Several months ago, Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson was a candidate to become the NFL’s Most Valuable Player. Now, he’s become one of the league’s great mysteries.
The only question remaining in 2021 is if he can save the Ravens’ playoff hopes with two regular-season games remaining.
Unfortunately, no one knows the answer. Entering Wednesday, the last time the fourth-year quarterback stepped on the field was when he was being carted into the locker room during the first half of a 24-22 loss to the Browns in Cleveland on Dec. 12. He disappeared as fast as he did when being chased by Browns defensive ends Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney.
We’ve heard a lot of speculation about Jackson’s injury during his absence. At first it was a high ankle sprain, which became a low ankle sprain a day later. Then it was a bone bruise that ultimately kept him off the field for two games. Mixed in with all of these rumors about viruses, his disappearance was starting to become a mystery.
But Jackson was back on the practice field Wednesday. His participation was limited, and coach John Harbaugh will know more about his availability for Sunday’s game against the Los Angeles Rams on Thursday depending on how well the ankle responds to practice.
The Ravens, though, need Jackson to put on his Superman cape again. They’ve lost four straight and are currently outside of the AFC playoff picture. The injuries have continued to mount, and their secondary is abysmal. The Rams (11-4) are one of the best teams in the NFL with two of the game’s top pass rushers in defensive tackle Aaron Donald and outside linebacker Von Miller.
After playing the Rams, the Ravens (8-7) close out the regular season with a visit from Pittsburgh in what will probably be the last career game for Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
If there is ever a time for Superman to appear, the time is now.
“I’m really hopeful,” Harbaugh said of Jackson’s potential return. “I’m hopeful for all our quarterbacks, starting with Lamar. I really want to see him out there on Sunday. I know the fans do and I know most of all, Lamar does. He’s going to do everything he can to be out there. You can’t make a promise because we don’t know what tomorrow is going to bring.”
The Ravens need Jackson to play like he did in the first six games of the season, when he completed 137 of 199 passes for 1,640 yards and 11 touchdowns. He also rushed for 392 yards and was mentioned in the same breath with quarterbacks Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Josh Allen in the MVP conversation.
But then Jackson started to falter. Many will point to the Ravens’ 22-10 loss to Miami on Nov. 11 as the beginning of his problems. On that Thursday night, he completed 26 of 43 passes for 238 yards, rushed for 39 yards and was sacked four times. But Jackson’s accuracy problems began Oct. 24 in a 41-17 loss to the Bengals, when he completed 15 of 31 passes for 257 yards.
Cincinnati’s victory showed that the Ravens’ offensive line had problems matching up with more athletic defensive fronts. Miami’s game plan revealed Jackson’s struggles against pressure and blitzes. Because the NFL is a copycat league, the Ravens have had to counter both. In Jackson’s last start against Cleveland, he was hesitant and looked uncomfortable in the pocket.
Since then, the Ravens have modified their offensive game plan. Both backup quarterbacks, Huntley and Josh Johnson, have played well and put some life into the passing game. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman has stuck with short, safe quick passes.
Maybe it’s because the Ravens gave Huntley and Johnson fewer options. Maybe it’s because Jackson didn’t make quick decisions. One thing is certain: when you watch Jackson play, sometimes he isn’t ready to throw quickly.
That’s all part of the intrigue of having Jackson return as the starter because he wasn’t playing well before the injury. With any starter out for an extended period of time, there is a certain amount of rust that accumulates that only can be removed with playing time.
There are also other factors involved. The Ravens struggle pass blocking no matter who is playing quarterback, and this offensive line won’t get any better. It also remains to be seen how well Jackson can cut and make defenders miss on that ankle. When he is in the lineup, the Ravens have a running game because he is the running game.
He also gives them that big-play ability by either breaking off a long run or throwing downfield.
“Obviously, getting No. 8 back is special because he’s a special player,” tight end Mark Andrews said.
Before the injury, most Ravens fans wanted Jackson to sign a long-term contract because his current rookie deal expires after the 2022 season. After watching Huntley and even Johnson play, some have changed their minds and want the Ravens to make Huntley the starter and invest money in other areas of the team.
That’s irrelevant at this point. With a defense that lacks a consistent pass rush and a top cornerback, the Ravens need a top playmaker on offense, and that’s Jackson.
He might not be as effective as he was earlier in the year, but few players are near the end of the season. If he plays well, it’s great for the Ravens, especially if he can rescue their playoff hopes.
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If not, the situation around him becomes even more puzzling.