Two weeks ago, Lamar Jackson was worshiped in Charm City. The Baltimore Ravens rookie quarterback went into StubHub Center and beat the favored Los Angeles Chargers by a score of 22-10, earning the highest quarterback rating and throwing for the most passing yards (204) of his young career (not to mention running for 39 yards all by himself). In a must-win game, the youngster had proven his mettle. If babies born around Christmas of 2018 from Sinai to Johns Hopkins ended up with the name Lamar, it would surely come as no surprise. Such was the excitement in this defensive-minded, run-first team going into the playoffs with the youngest starting quarterback in NFL history.
And then came Sunday.
Everyone is entitled to a tough day at the office. Mr. Jackson just had his. To suggest he had an off-day would be an insult to both days and offs. It was a terrible day. “I feel like I played poorly,” he said afterward in what may have been the understatement of the year. He threw for 25 yards in the first three quarters against the Chargers in Sunday’s first-round playoff game. Twenty-five yards! In the NFL, that’s a poor performance for one quarter of a game. For three quarters, it’s a failure of epic proportions. And then there’s the matter of four turnovers — an interception and three fumbles. How fitting that he was stripped of the ball to end the game. It wasn’t just a mistake, it was emblematic of a day to remember, as in: remember to forget.
Whether this was an aberration or a warning of the speedy Mr. Jackson’s serious limits as a passer, we leave to sportswriters and the fan base to hash out as they are likely going to do for weeks, if not months, to come. Second-guessing is what football fans do. Veteran quarterback Joe Flacco’s fall from grace may have been undignified, but it is also something else: not uncommon. NFL franchises aren’t afforded the luxury of rebuilding years or returning injured starters to the lineup no matter the circumstances. Fans expect teams to win now, and the player most essential in that quest is the one who takes the offensive snaps.
That raises the question that is more suited to this page: How should Ravens fans react to what transpired at M&T Bank Stadium? They could focus on the starting quarterback’s shortcomings, or they might focus on the team’s surprising fourth quarter revival. Or — and this is where our point, like Mr. Jackson’s fourth quarter passing skills, finally shows up: They might consider that, in the big picture, the Ravens actually had a pretty remarkable season.
After their Week 9 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Nov. 4, the Ravens looked to be going nowhere. They had four wins and five losses. Mr. Flacco was injured. They were only the Cleveland Browns away from dead last in their division. Rumors surfaced that Coach John Harbaugh was slated to be fired. It was rock bottom. What happened next was really quite special. They won seven games and lost only one, an overtime match against the vaunted Kansas City Chiefs in Kansas City. The high water mark was surely the victory against the Chargers that few predicted. The Steelers were expected to win the AFC North; the Ravens did instead.
Sure, Ravens fans booed a bit during the playoff game. In Philadelphia, they boo Santa Claus. People who pay three-figure ticket prices are allowed to express their displeasure. Sorry, Jimmy Smith, but even Mr. Jackson’s closest friends might have been calling for Joe Flacco at some point in Sunday’s debacle. But then came the team’s remarkable, if belated, quarterback-led comeback that ultimately came up short.
Before the season started, experts did not have the Ravens going to the Super Bowl. The numbers crunchers at FiveThirtyEight had the Ravens with 8.2 wins and a rec room seat when the playoffs started. The website wrote back in early September that it would be “surprising to see Baltimore take the division for the first time since 2012.” Surprise! The team finished with 10 wins and that title. Fans can react to that success, and the playoff loss, as they want. But they should not deny themselves the satisfaction of knowing they exceeded expectations and seemed to have a lot of fun in the process. Kudos to the Ravens.