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Why Lamar Jackson will be better than Michael Vick

With the Ravens heading to Atlanta, let’s revisit the quarterback comparison

When Lamar Jackson was electrifying college football through the air and on the ground, the comparisons to Michael Vick came almost immediately. The comparison was both apt and awkward. But with the Baltimore Ravens heading to Atlanta to take on the team that used the No. 1 overall pick to draft Vick in 2001, let’s revisit the comparison that has cast a shadow over Jackson.

Let’s start with college. Louisville’s Lamar Jackson was simply better than Virginia Tech’s Mike Vick. Jackson’s stats dwarf Vick’s in almost all passing and rushing categories. Even if you control for the inflated offensive stats of modern football by comparing their season-long statistical rankings, Jackson was far more outstanding. He has the 2016 Heisman Trophy to prove it and also finished third in 2017. Vick finished third and sixth in Heisman voting in ’99 and 2000, respectively.

If you want to build an argument for Vick in college, you could point to the fact that he lost only two games in his two seasons as a starter at Virginia Tech. And, with a similar strength of schedule, Jackson’s teams lost nine games over his two best seasons in Louisville. But that reflects the quality of the whole team more than it does either quarterback.

Ultimately, the best case for Vick is rooted in him as a pioneer. Without Vick and others expanding the perception of what the position could be, Jackson and many other quarterbacks would never get a chance to play in offenses tailored to them.


Quarterback Michael Vick of Virginia Tech holds up an Atlanta Falcons jersey after being picked No. 1 at the NFL draft in New York in this April 21, 2001, file photo. Mark Lennihan/AP Photo

Both Vick and Jackson took similar paths to the NFL, via draft trades. In 2001, Atlanta drafted Vick after acquiring the first overall pick from the San Diego Chargers for a player and a couple of picks (one of which became LaDainian Tomlinson). In 2018, Jackson was chosen in the last spot of the first round after the Ravens traded with the Philadelphia Eagles.

As a 21-year-old rookie, Vick started only two games, in Week 9 against the Dallas Cowboys and in Week 17 against the St. Louis Rams. At this point, Jackson, also a 21-year-old rookie, has started two games. Here is how their two rookie starts stack up against each other.

Passing

Combined stats for games as starter Vick Jackson
Attempts 42 44
Completions 16 27
Completion % 38% 61%
Yards 208 328
Yards/attempt 4.95 7.45
Long 45 74
Touchdowns 1 1
Interceptions 1 3
Sacks 7 4

Rushing

Combined stats for games as starter Vick Jackson
Carries 8 37
Yards 51 190
Yards/carry 6.38 5.14
Touchdowns 0 1
Long 20 39
Fumbles 0 2

Vick’s offense produced 20 points in a win over the Cowboys, who ended the season with just five wins. Against the Rams, the top team in the NFC and the eventual Super Bowl runners-up, Vick’s offense scored only six points and the special teams added a kickoff return for a touchdown in the team’s loss.

As for Jackson, he is currently undefeated as a starter. Granted, the Cincinnati Bengals and the Oakland Raiders aren’t tough opponents, and Jackson was far from amazing, but he made pivotal plays in both games.

At the end of the third quarter against the Bengals, Jackson led a game-tying touchdown drive. And after the defense forced a three-and-out, Jackson led a drive that took up nearly half of the fourth quarter, setting up the game-winning field goal. The highly ranked Ravens defense held off both of the Bengals’ fourth-quarter drives to tie or take the lead, preserving the win.

Although Jackson didn’t make a single tackle, he deserves some credit for the defense’s performance late in the game. The defense was well-rested because with Jackson starting at quarterback, the Ravens boast the best rushing attack in the entire league, averaging 255 yards per game. For the 10 weeks before Jackson took the helm, the Ravens were 27th in the NFL at 93 yards per game while averaging only 30:39 of possession time. With Jackson starting, the average possession time has gone up to 36:10, which has translated to 55 defensive plays per game — nine fewer plays per game than before Jackson took over this season.


Two games can’t provide enough information to be predictive. But, in this case, I think the early results will hold. Jackson surpassed Vick in college and has already done the same as a rookie. And he will go on to have a better NFL career than Vick, in part because of Jackson’s talent and commitment. But the major reason is that the NFL in 2018 is more prepared to properly use a quarterback with Jackson’s skills than it has ever been. Ravens offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg has also demonstrated that he understands how to design an offense for Jackson — a luxury Vick helped create for many of the league’s quarterbacks but didn’t enjoy until he was 30 years old.

Still, until Jackson can consistently execute in the passing game, defenses will blitz on early downs to blow up their running attack, putting the Ravens in third-and-long situations. At that point they’ll have the D-line contain the rush and play zone, requiring Jackson to stay in the pocket and thread passes into holes. Or they’ll take away interior scramble lanes with D-line stunts, flushing Jackson out of the pocket early so delayed blitzers can pressure him.

The Ravens have been smart in how they attack defenses. They have shown a willingness to adjust run-blocking assignments in reaction to the blitzes they’ve seen. Though their passing game has been statistically anemic, it has also been smartly designed. Knowing that opposing linebackers and safeties are focused on slowing the rushing attack, the Ravens’ play-action passing game on early downs takes advantage by targeting tight ends and running backs.

Jackson looks comfortable in the pocket, as he did in college. And while his accuracy issues have been a problem, he was more consistently on target in his second start in the NFL.

Hope for the Ravens’ sake that trend continues.

Domonique Foxworth is a writer at The Undefeated. He is a recovering pro athlete and superficial intellectual.