Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson are the new faces of the NFL. Despite the high standard of quarterbacks playing in the league right now, it's clear who the two best players are. Mahomes and Jackson share the same conference and both play for well-run franchises. Their success is sustainable and their primetime matchups are inevitable.
Tom Brady and Peyton Manning's rivalry defined the NFL for more than a decade. The two will face off in a golf competition this weekend. Brady is still in the league, but he's no longer at the forefront of it. Manning is closer to his hall of fame induction than his NFL career. For the first time since 2014 (Manning's final year of elite performance), the league has a comparable pair of quarterbacks.
Patrick Mahomes just won the Super Bowl. He did so in dramatic fashion. He orchestrated comebacks from double-digit deficits in all three of his playoff games. Mahomes was superhuman when it mattered most, taking the punishment of the best defence in the league on the biggest stage. Mahomes is the youngest quarterback to ever win a league MVP and Super Bowl MVP. He's firmly established himself as the league's biggest star after just three seasons.
Lamar Jackson is one year behind Mahomes. The league's reigning MVP, Jackson showed off all the athleticism of Michael Vick but with a passing skillset close to that of Drew Brees. Jackson guided the Ravens to the best record in the AFC last year and accounted for over 500 yards in the playoff loss against the Titans.
There are plenty of great quarterbacks in the league right now—Aaron Rodgers, Dak Prescott, Russell Wilson—but Mahomes and Jackson are the biggest stars. And neither of them are even 25 years old yet.
Bleacher Report pitted the two quarterbacks against each other this week. The result was 4-3 in favour of Mahomes. It's a question that's going to come up a lot over the coming years. The surface-level argument is easily made in Mahomes' favour. The two quarterbacks have faced each other twice, the Chiefs have won both games. Jackson has lost both of his playoff games so far whereas Mahomes just won the Super Bowl. Mahomes is closer to that of a traditional quarterback because he doesn't run as often. That argument has become more prominent since Robert Griffin III's injuries derailed his career.
Surface-level arguments aren't all that useful. You don't catch the best fish in the upper layer of the ocean. When you look deeper into those arguments, they fall apart quickly.
Mahomes' Chiefs have beaten Jackson's Ravens twice. Both games were in Kansas City. The first was a three-point victory against a rookie Jackson, the second was a five-point victory when the Ravens offensive coordinator called the worst game of his career. The Ravens get to play the Chiefs at home this season. Mahomes did just win the Super Bowl and he was great during the playoffs. 12 months ago, when he was two years into his career like Jackson is now, he lost to the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. That loss didn't invalidate the MVP-calibre season he had back then. It's true that Jackson runs the ball a lot more than Mahomes, but him being a great runner doesn't automatically mean he's a lesser passer.
And that's the key.
Jackson brings a dimension that Mahomes doesn't bring. Mahomes is better within the pocket, but only marginally better. Jackson makes up for that difference with his ability to break off huge gains and how he impacts defensive assignments in the running game. Regardless of who is the better quarterback, both players are on the same level. This is splitting hairs between the two best players in the NFL right now. It's a bit of a pointless exercise, but it's an intriguing pointless exercise at least.
The first thing to address with Jackson is the idea that he's reliant on his legs. That's simply not the case. Off The Ball previously addressed this misnomer during the regular season. For the full season, Jackson was 61.9% accurate when playing in obvious passing situations. Mahomes was 63.7% accurate in those situations, he ranked fourth in the league while Jackson ranked sixth. If we isolate throws to the first down line on third downs (Third down and at least five yards), Jackson actually moves ahead of Mahomes. Jackson was 59.1% accurate, eighth-best in the league. Mahomes was 54.8% accurate, 13th in the league.
Let's move to a greater extreme. Let's look at third down plays where the first down line is 10+ yards away.
When throwing to the first down line on those plays, Jackson was 60% accurate and Mahomes was 39.1% accurate. Jackson ranked fifth in the league, Mahomes ranked 25th. These are small samples. They are very specific plays, plays that put the quarterback too far away from the first down line to scramble which exposes him to the defence's full range of blitzes. Play action is also not a factor when it's Third-and-10+. We can look at greater sample sizes and still make adjustments to take away Jackson's impact.
A common misconception of Jackson is that he relies on play action to be effective. Ironically, Jackson was actually far more accurate throwing without play-action than he was throwing with play-action last year. His skill set is such that his foot placement within the pocket and his intelligence diagnosing coverages are his greatest strengths. Where Robert Griffin III was a strong arm, an accurate passer and a sprinter playing quarterback, Jackson is a nuanced quarterback who just happens to be able to run very fast.
Without play-action last year, Jackson was 60% accurate. Mahomes was 59.4% accurate. They were next to each other in the top 10 of the league. Mahomes was a better passer off of play-action. He moved to 62.5% whereas Jackson dropped to 56.7%.
Mahomes was better than Jackson against the blitz last season. Blitzing Mahomes was a thankless task for every defensive coordinator that tried to. He is a master of his own offensive scheme and his mind moves so quickly that it's extremely difficult to surprise him. The ball comes out before the receivers are open. It comes out so quickly that the blitz can't get home even when it works perfectly. Mahomes was 63.9% accurate against the blitz with a 0.8% interceptable pass rate against blitzes. Jackson was 57.3% accurate with a 1.6% interceptable pass rate. Both were very good against the blitz.
Jackson was sharp against the blitz, just not as sharp as Mahomes. Mahomes was sharp against three-man rushes, just not as sharp as Jackson. Jackson's patience and comfort within the confines of the pocket have been startling so far. Young quarterbacks, especially young quarterbacks with elite athleticism, typically aren't willing to wait in the pocket. Jackson is never prematurely forcing his way out of the pocket. Defences tried to let him beat himself with three-man rushes on 23 of his pass attempts last season. Jackson threw 21 accurate passes and didn't have an interceptable pass. He was regularly responding to a three-man rush with a deep throw too, as Jackson's depth-adjusted accuracy ranked fourth in the league.
No matter how you chop and change the data or evaluate the performances of each quarterback, a large gap between the two will never form.
Jackson was the better quarterback over the whole of last season. Mahomes turned it on during the playoff run but didn't have the greatest regular season. Even before his knee injury at midseason, he was playing very well, not superhuman like he had the previous year, just very well. Choosing between the two quarterbacks is pointless because no matter which one you get, the only way you don't win multiple Super Bowls is if you sabotage yourself. Tony Dungy and the Colts failed to win more than one with Peyton Manning. That wasn't a reflection on Manning, it was a reflection on the Colts' inferior team-building practices compared to the Patriots' team-building practices.
It's inarguable that Mahomes has more great tape than Jackson has. Jackson only played half of his rookie season and although he was outstanding as a rookie, he was still a developing player. The counter-argument to Mahomes having more tape is that Jackson took a significant step forward from year one to year two. Jackson won't turn 24 until 2021, Mahomes will turn 25 at the start of this season. The relative youth of Jackson is definitely a factor in how much better he can become.
Separating Tom Brady and Peyton Manning always required a nuanced exploration of their skillsets, their performances and the context around those performances. Jackson and Mahomes are no different.
All data used in this article was sourced from QBDataMine.