It only took future Hall of Famer Aaron Rodgers to validate the mixed feelings I experienced watching Lamar Jackson break away for that flashy, penalty-negated touchdown run in the Ravens’ 26-13 preseason victory over the Green Bay Packers on Thursday night.
Rodgers met Jackson on the field after the game and wished him good luck during the coming season, then gave him a piece of very good advice.
“He was like, enjoyed watching me play, hope I have a great season. … ’Keep down,’ ” Jackson said.
So, it isn’t just me and everyone I talk to around town who wants to see Jackson do everything he can to protect himself when he breaks out for one of those terrific plays that have already made him one of the most exciting players in the NFL. There appears to be fairly universal concern that he’s one awkward hit away from changing the whole competitive dynamic of the 2019 season.
Which brings us to those mixed feelings. Every time Jackson takes a snap, there is anticipation that something really special might happen … and there also is apprehension that something bad might happen at the other end of the play. He already means so much to the franchise that the Ravens really can’t afford to lose him even for a few games. But they also can’t afford to muzzle the instinctive aggressiveness that makes him the player he is.
The mixed feelings again. When he hurdled the last possible tackler on the way into the end zone on that first breakaway play of the preseason, it was the kind of electric moment you can’t wait to see during the regular season. But if you think this team has a chance to do great things when it counts, you don’t want to see him do it again in the remaining games that don’t.
“What are you going to do?” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said late Thursday night. “He’s going to play. He’s going to play football. We’re not trying to run him. It’s not like he’s trying to run, but sometimes … What are you going to do? You can’t hold him back forever.”
Of course you can’t, but you’ve got to make sure he’s ready to post when the Ravens open the regular season against the Miami Dolphins on Sept. 8 and when they open their home schedule the following week against the Arizona Cardinals.
The thing that has been most apparent about the Ravens during the first two preseason games is they just might have unprecedented depth across the board at the offensive skills positions. Except at quarterback.
They have enough running backs to weather an injury or two. The same goes for the wide receiver position. But there is no replacement for Jackson that would allow the Ravens to stay at the same competitive level for long.
Rookie Trace McSorley has looked good at times in practice and during the first two preseason games, but he’s not ready to start in the NFL. Robert Griffin III will be an adequate caretaker when he’s healthy enough to play, but he’s no longer a front-line starter. Jackson is the center of the Ravens’ universe and, whether he will admit that or not, he has to know it.
He probably has mixed feelings, too. He recognizes he has to protect himself and probably knows if he weren’t able to flash that otherworldly elusiveness in the open field on a regular basis, he probably wouldn’t be the starting quarterback of an NFL team at the tender age of 22.
The Ravens have largely kept him behind his offensive line to work on perfecting his throwing mechanics so far this preseason, but there is a school of thought that Jackson actually faces a higher likelihood of getting injured by a lineman rolling up on his ankle in the pocket than getting hit hard downfield.
When it comes right down to it, he says he’s aware of the risk, but in the heat of the moment he still has to be himself.
“If I’m out there with you one-on-one, I’ve got to make you miss,” he said. “That’s just me. That’s how I’ve always played. If I get tackled by one person, I’m mad. I feel like I lost the play. If I’m not passing it ... If I do decide to run, I’m trying for a touchdown or a first down. I’m not trying to get two yards and get tackled.”
Jackson, of course, dazzled all of us with his terrific play leading the Ravens to the playoffs during the second half of last season. He didn’t tiptoe around and proved he’s able to take a hit. So, maybe we all need to stop worrying and accept the fact that football is just a risky business.