Lamar Jackson, Sam Darnold
ESNY Graphic, Getty Images

The story is Lamar Jackson. The more serious lesson is the one the New York Jets learned via Baltimore Ravens and it involves infrastructure.

Robby Sabo

BALTIMORE, MD—There’s little doubt; Lamar Jackson will rake in the love.

The Louisville product, by way of his 212 yards and five touchdowns on 13 of 18 passing, and 86 yards on the ground—surpassing Michael Vick as the NFL’s new single-season quarterback rushing king—will awake Friday morning as the big man in the NFL.

It’ll no doubt headline SportsCenter. Kids will rave about the performance at school. And social media will remain “Lamar crazy” over the next 18-24 hours. But the more humbling story to be told is the one that forces an entire organization to remain stuck in self-reflection.

It’s not as though Joe Douglas didn’t already understand where his personnel stood. I mean, let’s not get dizzy; this Jets depth chart rivals the Miami Dolphins, Washington Redskins and New York Giants as worst in the NFL (when the injuries are included).

It’s that the organization he grew up in (under Ozzie Newsome) drove the final 2019 nail home.

On Thursday night in front of the entire country, the tire Baltimore Ravens organization dished out a lesson under the critical NFL subject matter that is “infrastructure.”

With the 42-21 trouncing, Baltimore clinched its second-consecutive AFC North crown and fourth since 2010. The organization has experienced just two losing seasons since 2008 (5-11 in 2015).

The Jets.. well, you’re probably already familiar with this current decade of ineptitude. Falling to 5-9, the Jets have clinched their fourth-straight losing campaign and remain in search of their second winning season since the Rexian days (2010).

It all boils down to a culture of winning that can only be spurred on through building an infrastructure capable of overcoming regular odds and bad breaks—something every football team in the country faces.

Answer this question: what would Jackson’s numbers look like if he and Sam Darnold switched teams last spring? Would the new read-option loving New York Jets quarterback still hear chants of “MVP?”

Is an answer really necessary?

From the top, the two offensive lines contrasted as badly as it gets in the NFL. The Ravens’ big heavies moved the Jets defensive line with ease and the tight ends dominated the outside areas of both the rushing and passing attacks. On one early Jackson read-option, James Burgess Jr.—up in an edge spot while covering the tight end—found himself buried seven yards back once the quarterback scooted past.

When Baltimore’s O-line wasn’t pushing the line of scrimmage five yards deep, New York’s edge play was stuck in the mud.

The need for speed on the edge is as critical a concept as exists today. The Jets haven’t possessed a legitimate edge man since John Abraham, and what folks don’t realize is pass rushing is only one-half of the equation. When facing a pistol-heavy, read-option nightmare matchup like Greg Roman’s scheme, quick edge rushers are a must. They are the guys who set the edge and own quarterback responsibility.

Instead, Gregg Williams, due to a lack of talent, is forced to play heavier guys like Kyle Phillips, Henry Anderson and Jordan Willis out-of-position on the edge, citing a backbreaking infrastructure problem defensively.

On the record-breaker, Tarell Basham, whose size technically puts him at an edge spot in the NFL, found himself pinched down too far and way too unathletic to take his QB responsibility against the zone read.

Jackson wasn’t even tested on the edge once all night and scheme wasn’t important. Those Jets’ edge players didn’t belong on the same field as the Ravens rushing attack.

The Ravens scored touchdowns on their first three possessions as Jackson constantly abused the integrity of the team’s rush defense and no remedy existed. The pistol/read-option attack needed no rehearsal. The offensive yardage came entirely too easy.

Offensively, forget about it; young Darnold found himself harassed time and again.

Interestingly, the Jets’ much-discussed offensive line didn’t play too horribly out of the gate. The team rushed for 103 yards in total on 24 carries, good enough for a 4.3 yards-per-carry. Le’Veon Bell accumulated 87 yards on 21 tries.

The offense wasn’t an issue in the first half. They simply couldn’t finish drives and, eventually, that much-criticized five-man unit up front sprung massive leaks.

Darnold finished with 218 yards with two scores (both to Jamison Crowder) and a terrible interception on 18-of-32 passing. Other than the terrible pick, which featured Earl Thomas shading to the side of the field he threw it, pre-snap, Darnold fought through yet another awful O-line performance.

Yes… infrastructure.

A Darnold fumble occurred in the third quarter when, on a five-man rush, the Ravens yielded a free runner on a simple stunt. It’s the stuff that just cannot happen. It’s the stuff that strips Darnold of prime, desperately-needed opportunities to grow.

In the end, it wasn’t all bad. The overwhelmingly terrible night produced positive moments fans could cite. Head coach Adam Gase saw it as well.

“There were a lot of positives that were working for us,” Gase said after the game. “We just couldn’t finish off the drives we needed to.”

For example, Darnold played as solidly as possible considering the circumstances. Crowder put up 90 yards and the only two Jets’ offensive scores on six total grabs. Robby Anderson went for 66 on four catches.

But that’s the problem: finding yourself stunned with the positives. It was that bad. Singling out any conceivable positive is simply human desire.

It’s about infrastructure in the end. An offensive line that’s been neglected since the 2006 NFL Draft. A nonexistent edge presence that’s forever stuck in the mud. And, oh yeah… a defensive backfield all messed up without Jamal Adams.

Gregg Williams has put forth a tremendous season. With an obscene number of injuries and little talent in key areas, Williams eventually found a way to force his guys to play to a certain identity. Instead of playing from an inside-out mentality, Williams, instead, played on his strength: the interior of his defensive backfield.

He knew a four-man conventional pass rush wouldn’t get it done, so he’s blitzed Adams like a madman and disguised coverages on nearly every play. He’s also relies on zone coverages, knowing full-well his corners cannot keep up (an identity started thanks to Trumaine Johnson early in the season).

On Thursday night, the second game without Adams, he knew his unit was in trouble. The two-deep, bend-but-don’t-break defense that forced the Dolphins into seven field goals wouldn’t work against this Ravens offense.

More specifically, the lack of infrastructure was on full display when Marcus Maye or Darryl Roberts were involved.

Maye slid down into Adams’s strong safety spot while Roberts played a ton of single-high in this one. Once it was all over, No. 20 found out how tough it is to move all over the field while attempting to pull off a variety of things. He constantly found himself beaten in man coverage, slipping once and allowing a touchdown on another occasion.

Not one unit can be labeled legitimate when so dependent on one man (Adams) and, if pressure never hits home in a conventional manner, even a stud like Adams can’t completely save the day. (The Jets sacked Jackson once all night and hardly touched him behind the line of scrimmage.)

It’s about infrastructure, the key that allows a football team’s wiggle-room when up against serious issues. Infrastructure: the offensive line when an organization is looking to develop a young quarterback. Infrastructure: a football depth chart when dealing with a massive number of injuries. Infrastructure: tremendous people in place sprinkled throughout the organization with only excellence in mind. Infrastructure: finding enough (slightly unstable) competitors who’d rather die than lose a football game.

The Ravens have it. The Jets don’t.

Over the last two years, the AFC North champs have drafted four offensive linemen. Nine in total have been snagged by the organization since the 2015 NFL Draft. The total Mike Maccagnan put forth over the same timeframe is a measly three with just one coming in the first three rounds. (A more egregious football crime is tough to find.)

Of course, it’s not only a lack of young offensive line talent. Tyus Bowser (2017, Round 2), Jaylon Ferguson (2019, Round 3) and Chris Wormley (2017, Round 3) were all drafted in prime draft real estate over the last three years and contribute to a competent defense. Matt Judon, a fifth-round selection, leads the team with 8.5 sacks.

Jachai Polite and Lorenzo Mauldin are no longer Jets. Le’Veon Bell, a man the Jets had no business signing (without a credible offensive line presence), continues on as a major storyline and represents the apple of the media’s eye.

There’s no denying the unfairness involved. Bell, save for a single bowling incident, has said and done everything to a perfect degree this season.

But hey, this is New York. What does fair have to do with it? Bell should understand; he bolted an organization rich with infrastructure and culture for this new green life.

Culture: the feeling in the air that forces all-involved to understand the stakes, and infrastructure: the idea that it always begins in the trenches, was front-and-center Thursday night.

After the game, Bell, Anderson and other Jets lined up for the Lamar postgame show. The most electric quarterback in the game dished out numerous autographed-signed jerseys ready for distribution.

Yeah, obviously this isn’t the 1980s anymore. Michael Jordan’s step-on-your-throat way of doing things seems to have passed us by. But after a tidy stomping on national TV, a cold embrace or nothing at all seems appropriate to many of the diehards out there.

Douglas hit the critical notes upon taking the general manager position last spring. Other than his quote that labeled team building as starting with the quarterback and both lines, he specifically mentioned he’d be after a certain type of player, one that cannot stand losing.

While, of course, not criminal, lining up for Jackson autographs after a beatdown hardly fits Douglas’s criteria.

When thinking about Lamar Jackson, go ahead… celebrate the kid’s night. He deserves it for many reasons, especially for fighting through some of the barriers standing in his way. When thinking from a Jets perspective, throw Jackson and Darnold into the same pile and understand to what degree the situation impacts play.

Make sure you fully understand the full story behind MVP frontrunner’s performance, one that served up another lesson to the Jets: infrastructure over a period of time is the difference in this league. Without that solid foundation, only the most perfect of circumstances can yield net-positive results.

Joe Douglas… get ready. There are two essential spots (offensive line, edge player) that need to be cured before the New York Jets can officially enter the NFL big-boy table… alongside the Baltimore Ravens.

Until then, the distinction between teacher and student (as it pertains to football lessons) is clear.

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