OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Lamar Jackson makes his Monday Night Football debut as the quarterback of the highest-scoring team in the NFL, the newly minted favorite for Most Valuable Player and arguably the league's most popular player.
Any suggestion that Jackson would become football's next great young superstar by this point would've drawn laughter one year and one week ago, when he was thrust into the Baltimore Ravens' starting job after Joe Flacco was injured.
In 53 weeks, Jackson went from being a hotly debated question mark to the NFL's ultimate exclamation point.
Jackson has gone from throwing self-described ducks in training camp to sidearming darts just beyond the fingertips of defenders. He has gone from hearing calls for a return to Flacco during a disastrous playoff loss to getting serenaded with screams of "MVP" over the past month. He has gone from being "figured out" -- remember how the Los Angeles Chargers supposedly gave everyone the blueprint to beating him? -- to now being lauded as unstoppable.
"I don't know if I've ever seen a quarterback take that big of a jump from Year 1 to Year 2 that I can remember," said former Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta, who was a radio analyst for Jackson's first NFL start.
Heading into Monday night's showdown with the Los Angeles Rams (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN), Jackson has carried the Ravens (8-2) to their best start since their 2012 Super Bowl season. He is the first quarterback in NFL history to produce at least 2,000 yards passing and 700 yards rushing through the first 10 games, and even that doesn't do Jackson's outrageous start to a career any justice.
Through 17 career starts, Jackson has:
As many wins (14) as all-time leader Tom Brady had through 17 starts.
A higher completion rate (63.4%) than all-time leader Drew Brees (60.5%) had through 17 starts.
A higher passer rating (97.7) than all-time leader Aaron Rodgers (93.7) had through 17 starts.
Like Jackson's rapid-fire style of play, his improvement feels like it has occurred in a blur. One moment, he's being drafted behind Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen and Josh Rosen. The next, he's outplaying Russell Wilson, Brady and Deshaun Watson.
In talking with coaches, teammates and Jackson himself, his growth has been more subtle.
The first start
That week wasn't a smooth one. Jackson spent a night at the hospital with stomach pains and missed Thursday's practice.
The least memorable part of Jackson's crazy run as a starter is the exact time it all began.
Flacco injured his hip in the game heading into last season's bye, but Jackson said he wasn't informed by coach John Harbaugh that he would take over as the starting quarterback until he returned from his one-week break.
Anyone hoping for a seminal, passing-of-the-torch scene from a Super Bowl MVP to the new franchise quarterback would be disappointed. Harbaugh can't recall exactly how he broke the news to Jackson, and Jackson remembers simply being told Flacco was hurt and he had to step up. His response: "All right, let's go."
"I wasn't excited," Jackson said. "I wanted [Flacco] to get better. He's my teammate, at the end of the day. It was his team. I had to fill in and help out."
Jackson believes dehydration sent him to the hospital. Once he got to the game, he showed few ill effects.
On Nov. 18, 2018, Jackson rallied the Ravens from an eight-point deficit to a 24-21 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals. He became the first quarterback of the Super Bowl era to rush for over 100 yards in his first NFL start.
So what does Jackson remember the most? An interception thrown on the first drive of the second half.
"I feel like I put us in a bad position, if anything," Jackson said. "I was trying to do too much at the time."
The low point
Ninkovich: Ravens look like the best team in the NFL
Victor Cruz and Rob Ninkovich expect Lamar Jackson and the Ravens to have no issues with the Rams on Monday Night Football.
Jackson became the youngest quarterback to start an NFL playoff game after turning around the Ravens' 4-5 season and helping Baltimore win its first AFC North title in six years. But his promising rookie season ended in disaster.
In a 23-17 playoff loss to the Chargers, Jackson completed 3 of 9 passes for 25 yards in the first three quarters. For the game, he rushed for 54 yards. His passer rating was 2.8. His two fourth-quarter touchdown passes that got Baltimore within one score proved no consolation.
"I watched it to see the mistakes," Jackson said. "It looked like I wasn't in it. I wish I could play it again right now."
The clamor was that every team now knew how to shut down Jackson, which offensive coordinator Greg Roman calls "ridiculous."
Jackson, though, was squarely in the crosshairs of the hometown crowd. It got so heated that fans behind the Ravens' bench area screamed for Flacco to replace Jackson, and players yelled back that Jackson had guided the team to the postseason.
There's a sense that this low point became a large part of Jackson's foundation for success heading into the 2019 season.
"You could kind of see how much he wanted to win and how disappointed he was in himself," Harbaugh said. "More than most any player I've ever been around, he takes it absolutely on his own shoulders when things don't go well. It was, 'This is on me.' I think that's one of the things that motivate him."
Ten months after drafting Jackson, the Ravens were all-in, trading the most successful quarterback in franchise history to the Denver Broncos for a fourth-round pick. With Flacco gone, the weight of the Ravens' season and future fell on Jackson's right arm.
At every turn in the spring, Jackson faced scrutiny on Twitter.
In April, Jackson's first pitch at an Orioles baseball game was studied. No arm ... stick to running.
In May, Jackson admitted he "sucked" on the first day of organized team activities. And they got rid of a perfectly good QB for this project.
In June, Jackson was picked off twice in the red zone by a corner formerly of the Alliance of American Football. I have a feeling this team is going to feature a roller coaster of an offense buoyed by a stout defense.
It's true that Jackson was wildly inconsistent during offseason workouts. He would throw a perfectly timed deep toss, only to follow it up with a head-scratching pass into the dirt. Then, midway through training camp, the coaches saw Jackson's accuracy and decision-making starting to click.
"He started putting really good practices together, not just a play here or a play there, or wow, he scrambled and nobody can touch him," Roman said. "It was: Wow, that was a really good practice. Did I just see that? Let's see how we do tomorrow. Oh wow, that was pretty good, too."
Where Jackson made his biggest strides was with his mechanics. As a rookie, his stance got very narrow and he was up on his toes. Jackson now plays with a wider base.
"That's the foundation of being a consistent passer is having a solid platform to throw from," quarterbacks coach James Urban said. "He's been very diligent about that."
The encouraging sign for Harbaugh? It was not about change but how Jackson stayed the same.
"The thing I like about him is he does all the regular work," Harbaugh said. "He gets in the weight room and does the same workout as the guys. He does the same conditioning as the guys. He shows up every day early. He likes the process of football. He keeps it simple."
A breakout second year
Jackson immediately changed the narrative of his ability to become a legitimate passer in the season opener.
In the 59-10 rout of the Miami Dolphins, Jackson finished with more touchdown passes (five) than rushing attempts (three). The one touchdown that stood out to Roman was the 83-yard pass to Marquise Brown. The Dolphins dropped eight men into coverage, a look Baltimore hadn't practiced against. Jackson, however, waited for the play to develop in order to complete the deep pass even though he had plenty of chances to take off for a big run.
"That was one of the moments where you said, 'Wow,'" Roman said.
Jackson went on to set new standards for dual-threat quarterbacks, but where he showed his most growth was in Seattle in Week 7. With the game tied at 13 late in the third quarter, Harbaugh saw that Jackson was ticked off coming off the field on fourth down at the Seahawks' 8-yard line. Harbaugh asked Jackson if he wanted to go for it, and Jackson immediately responded, "Yeah, I want to go for it! Let's get it."
Jackson scored on a crucial run up the middle of the defense, thanks to a situation that wouldn't have occurred in his rookie season.
"There probably were moments we could have went for it last year, and I was just jogging off the field; I was like, 'Dang, we'll just get it next drive,'" Jackson said. "Not like I'm not competitive, but it was just different [at Seattle]. I'm a lot [more] comfortable now than I was last year."
This ignited the current three-game stretch during which Jackson has completed 76% of his passes (49 of 64) for 608 yards, eight touchdowns and no interceptions. His passer rating in wins over New England, Cincinnati and Houston has been 141.9 (out of a perfect 158.3).
In last Sunday's 41-7 rout of the Texans, there was a sequence that characterized Jackson's mentality for many of his teammates. In the second quarter, Jackson was dropped for a 7-yard loss, and he began clapping while sitting on the turf. One play later, Jackson stepped up in the pocket and drilled an 18-yard touchdown pass through a tight window to tight end Mark Andrews.
"I guess that's what he has in his DNA," tight end Nick Boyle said. "He has a great carelessness, which is a good thing. So when something bad happens, he still has a smile on his face and moves to the next play, which is hard for a lot of guys. I think he does that the best I've ever seen."
What comes next?
Jackson is playing as well as anyone in the NFL right now, and the intriguing part is he's only 22. In Week 12, there are only three starting quarterbacks (Daniel Jones, Dwayne Haskins and Darnold) are younger than Jackson.
If Jackson is No. 4 in the NFL in passer rating (106.3) and No. 10 in rushing (788 yards), what does the future hold for him?
"His ability to deal from the pocket is on the absolute right trajectory," ESPN analyst Louis Riddick said. "He's getting more and more comfortable to the point where, if he continues to do that and be a threat running, then as a defender, what do you do?"
Roman believes that as Jackson grows as a quarterback, his game will change. Over the course of Jackson's career, Roman expects him to throw the ball more and run less.
"I'm trying to keep it as balanced as I can right now while still accomplishing what we need to accomplish," Roman said. "But you want this to happen for obvious reasons."
Jackson's future will be shaped by his team's continued success and how, if at all, the league adjusts to him. Will the other AFC North teams adapt their defensive rosters to try to slow him down? How long might it be before Roman gets offers to become a head coach elsewhere?
What the Ravens are not concerned about is Jackson himself. Teammates and coaches say that while Jackson is a much different player, he remains the same grounded person.
Last week, Jackson surpassed Wilson as the top candidate for NFL Most Valuable Player per Caesars Sportsbook and learned that he led the initial Pro Bowl balloting by nearly 30,000 votes over Kansas City Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes. Yet there he was in the Ravens' training room, even though he had no reason to be there, shaking the hand of every trainer and every player receiving treatment.
"He's one of the most humble guys that I've ever been [around]," cornerback Marlon Humphrey said. "As he's been having more and more success, he's gotten more and more humble."
Jackson called his first full calendar year as the starter a whirlwind, which says a lot coming from someone who routinely makes defenders dizzy.
In some ways, maybe everyone should've seen Jackson's NFL takeover coming. Instead of focusing on a rookie throwing some passes over the heads of wide receivers, more attention should've been placed on Jackson's lifelong passion to win at the game's most important position.
"I feel like I'm just getting started," Jackson told ESPN. "I'm still young. I still got a lot of things to work on. I'm still growing each and every day. I'm trying to become a better person, a better player and an all-time better QB."