lately their offense has been unstoppable. The Ravens, 7-2 entering Sunday’s showdown with the Texans, won by two touchdowns in Seattle, put up 37 in a win over the Patriots, and humiliated the Bengals last week, 49-13, with Jackson taking a seat for the fourth quarter.
The question, though — is this offense sustainable? The Dolphins’ wildcat fizzled after the 2009 season. A few other running quarterbacks had short-term success — Colin Kaepernick came within 5 yards of winning a Super Bowl, Robert Griffin III won Rookie of the Year, and Tim Tebow won a few games — but none won a championship or succeeded long term. But Henning believes the Ravens can win this year, and only one thing will prevent Jackson from dominating the NFL for a long time. It has nothing to do with the Ravens’ scheme.
“If the quarterback remains healthy, you can sustain it,” he said. “You have to be careful that you’re not putting him at risk too much, and only use the risky plays in the necessary situations.”
But there’s nothing gimmicky about the X’s and O’s of a QB-run-based offense, whether you want to call it the wildcat, single wing or anything else. In a traditional offense, when the quarterback hands off the ball, he takes himself out of the play, creating a 10-on-11 situation and giving the defense two unblocked defenders to chase after the ball carrier. But using the quarterback as a runner makes it 11 on 11, giving the Ravens an extra blocker and putting Jackson in a one on one with a defender.
“It’s a sound principle in football,” Henning said. “It gives you a tremendous advantage in the run game, and it makes the people on the other side of the ball have to really think twice about how they’re going to play the running game. Are they going to play it conventionally and give you an advantage, or are they going to squeeze up on you and take the run away and be vulnerable to the pass?”
And Jackson is no ordinary athlete. He may just be the ultimate archetype of the dual-threat quarterback.
Of all the scrambling quarterbacks, Jackson may be the best passer. The last two weeks against the Patriots and Bengals he was 32 of 40 for 386 yards and four touchdowns.
And he’s arguably the greatest runner the QB position has ever seen.
“That run the other day [Jackson’s 47-yard touchdown run against the Bengals], the only other one I’ve seen in the last 40-50 years that can run like that at quarterback was Michael Vick, and I’m not sure that Michael was as elusive in traffic as this guy is,” Henning said. “That run was spectacular. You have that kind of talent, you have to use it.”
The wildcat became a punchline because of how it fizzled in Miami. But Henning is quick to remind how well it worked for the 2008 Dolphins. With Ronnie Brown as the quarterback and Chad Pennington lined up wide, the Dolphins ran the wildcat almost 200 times in 2008 and rode it to a playoff berth. The Dolphins, a rebuilding team that had gone 1-15 the previous year, finished 12th in the NFL in total yards and set a then-NFL record for fewest turnovers in a season.
“Twenty percent of our offensive plays brought us 40 percent of our offensive output for the entire season,” Henning said. “And I believe in [the wildcat] strongly, because we would not have done anything that year.”
And the Dolphins didn’t have anyone who could run, or throw, like Jackson can. On the Dolphins’ 200 wildcat snaps, Brown threw just three passes, completing two. But the threat of Brown passing was just enough to keep defenses honest.
“We hardly ever completed any passes, but they were always worried about the possibility,” Henning said. “And if we had a guy who could throw like Lamar does, it would be very difficult to defend.”
The Dolphins’ wildcat formation was a bit gimmicky, with an unbalanced offensive line and the quarterback lined up wide. But the Ravens, under offensive coordinator Greg Roman, are running more of a traditional, power-run-based offense, but with an extra blocker.
“The difference with Lamar is he’s running a regular offense, and we weren’t. We ran six or seven plays out of an unbalanced line,” Henning said. “Lamar has the whole package in his hands.”
The wildcat worked well in the 2009 season, too, but eventually sputtered because Brown and Pennington got hurt, and Pat White, drafted that year to take the wildcat to the next level, suffered a brutal concussion near the end of the season that damaged him psychologically.
“To this day, I really believe we would have been able to sustain that wildcat approach had Pat White not gotten knocked out,” Henning said.
And that’s the only real issue with a QB-run-based offense. The Ravens are subjecting Jackson to more hits and more of an injury risk. But the X’s and O’s are sound, and Jackson is electric with the ball in his hands. “If he stays healthy, he’s going to change this season, for sure,” Henning said. “They’ve got something special, and I think John [Harbaugh] knows it.”
Timing strange for Kaepernick
The Colin Kaepernick workout on Saturday has produced one question that not even Kaepernick knows the answer to: Why now? Why, after ignoring Kaepernick for three seasons did the NFL league office suddenly set up this unprecedented workout for him? And why now in Week 11, and not, say, in April before the draft, or in August during training camp?
There have been rumors and theories that Roger Goodell feels guilty about Kaepernick’s plight, and is trying to help him out; or that this is the NFL’s way of protecting itself from another collusion lawsuit from Kaepernick. But a story from USA Today may have cracked the case. According to the report, Goodell agreed to help Kaepernick get back into the league after having “many discussions” with rapper Jay-Z, who “persisted” that the NFL needs to help Kaepernick get back into the league.
This is the same Jay-Z who joined the NFL in August as its Live Music Entertainment Strategist and said, “I think we’ve moved past kneeling,” earning himself plenty of criticism and the label as a sellout from the pro-Kaepernick crowd. So pushing for this workout sure seems like this is a case of Jay-Z trying to repair his image.
As for Kaepernick, I’d be surprised if a team signs him. But the Patriots, one of 11 teams confirmed to attend the workout as of Friday morning, certainly could find a use for him. Kaepernick could help them prepare for upcoming games against mobile quarterbacks Dak Prescott, Deshaun Watson, Patrick Mahomes, and Josh Allen, and for a rematch with Lamar Jackson in the playoffs. The Patriots already have three quarterbacks on the roster, so they could easily swap out Cody Kessler for Kaepernick.
Whether Kaepernick is willing to accept a scout team role and paycheck is one thing. Whether the Patriots want the media attention that comes with signing Kaepernick is another. But from a football perspective, signing him wouldn’t be a bad idea.
No joy this year for 1972 Dolphins
The Patriots’ and 49ers’ losses the last two weeks should have meant a joyous time in Miami. The 1972 Dolphins remain the only team in the NFL’s 100 years to go undefeated through the regular season and postseason, and members of the team have famously popped champagne in each of the last 47 years when the final NFL team loses a game.
But this year’s celebration has been tinged with sorrow. It was the first one without Hall of Fame linebacker Nick Buoniconti, who died in July at 78. Fourteen members of the ’72 Dolphins have now passed away, and it is getting tougher for players to celebrate and connect. This year was the first time that Dick Anderson, the 1973 Defensive Player of the Year, didn’t speak by phone with Buoniconti on the day that the final team lost a game.
“It’s terribly sad he’s not here to celebrate with us,” Anderson told the Miami Herald. “Last year’s conversation was difficult because of Nick’s deterioration. But he still remembered we were undefeated.”
And Mercury Morris, one of the team’s star running backs and loudest trash talkers, seems to have softened a bit since 2007. After the Patriots lost to the Ravens two weeks ago, he expressed disappointment on Facebook.
“This is not how I wanted [it] to go,” he wrote. “I was hoping for a never before epic event to occur in the NFL championship. I wanted to see two undefeated teams play for the 100 year championship game this year.”
Rogers’s life, death a sad tale
The life of former Lions wide receiver Charles Rogers was nothing short of tragic. The No. 2 overall draft pick in 2003, Rogers’s three seasons in the NFL were marred by injuries, drug suspensions, and very little production — just 36 catches for 440 yards and three touchdowns. This past week, he died at 38 due to liver failure, his mother told the New York Times.
Rogers played at a time when society’s attitudes toward drug use and mental health were much different. When Rogers suffered a season-ending injury in 2004, the Lions sent him home for the rest of the season, with no attention paid to how the time off would affect him. When Rogers failed a third drug test for marijuana, the Lions went after their money, and eventually sued Rogers for $6.1 million.
Broke and unwanted, Rogers’s life spiraled out of control without football. He got arrested twice for driving under the influence, and was arrested for violating probation. He also became addicted to opioids during his playing days.
The NFL has learned from tragic tales such as Rogers’s. Today, every team has a mental health counselor at its facility, and players get mandatory mental health education. Injured players almost always rehab with the team. Players who are suspended for substance abuse are allowed to be at the facility and participate in meetings and other team activities. Josh Gordon, who has issues similar to Rogers’s, has been given extra chances to try to make it work, and players and teams rally around him.
But Rogers was treated like a criminal and a loser, and was cast out of the NFL without care. And now he’s dead.
Scouting mission for owner?
There was a report out of South Florida this past week that Dolphins owner Stephen Ross attended the LSU-Alabama game last Saturday so he could see the top quarterback prospects, Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa, in person.
Hopefully Ross just wanted to see a big game, and called it a scouting trip to appease Dolphins fans and show them how seriously the team is taking its search for a franchise QB. But if this really was a scouting expedition, Dolphins fans should be nervous. For one, it implies that Ross wants to have input on the quarterback selection, and won’t just leave it up to GM Chris Grier and coach Brian Flores.
For two, what does Ross really expect to learn about each quarterback in one afternoon? Scouting quarterbacks is a long, arduous process that involves watching hours of tape, working out players individually, testing them on white boards, and interviewing as many people as possible to see if they are an organizational fit.
Does Ross really think he’s going to be able to figure out which quarterback is the right one just by watching him play one game, and by meeting with him privately for five or 10 minutes? I sure hope not.
Why, exactly, did the Patriots give up so quickly on tight end Jacob Hollister? Traded to the Seahawks for a measly seventh-round pick in April, Hollister has been a revelation the last two weeks. He caught two touchdown passes, including the winner, two weeks ago against Tampa Bay, and last week had eight catches for 62 yards and a TD against San Francisco. “I don’t think this is any fluke or anything,” coach Pete Carroll said. “He’s tough as hell. He’s delivering blows and taking hits. Competing like crazy. It shows up.” Hollister played in 23 games for the Patriots from 2017-18, but only caught eight passes, and they gave up on him this spring. But Hollister can play, and the Patriots have gotten nothing out of their tight ends this year . . . The Jets looked like they found a budding star last year in tight end Chris Herndon, a fourth-round pick who had 39 catches for 502 yards and four touchdowns in his rookie season. But his sophomore year has been brutal. Herndon sat out the first four games with a substance-abuse suspension. A lingering hamstring injury then kept him off the field until Week 10. And Herndon’s season ended this past week when he landed on injured reserve with a rib injury. His 2019 stat line: one game, one catch, 7 yards . . . The Patriots and 49ers are both pulling off an incredible feat — allowing more yards per rush than per pass. The Patriots are allowing 4.72 yards per rush and 4.12 yards per pass, while the 49ers are allowing 4.64 yards per rush and 4.39 yards per pass. The STATS LLC database goes back to 1995, and no team has ever pulled off this feat over an entire season . . . Teams are 1 for 31 on onside kicks this year, with the Bears coming up with the only recovery in Week 7. The NFL should just eliminate the onside kick next year and adapt the fourth-and-15 play, just to bring some competitiveness and excitement back.