- - Thursday, November 28, 2019

BALTIMORE | When football fans walk toward M&T Bank Stadium, they are greeted by two statues that honor the city’s NFL legacy — a statue of Baltimore Colts quarterback great Johnny Unitas and one of Baltimore Ravens Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis.

They may have to make room for another one.

Quarterback Lamar Jackson has energized Ravens fans and a city beleaguered by bad news and bad times. He has quickly reached icon status in the city, leading the Ravens to a 9-2 record and perhaps a path to the franchise’s third Super Bowl.


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“You have one of the most versatile and unstoppable offenses we have seen in pro football in quite some time or perhaps ever,” said Stan “The Fan” Charles, founder and publisher of Press Box newspaper. “It all begins with number eight (Jackson) and now when you go out to M&T Bank Stadium the fans are geeked because they expect to see something they’ve never seen before.”

Baltimore fans aren’t the only ones excited. The sports world is jumping on the Lamar Jackson bandwagon, particularly after his remarkable performance Monday in a 45-6 victory over the defending NFC champion Los Angeles Rams. Jackson may have created a legacy in one night, completing 15 of 20 passes for 169 yards and five touchdowns, plus rushing for 95 yards on eight carries, an 11.9 yard-per-carry average.



He was rewarded with his third AFC Offensive Player of the Week honor in the last four weeks, and is being touted as the frontrunner for the NFL Most Valuable Player award. The makers of the “Madden NFL” video game are reportedly raising Jackson’s speed statistic in the game to 96, which puts him ahead of Michael Vick as the fastest quarterback in the history of the game. He is the leading vote-getter in the Pro Bowl.

Jackson’s star is rising that quickly.

Ravens coach John Harbaugh was heard on a microphone during Baltimore’s 23-17 win over Cincinnati last month crowning his 22-year-old quarterback as a game-changer. “You changed the game, man,” Harbaugh said. “You know how many little kids in this country are going to be wearing number 8 playing quarterback for the next 20 years because of you?”

His impact may spread nationwide, but he has already made his mark in a city that has been down and out of late.

Baltimore has suffered through a series of body blows. Its former mayor, Catherine Pugh, was forced to resign in a scandal that recently led to her guilty plea on tax evasion and conspiracy charges. Crime is perceived to be out of control, with businesses leaving the city and suburbanites expressing fear of coming there, following the riots four years ago after the death of Freddie Gray in police custody. Police corruption led to a Justice Department investigation and a guilty plea by a half dozen officers who were part of a special gun task force. The city’s symphony orchestra faced a shutdown due to lack of funding and labor squabbles. The Baltimore Orioles were among the worst teams in baseball, with a 54-108 record, drawing just 1.3 million fans, down dramatically from their all-time high of 3.7 million in 1997.

This is a city that needs a hero. For right now, however fleeting it may be, it is Jackson.

“The thing I like best about Lamar is his impact on the city,” said Bruce Cunningham, longtime sports director at Fox 45 in Baltimore. “The Ravens often have kids’ teams down into the field before the game, and Lamar always makes it a point to run by and high five them. You should see their faces when he does that. It’s as if they’re saying, ‘The Ravens‘ quarterback looks just like me!’

“In a city like this, that has a lot of value.”

Jackson, who has thrown 24 touchdown passes this season with only five interceptions for 2,427 yards and rushed for 876 yards, a 7.1 yard per carry average, has tried to say grounded during his whirlwind rise, from the 32nd pick in the first round of the 2018 draft to the leader in the race for MVP. In the win over the Rams in Los Angeles, Ravens fans were shouting, “MVP, MVP.” Jackson told reporters he heard the chants, but is focused on another award. “It’s OK, but I’m trying to win the Super Bowl and we’re taking it a game at a time,” Jackson said at his postgame press conference. “I’m not worried about MVP. If it comes, it comes and I’ll be satisfied, but I’m trying to win a Super Bowl.”

He could be getting a preview of that Sunday in Baltimore when the Ravens face the NFC’s 10-1 San Francisco 49ers — a game with all sorts of dramatic twists and ironies beside the powerhouse matchup between the conference championship contenders. Kyle Shanahan is the 49ers head coach, and helped design the offense in Washington with his father Mike for Robert Griffin III in 2012 that the Baltimore offense is derived from. And yes, by the way, the Baltimore backup quarterback is Griffin.

⦁ Hear Thom Loverro on 106.7 The Fan Wednesday afternoons and Saturday mornings and on the Kevin Sheehan podcast Tuesdays and Thursdays.

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