The pursuit of finding someone, anyone, to mimic Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson for their scout team has spurred NFL teams to audition everyone from the leader in touchdown passes in the Alliance of American Football to the college roommate of the All-Pro quarterback’s cousin. One team even went as far as to contact an ice fisherman in South Dakota.
Taryn Christion was getting his hair cut when he received a call in early October from the Pittsburgh Steelers, who were playing Jackson and the Ravens in a few days. Christion, an avid outdoorsman, threw for over 11,000 yards, ran for over 1,500 and has seven career records from his time playing from 2015-18 at South Dakota State.
The Steelers flew Christion 874 miles from Sioux Falls for one reason: to play the role of Lamar Jackson in three practices. Some teammates even called him “Lamar” a few times.
“I am not Lamar Jackson,” Christion said in October, “but I am going to play hard and run fast and do those things.”
Nobody can remember whether the Steelers have ever brought in a free agent just to simulate one opposing player in practice. Then again, unique measures are required for a unique playmaker like Jackson, the MVP front-runner who can make a defense look foolish with a spin in the open field or a pass to the end zone after leaping off one foot.
Jackson worked his late-game magic to lead the Ravens to a 26-23 overtime victory in Pittsburgh. Christion was cut two days later after his impersonation gig was up, and he wasn’t signed by another NFL team the rest of the regular season. Christion is on the roster for the XFL’s Los Angeles Wildcats.
“No one has a quarterback that moves and throws like Lamar Jackson, so we are not alone in that,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said.
Heading into Sunday’s AFC divisional playoff game, the Tennessee Titans will probably find out what many Ravens opponents have come to realize. The challenge to defend Jackson goes beyond game days. It starts in the practices leading up to the showdown with the NFL’s best quarterback/running back/superhero.
He glides for first downs in a blink of an eye and throws touchdown passes with a flick of the wrist. At 6-foot-2, Jackson has been clocked running the 40-yard dash in a scorching 4.34 seconds. And there’s that YouTube video from high school that shows Jackson throwing the ball 100 yards.
Like Jackson, Christion is 6-foot-2 but his time is 4.5 seconds. Chiefs cornerback Alex Brown, who simulated Jackson on the scout team this year, can run the 40 in 4.42 seconds but he’s limited in passing because he’s a 5-foot-9 ex-high school Wildcat quarterback.
Defensive coordinators can come up with strategic ways that, on paper, should put their players in position to stop Jackson from getting to the edges and getting comfortable in the pocket. What everyone has struggled to do is find any human who can replicate Jackson’s running and throwing abilities to properly prepare defenders for the whirlwind of history-making talent that awaits.
The New England Patriots never revealed who their Lamar Jackson was in practices because, well, even the NFL’s all-time most successful coach was stumped.
“We don’t have a guy,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “I don’t know if anybody else in the league has a guy, either.”
There is a team that has “a guy.” Luckily for the Ravens, they don’t ever have to face that team.
Re-signing Robert Griffin III as Jackson’s backup serves a couple of purposes. Baltimore has a dual-threat quarterback who can run its option offense, drop back to pass and …
“You could say the best player to run a scout team as Lamar is right here,” one Ravens official said.
The rest of the league is burdened in trying to locate a quarterback who’s as explosive as Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook, who rushed for 1,135 yards this season, and shows as much poise under pressure as Tom Brady.
This season, Jackson’s 93 rushes of at least 15 miles per hour are 20 more than any other player, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. His 23 touchdown passes against the blitz are the most in a season since ESPN began tracking those plays.
“The ability for the defense to have to defend every blade of grass, they make you do that every single play,” Rams scout team quarterback John Wolford told the team’s website. “[Head coach] Sean [McVay] said it today … one missed tackle and s—, he’s gone.”
The Buffalo Bills did better than any other team this season, limiting Jackson to a season-low 185 yards of total offense (including 40 yards rushing) while throwing three touchdowns.
Some of the Bills’ defenders credited the runs made in practice by practice squad wide receiver Ray-Ray McCloud, who has his own connection with Jackson. McCloud’s roommate at Clemson was Oakland Raiders cornerback Trayvon Mullen, who is Jackson’s cousin. Likely more helpful for the Bills is that McCloud ran the 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds and scored 58 touchdowns as a read-option quarterback in high school.
“I mean, there’s not a lot of guys on rosters around the NFL that can mimic what Lamar does,” Bills coach Sean McDermott said. “If you have them, they’re probably starting.”
In his first full season as an NFL starting quarterback, Jackson reshaped the expectations for a dual-threat QB. He led the NFL with 36 touchdown passes and finished No. 6 in the league with 1,206 yards rushing, a record for quarterbacks.
In an attempt to prepare their defense for Jackson, the Texans went with practice squad quarterback Alex McGough. The 49ers opted for returner Richie James. And the Rams picked Wolford, who, like Jackson, led a league in touchdown passes, albeit the AAF, after giving up a job on Wall Street to pursue professional football.
The problem with prepping for Jackson is that locating someone as athletic and strong-armed as him is only the first step. In order to run the Ravens offense as Jackson, you have to get down the precision of the system, from the snap to the option handoff and all the motions and fakes that go with it. It’s all about timing and ballhandling. It’s based on deception and misdirection.
“At the end of the day, I would say it’s almost impossible to simulate the speed and the tempo with which the Ravens do it,” Texans coach Bill O’Brien said.
“I did three or four plays,” Irwin said. “I tried to time up the motion on one of them, [the ball] hit the jet-sweep guy and I lost my job.”
Teams have tried all sorts of creative ways to beat Jackson, who is now 19-4 as an NFL starting quarterback (including playoffs). They take reps putting a spy or two on him. They practice playing more zone defense, so no one has to turn his back on Jackson.
There’s just a shock to the system when a defender goes from preparing for Jackson against a scout team to trying to get a hand on him during a game.
Why is that?
“There’s no other Lamar Jackson in the NFL,” Patriots safety Duron Harmon said.
ESPN NFL reporters Ben Baby, Sarah Barshop, Rich Cimini, Marcel Louis-Jacques, Brooke Pryor and Lindsey Thiry contributed to this story.