When it comes time to decide if star quarterback Lamar Jackson needs to be removed from a game once the outcome has been decided, Ravens coach John Harbaugh needs to proceed with caution.
Harbaugh, in his 13th season, drew criticism for leaving Jackson in until just over four minutes remained in the Ravens' 38-6 season-opening victory against the Cleveland Browns on Sunday. Jackson continued to play even though the Ravens had built the final margin of victory on a 2-yard touchdown run by J.K. Dobbins with 13:06 left in the fourth quarter.
Days after the game, Harbaugh defended his decision, but there was no need. For any coach, a big lead is never enough. They always feel threatened regardless of the score or time remaining. Plus, the Ravens, like every other NFL team, had not played a preseason game, so it was a good opportunity to get in rhythm.
Coaches also like to set the tone early in the season. They want to send a message to the league about how good their team is while also developing that fourth-quarter killer instinct. The Ravens needed and wanted to savor this feel-good moment in the opener.
Now that it’s over, Harbaugh and Jackson have to be careful.
The Ravens are going to have several more blowout victories this season. Last year, they won nine games by 14 or more points, including three straight by 30 or more. They outscored their opponents by a league-leading 249 points. Other teams might have gotten better, but so did the Ravens, who are still one of the youngest teams in the NFL.
The Ravens need to develop a sound Lamar Jackson exit strategy.
“We didn’t have preseason games, so that was my first time getting tackled since January,” Jackson said Wednesday. “I felt we needed that. Coach knows what he’s doing, so it is what it is. You can get hurt any time. I’m good. I came out of the game 100%, so it’s fine.”
It’s fine this time, but it might not be the next. True, all players are at risk, but the more times you run a receiver over the middle, the greater his chances of getting hurt.
The assumption here is that Harbaugh and Jackson have talked about taking risks several times. That’s a gimmie. Harbaugh, as well as every Ravens fan, probably cringed when Jackson lowered his head to take on a tackler early in the fourth quarter. But Harbaugh can only criticize Jackson so much publicly because both are so competitive and hard-headed.
That’s what is so scary.
When Harbaugh publicly defends his decisions, that means he is going to stick with it. It happened with the fourth-down situations last year. He was going to go for it regardless of how deep the offense was in opposing territory and despite having the best kicker in the history of the league on the roster.
And don’t let him bring out the analytics. Oh no, not the analytics. He started on those Monday about how many teams take out their quarterback with ten minutes left in the game.
I get it. I understand the decision in the Cleveland game.
But did Jackson really have to drop back and pass on three of the next four plays after the Ravens built a 32-point lead? Wasn’t it risky with guard D.J. Fluker playing left tackle in place of injured All-Pro Ronnie Stanley and facing one of the league’s best pass rushers in Browns defensive end Myles Garrett?
That’s where caution is needed. Coaches and coordinators stay in attack mode just about every minute of a game, and sometimes they can’t slow it down. They aren’t wired that way.
Neither is Jackson.
He thinks he is Stretch Armstrong, the gel-filled action figure. But this is the NFL, not Louisville. Jackson likes being a playmaker. He likes being on the “SportsCenter” Top 10 plays and having his offensive linemen think he is one of the guys.
But he isn’t. Offensive linemen can be replaced, but Jackson can’t. The Ravens can’t get to the Big One without him.
Maybe Harbaugh should sit down with Jackson and show him a tape of former Pittsburgh Steelers running back Franco Harris, who played 13 seasons in the NFL. Harris was 6 feet 2 and 230 pounds, but when he got close to the sideline, he ran out of bounds.
Contact wasn’t his thing.
Harris finished his career with 12,120 rushing yards, earned nine Pro Bowl appearances and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. More importantly, he was a Super Bowl champion four times.
No one is asking Harbaugh or Jackson to be passive. That’s when you really increase the chances of getting hurt.
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But there is a time and place for everything, and common sense is required at all times.