Jackson set to go in role of go-to guy

July 31, 1996|By John Eisenberg

New team, new town, new coach, new offense.

In the dizzying spin of change that carried a football team from Cleveland to Baltimore, several players profited in particular.

There was no bigger winner than Michael Jackson, the wide receiver for the Ravens.

The front office's decision to cut Andre Rison promoted Jackson to the feature role in the passing game.

And Ted Marchibroda's offense, more adventuresome and unpredictable than Bill Belichick's, promises to get the ball downfield to everyone more often.

Put simply, Jackson's time has come.

"He'll be our go-to guy, if there is one," Marchibroda said.

Jackson, 27, has never been in that position before, although he has caught 170 balls and 28 touchdown passes in five seasons.

Is he up to the challenge of being the big man?

"I've never felt that I didn't have an important role," he said after a training-camp workout at the team's Owings Mills complex yesterday. "But my hope is that I have an even bigger role this year."

Tall and slender at 6 feet 4 and 195 pounds, with a shaved head and a gold hoop earring in his left ear, Jackson is assured of that bigger role. His new coach praised him abundantly yesterday.

"Michael is very impressive," Marchibroda said. "He is a veteran receiver with good size, speed and quickness. He's also intelligent and has good football instincts."

Anything else?

"Doesn't leave much out, does it?" Marchibroda said.

Why is it, then, that Jackson has never been to the Pro Bowl or raised a higher profile?

For starters, he entered the NFL in 1991 as a sixth-round draft choice from Southern Mississippi, hardly the classic springboard fame.

The Browns also had Webster Slaughter and Eric Metcalf early in his career, then signed Rison before last season.

rTC The only son of the police chief of Tangipahoa, La., a small town north of New Orleans, Jackson is one of those players who has always had more famous teammates. His college quarterback was Brett Favre. He was offered only one college scholarship.

Unlike the famous pop star who bears the same name, Jackson has always sung backup.

It was in keeping with that pattern when the Browns signed Rison before last season and suggested that Rison was the last piece of their Super Bowl puzzle. Jackson said he did not take the move personally, but how could he not when the Browns were all but saying that he wasn't a game-breaker?

As it turned out, Rison struggled in Belichick's offense and wound up catching 47 passes, only three of them for touchdowns. Jackson caught 44 passes and had a career-high nine touchdowns.

"I liked playing with Andre," Jackson said. "As far as him leaving, there are a lot of politics in this sport and I don't pay any attention."

The Ravens abruptly cut Rison before training camp after he refused to take a pay cut to help the team get under the salary cap. Marchibroda insisted yesterday that only financial considerations led to the move, but didn't deny that he was happy to have a more predictable go-to receiver.

As talented as Rison was, he tended to break patterns and improvise. Jackson, known for running precise routes, is better suited to Marchibroda's offense.

"I am [happy], the quarterback is, everyone is," Marchibroda said. "I liked Rison. He was here during minicamp and had a great attitude. He's a good guy to have on your side. It just didn't work out, and we thought we could go in another direction."

Rison's departure presents a trade-off of sorts for Jackson. He will have a more prominent role, but also more attention from defensive backs. The Ravens' other starting receiver is Derrick Alexander, who caught only 15 passes last season.

"I know I'm going to see more double-teams now," Jackson said. "But I'll take on anything."

It should help to play for Marchibroda instead of Belichick, whose offense was conservative and unimaginative.

"Maybe now we won't have a situation where we'll come up to the line and the opponents know the play we're going to run and even the fans know the play we're going to run," Jackson said. "This [offense] is more open."

And precise.

"Absolutely," Jackson said. "If you take a wrong step here, the pass hits you on the head."

Married with two young children, Jackson is quickly evolving into one of the Ravens' team leaders. He has taken on the project of tutoring the younger Alexander in the nuances of the receiving game.

"It seems like I just started my career, but now I'm actually one of the oldest guys around here," he said. "That brings responsibilities."

Of all kinds.

Like being the go-to receiver, at last.

"My job here is to be the leading scorer and leading receiver," he said. "I look forward to that."

Pub Date: 7/31/96

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