“Man, give him the trophy now and his (flowers).”
Praise from fellow members of any sporting alumni always holds value – even more so coming from one of the greatest of all time.
So when NBA superstar LeBron James posted his compliments to Lamar Jackson on social media following the quarterback’s superb Week 17 five-touchdown performance to likely seal his Most Valuable Player (MVP) award-winning season, it felt like a new defining moment for the 27-year-old.
Jackson’s throwing ability paired with his elusiveness and speed – evoking memories of Michael Vick when he first entered the league – has almost singlehandedly changed the way the game is played, and arguably has led to an influx of running quarterbacks from college to the NFL.
Jackson’s future as a quarterback was questioned upon his arrival to the NFL, but he quickly proved the naysayers wrong as he won the MVP award in his second season after setting countless records.
He’s had some up-and-down years through injury and offensive woes, but this season Jackson has been back to his best, leading a No. 1 seed Baltimore Ravens to the playoffs, the AFC championship game and likely his second MVP award.
‘I’m strictly a quarterback’
Whether it be his mother’s media restriction of him at college or his unique playing style, Jackson has intrigued both NFL fans and coaches.
Clips of a young Jackson juking past defenders during his time at Boynton Beach High School in Florida allied to his athletic prowess made him a viral internet sports star.
Having committed to the Louisville Cardinals, Jackson was soon handed the keys to the team’s offensive operations and he won the Heisman Trophy – the first in the school’s history – in his sophomore year.
If his third and final season at the school lacked the finesse he had previously shown, Jackson still became the only player in Atlantic Coast Conference history to be named both the Player of the Year and Offensive Player of the Year in consecutive seasons.
So when Jackson declared for the draft, he was a tantalizing prospect for NFL franchises.
NFL draft analyst Lance Zierlein compared Jackson to the NFL’s preeminent rushing quarterbac Vick, adding: “He has star potential, but his success will rest heavily upon his ability to stay healthy.”
However, Jackson’s route into the NFL was complicated by the idea from a faction of the NFL fraternity that he would actually be better served switching to wide receiver to make the most of his athleticism.
There were some high-profile advocates of the position switch, despite Jackson catching no passes during his three-year career with Louisville.
There were reports suggesting teams had asked him to try out as a wide receiver at the NFL Combine ahead of the draft, but Jackson dismissed the chatter, insisting he was a quarterback.
“No teams have asked me to play wide receiver,” said Jackson. “I don’t even know where it comes from, I’m strictly a quarterback.” He added: “I thought I did a good job at quarterback.”
In 2022, Jackson referenced the racial bias he felt existed towards Black quarterbacks in the NFL. “It’s still there. That’s why I need that championship,” he said on LeBron James’ show “The Shop.”
However, questions about Jackson’s future as a quarterback position harmed his draft stock and slipped to the final pick of the first round before being selected by the Ravens.
Reassuringly for Jackson, Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome said that the player had been a quarterback on their draft board.
From strength to strength
Jackson began his rookie campaign as the backup quarterback to starter Joe Flacco, who had led the team to a Super Bowl title just years prior.
But Flacco suffered a hip injury, which opened the door for Jackson to make his first start for the team in Week 11.
And, in a portent for the future, Jackson immediately went about setting records.
Jackson’s ability to run with the ball was a threat that opposing defenses hadn’t faced before and opened up Baltimore’s rushing attack, with the team becoming the first since 1976 to register at least 190 rushing yards in five consecutive games.
Such was Jackson’s impact on the Ravens offense in 2018 – the team went 6-1 in the final seven games of the season – that Baltimore opted to traded away franchise-legend Flacco in the offseason.
In his first full season as a starter in 2019, Jackson spearheaded the NFL’s No. 1 scoring offense. He also set a new NFL single season quarterback landmark with 1,206 rushing yards
And with Jackson at the helm, the Ravens became the first team in NFL history to average at least 200 rushing yards and 200 net passing yards per game over a season.
He also led the Ravens to their first-ever No. 1 playoff seed and, while the year ended in playoff disappointment, Jackson had delivered one of the best regular seasons ever by an NFL quarterback.
As a result, the second-year signal-caller was named the NFL MVP with a unanimous vote, becoming only the second player to do so after Tom Brady in 2010.
“There’s been a lot of doubt going on, me being a running back, a receiver, stuff like that. That came when I got to the league. I had a great group of guys, a great organization with me,” Jackson said in his MVP acceptance speech as he thanked members of the Ravens hierarchy.
Dressed in an orange suit with a purple shirt, Jackson added: “Those guys all believed in me. And my mother – the bread and butter!
“I didn’t want to talk about the doubters and stuff like that. I wanted to talk about the ones that believed in me because they were there from the start.”
Subsequently, Jackson established himself as one of the top five at his position in the league, although he suffered a series of playoff heartbreaks and injuries which stunted any Super Bowl hopes Baltimore might fostered.
‘I want to be a Raven’
Jackson requested a trade from the Ravens in March after the team applied the non-exclusive franchise tag on the quarterback having failed to come to terms on a long-term contract over the previous two years.
The rumor-mill was ablaze with speculation of other teams inquiring about Jackson’s availability – and the quarterback wasn’t afraid to express his displeasure at the situation.
But, after months of theorizing, Jackson inked a five-year, $260 million contract to remain in Maryland. The contract averages out to $52 million per year, the highest yearly average in NFL history at the time.
“To be honest with you, I really didn’t care for other teams, really,” Jackson told reporters during his signing press conference. “I just really wanted to get something done here.
“I wanted to be here. I was like, ‘Man, OK, other teams [are] cool, but I want to be a Raven.’ … I really wanted to get this done before anything, before my time up and branch off somewhere else.”
With a revamped wide receiver core at his disposal and a new offensive coordinator calling plays, Jackson has consistently delivered standout performances, helping the Ravens surge to the No. 1 seed in the AFC and the best record in the NFL.
Whether it be the Week 16 domination of the high-flying San Francisco 49ers in their own stadium or the sublime five-touchdown explosion against the Miami Dolphins a week later, Jackson has taken the quarterback role to a different stratosphere.
He has steadily increased his odds to win the MVP, with those two back-to-back displays arguably sealing his second award.
NFL writer Nick Shook describes Jackson as the “most frustrating player to attempt to stop, and the most thrilling quarterback in the NFL” in his weekly quarterback rankings column in which he has ranked the Baltimore star as No. 1 in the league at the end of the 2023 campaign.
Now Jackson has only one final demon to slay: the playoffs.
“I definitely do have that chip on my shoulder,” Jackson told Tom Brady and Jim Gray on the “Let’s Go!” podcast – a reference to 1-3 record in his six years in the NFL playoffs. “I haven’t accomplished what I wanted to yet, so that’s why that chip is still on my shoulder. I want that Super Bowl. That’s the accolade that I really want so bad.”
And now, with a second NFL MVP almost certainly sewn up, don’t bet again Jackson lifting the Vince Lombardi Trophy on February 11.
For more CNN news and newsletters create an account at CNN.com