By: Brady Atkins
In the 2020 NFL season, just five players had more than eight carries over 20 yards. The leader of the bunch was Derrick Henry, who finished the season with 16 such scampers en route to an NFL Offensive Player of the Year award. Second was Nick Chubb, the Browns star running back who, despite missing four games due to injury, managed to turn 12 of his 190 carries into rushes of over 20 yards.
Neither Henry nor Chubb’s inclusions on the list are particularly surprising. Henry is an All-Pro running back, and Chubb is a back-to-back Pro Bowler. The rest of this list, however, is staggering.
Third place in 20+ yard carries, the only other player in the league with more than 10, is Lamar Jackson, the Baltimore Ravens quarterback. Not Alvin Kamara or Dalvin Cook, two absolute stars at the running back position, but Lamar Jackson, the man under center.
As we travel down the list, it gets even more shocking. Tied for fourth place is J.K. Dobbins. Not just a rookie, not just a player who finished with fewer than 150 carries in his debut season, but a low-volume first-year running back who played on the same team as Jackson. To take it a step further, the man tied with Dobbins at eight carries over the 20-yard mark is Gus Edwards, a three-year player who has never totaled more than 750 yards on the ground, never been given more than 150 carries, and, just like Jackson and Dobbins, plays for the Baltimore Ravens.
In the 2020 NFL season, just five players had more than eight carries over 20 yards. Three of them played for the same team, the Baltimore Ravens.
Baltimore’s running success in 2020, all with a wide cast of characters who to some degree or another are shocking inclusions to the list, isn’t a fluke. It isn’t a miracle that Dobbins and Edwards, both with a lack of experience, were able to have so much success on the ground. It’s just the Lamar Jackson effect.
Lamar Jackson’s rushing dominance dates all the way back to his rookie season in 2018.
Well, actually, it began long before that. Even before his college days as a Louisville Cardinal, where a sophomore season with 1,571 yards on the ground and 21 rushing touchdowns helped him become the youngest player in NCAA history to win the Heisman trophy back in 2016. Rather, Jackson was a threat on the ground even in the days of high school football, when his skills as a runner and a thrower shone brightly to help him become the 12th ranked duel-threat quarterback in the 2015 recruiting class, despite being a smaller size player than NFL scouts typically look for in quarterbacks.
Jackson, for as long as he has played football, has been torching people on the ground. The season following his Heisman winning campaign, he rushed for even more yards, this time breaking the 1,600-yard mark, and doing so on fewer carries too.
So, maybe Jackson’s excellence in the NFL should have been seen from a mile away– but it wasn’t. Jackson fell to the very end of the 2018 NFL Draft, was the fifth quarterback taken in the class, after faces like Sam Darnold and Josh Rosen each went over 20 picks before him. Because of his size, and because of his exceptional athleticism, Jackson was seen less like a quarterback prospect, and more like a wide receiver prospect by some scouts.
But Jackson’s career trajectory hasn’t just exceeded expectations, it has redefined the standard for NFL signal-callers, and has re-opened the door for rushing-oriented offenses to thrive in the modern era of the league. All because Jackson’s immense skill set on the ground has allowed him to torch the league from the moment he arrived.
Even in his rookie season, one where he started just seven regular-season games, Jackson made a nearly untouchable impact on the ground. Not only were his 4.7 yards per carry on par with league stars like Ezekiel Elliot, but the quarterback actually managed to outpace players like David Johnson, Leonard Fournette, and Kareem Hunt in yards per carry. With the exception of Cam Newton, no other quarterback hit over 100 carries in 2018, and Jackson was able to remain one of the league’s most efficient ball-carriers, even with the high volume.
But Jackson was as explosive his rookie year as he was efficient, finishing tied for ninth in the league in carries over 20 yards. Again, in just seven starts. Jackson’s success in limited sample size would prove to be more than an aberration in 2019, his MVP winning season.
Jackson’s brilliance on the ground in his second NFL season is hard to quantify. The Ravens quarterback finished sixth in the league in rushing yards in 2019 with 1,206 yards. Impressive in and of itself, considering once again, Lamar Jackson is not a running back. But it gets even better. Jackson hit that top-ten mark with 176 carries. No other of 16 1,000 yards rushers in 2019 did so on fewer than 200 carries, and the closest anyone came to breaking 1,000 yards on less than 200 carries was Miles Sanders, who hit 818 yards with 179 reps on the ground.
That efficiency had Jackson in a league of his own, and by a lot. Second place in yards per carry back in 2019 was Raheem Mostert, the 49ers back, who finished with 5.6 YPC. Jackson hit 6.9, and did so even while missing the final game of the season. And still, Jackson managed to match efficiency with explosion, leading the league in 20+ carries with 11.
Even without an MVP to back it up in 2020, Jackson once again continued to torch opposing defenses. Leading the league in yards per carry, breaking 1,000 yards on the ground, and, as mentioned earlier, being one of just three players to have more than 10 carries of over 20 yards.
What Jackson does on his own is production at the quarterback position that’s completely unique. Even if his passing stats struggle in comparison to players like Patrick Mahomes or Tom Brady, his total level of production makes up for whatever deficiencies Jackson may possess as a thrower. His combined 4,227 yards of offense were good for sixth in 2019, and the quarterback finished with 3,762 in 2020.
But what Jackson is able to do for his own offense might be even more impressive than what he’s able to do on his own. The boost he’s provided to the running backs on his team, the way his rushing brilliance has opened up the passing game, that is the true essence of the Lamar Jackson Effect.
Gus Edwards, the Ravens undrafted running back from the 2018 class, the same class they drafted Jackson, has never had a season under five yards per carry, and has finished top ten in the NFL in that metric twice.
Mark Ingram, the former Ravens running back, had just once in his 10-year career had a season over five yards per carry. Past his prime, Ingram hit that mark in 2019, in what would be the third 1,000-yard season of his career, and just the second season Ingram had with over 10 touchdowns.
JK Dobbins, the Ravens rookie running back, had over 800 yards and nine touchdowns in his first year as a pro, all while splitting reps in a crowded backfield, all while getting just 134 carries, and all while being a rookie running back.
That is the Lamar Jackson effect. It’s not about what the MVP does for the Ravens’ offense on his own, it’s about what he opens up for the others players on his team. Dobbins was a highly touted rookie in the 2020 class, but expecting him to be the season’s third-most efficient ball carrier, ahead of established stars like Nick Chubb, Aaron Jones, and Dalvin Cook, all while reaching the endzone more than all but 10 other runners, is beyond any reasonable expectation.
It’s the same story for Mark Ingram and Gus Edwards’ recent success. Ingram had been a nice player prior to joining the Ravens, but was just a two-time Pro Bowler in eight years prior to joining the Ravens, and well past the age when running backs are supposed to be past their prime. None of that mattered in Ingram’s surprise 1,000-yard season, one where he, much like Dobbins in 2020, finished as a top-10 runner in efficiency.
In fact, since Jackson became Baltimore’s full-time starter two years ago, five times have Ravens players finished in the league’s top ten in yards per carry, with Edwards finishing just outside the top ten in 2020, still with 5.0 yards per rush to his name.
All this, and all under difficult circumstances. Edwards faced eight-man boxes on just over 34% of his carries, the sixth most in the league. Dobbins finished within the top 20 as well at 23%. Things weren’t open at the start of the play for the Ravens’ designated ball carries, and yet, they opened up as the play developed.
The easiest explanation for this? NFL defenses are afraid of Lamar Jackson, the league’s deadliest runner and the most explosive player on the football field since the time he was in high school. And the Ravens know it.
Baltimore has built an offense that lives, dies, and oftentimes thrives on their ability to execute the run-pass option. By a wide margin, the Ravens led the NFL in RPO’s in 2020, with 213 over the course of the season, with the second-place team clocking in at 176. They ran the RPO even more during Jackson’s MVP season, 271 times, to be exact. And more often than not, these run-pass options are resulting in runs. Explosive ones, too.
The RPO has helped lead to confusion at the line of scrimmage. Teams sell out to stop the Ravens running backs, but with Jackson’s ever-present threat as a runner himself, it’s hard for defenses to determine who will end up with the ball.
With threats all across the backfield, Baltimore has committed to the running game in a pass-happy league. Nobody has run the ball more times than the Ravens over the last two seasons, and nobody has done so with as much success as Baltimore either. In 2020, the Ravens as a team finished fourth in NFL history in team rushing yards with 3,071. The team three spots above them, in first place with a staggering 3,296 yards, the 2019 Baltimore Ravens.
Both of the Ravens’ historic rushing seasons were thanks to high-efficiency running. As a team, the Ravens averaged 5.5 yards per carry in both 2019 and 2020. Just one other team in the top 30, the 2006 Atlanta Falcons, was able to hit that mark. The Ravens did it twice in two years.
Once seen as a relic, the Baltimore Ravens and Lamar Jackson have revitalized the running game in the NFL, doing so in their own way. With a high-volume runner at quarterback with unparalleled ability as a scrambler, along with a supporting cast of unlikely stars, the Ravens have finished as a top-seven scoring offense in each of the last two seasons.
Elite offensive production through the lost art of running the ball. That is what Lamar Jackson brings to the table.
The NFL is a copycat league. Once one team finds something that works, the other 31 scramble to try and replicate it. So, in the future, will the NFL try to steal the success of the Ravens as run-heavy teams that feature the quarterbacks as a massive part of that rushing attack?
Well, we already are.
The book on Lamar Jackson coming out of college was, ‘sure, he’s talented, but can someone of his size really stand up to the physicality of the NFL when his biggest asset is his ability as a runner?’
That was in 2018, where, through just seven games, Lamar Jackson flashed his potential for brilliance. A Ravens team that started 4-5 with Jackson on the sideline suddenly skyrocketed to 10-6 by the end of the year.
Enter Kyler Murray, the Arizona Cardinals’ unquestioned star quarterback, and the first overall pick in 2019 despite Murray weighing in a full five pounds lighter and four inches shorter than Jackson, and with Murray’s greatest strength being, you guessed it, his ability as a runner.
Lamar Jackson has laid the path for a new generation, and has formed the way we view NFL archetypes. Maybe a quarterback doesn’t have to have the strongest arm, or be the most accurate passer. Maybe, just maybe, talent is talent, regardless of what form that talent takes.
NFL teams are beginning to pick up on that. In 2018, the year before Jackson became a full-time starter, just he and Cam Newton were the only quarterbacks to get over 100 carries. Just two years later, that number has doubled, with players like Deshaun Watson, Russell Wilson, and Taysom Hill each finishing with over 80, and the Eagles’ rookie Jalen Hurts hitting 63 despite starting just four games.
Those quarterbacks are finding success with their legs too. Where just three quarterbacks in 2018 finished with over 500 yards on the ground, five hit that mark in 2020, and two, Jackson and Murray, each broke the 800-yard mark.
A high volume of quarterback carries has helped on the scoreboard as well, as four of the offenses with quarterbacks who received over 80 carries finished in the top-eight in scoring during the 2020 season.
And the trend isn’t going anywhere. Of the stacked class of rookie quarterbacks set to enter the league in 2021, four of the projected top-five, Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields, Zach Wilson and Trey Lance each had over 65 carries in their final college seasons. And two, Wilson and Lance, each added over 10 touchdowns on the ground in their respective last full college years.
What Lamar Jackson has brought to the league is undeniable. His success has sparked a rushing renaissance, and has ushered in a new era of quarterbacks, one whose talent lies in the running game just as much as it does the passing game.
But, as will be the case until his retirement, there is only one Lamar Jackson.
There is only one man who can truly bring the Lamar Effect to an offense.