The last time we saw Lamar Jackson in uniform for the 2020 season, he walked through a tunnel inside Buffalo’s Highmark Stadium with his head down and a medical attendant’s guiding hand on his back.
Moments earlier, the back of Jackson’s head had cracked into the turf after two Bills defenders chased him into the end zone. Another errant snap had prompted his desperate retreat, and the resulting concussion ended his season a quarter early. The Ravens trailed 17-3. Their quarterback’s final statistical line — 196 total yards, an interception, three sacks, no touchdowns — spoke to another dispiriting playoff failure.
This was not the way Jackson saw his story going. He had entered the season as the league’s reigning Most Valuable Player and No. 1 star, according to the NFL Network’s annual poll of players. He only needed a Super Bowl ring to top off his remarkable ascent, and he fully intended to win it, the Kansas City Chiefs, Tom Brady and COVID-19 be darned. Instead, he was back on the brink as he walked down that tunnel in Buffalo in January, knowing he would endure another offseason chorused by critics who’d question his ability to win the big one.
This is Jackson’s burden as he approaches his fourth NFL season. At age 24, he already has the Heisman Trophy, the MVP award and a highlight reel most players in league history would kill for. But he has said over and over that without a Super Bowl, all of it will ring hollow. So he spends his days judging himself and being judged by the unforgiving standard he established. His three playoff losses live on in his mind, leaving him “ticked off” months and years later.
Every week, it seems, another analyst pulls out his knife to dissect Jackson’s flaws. Recently, it was ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler reporting that his sources around the league “say this might be the year that everybody figures out Lamar Jackson.” Never mind that Fowler’s colleague, former NFL safety Ryan Clark, contorted his face in disbelief at this notion.
Jackson’s ranking in the NFL Network poll slipped to No. 24. He did not make Pro Football Focus’ top 50 list, with analyst Sam Monson writing that he was “a cautionary tale about expecting someone to develop onward and upward each year.”
Jackson figures the only way to quiet such talk is to be the quarterback clutching the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the season. It remains his obsession, something he talks about in almost every media session.
“I’m trying to win a Super Bowl,” he said. “MVPs and stuff like that, having winning records and stuff, that’s cool, but I want to bring a Lombardi here myself. Everybody else got one. The quarterback before me had one — Joe [Flacco]. … So, I want to come in and win one, so I can feel accomplished and be like, ‘OK, we did that! I won one. My teammates, we stepped it up. We did what we were supposed to do.’ Then I can sit back when I have grandkids and stuff and be like, ‘Yes, we did that,’ and talk my trash like old heads do — talk my trash to the young generation [about] what we did. So, that’s what I’m trying to do — win a Super Bowl. Then, we can talk about legacy.”
Beyond the questions regarding Jackson’s on-field trajectory, he and Ravens officials have faced a newer barrage of inquiries about their plans to negotiate a lucrative extension. The topic gained steam again in early August, when Bills quarterback and fellow 2018 first-round pick Josh Allen agreed to a six-year, $258 million deal.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh and general manager Eric DeCosta have said there’s no rush with Jackson under contract through the 2022 season and the franchise tag available as an emergency tool if negotiations prove difficult.
“[It’s] nothing we’re going to comment on right now. Eric [DeCosta] is not going to comment on it either,” Harbaugh said after Allen signed his deal. “Nothing has changed in the sense of it’ll happen when it’s going to happen [and] when it’s best for both sides to happen. Both sides want it to happen. There’s really not a hurry on it. Lamar is going to be our quarterback for many years to come. We want him, he wants us.”
Jackson offered a similar answer when asked to compare his situation to Allen’s: “That’s good for him, but like I said, I’m not worried about that. … I’m worried about my teammates, and we’re trying to get somewhere. So, the time will come about that.”
Of more immediate concern is the quarterback’s vaccination status. He missed the start of training camp after contracting COVID-19 for the second time in nine months, and he has not publicly committed to getting the shot, even though the virus cost him a game last season.
Jackson said he was “heartbroken” when he tested positive on the eve of training camp, but when pressed about his vaccination plans, he said: “I feel it’s a personal decision. I’m just going to worry about that with my family. I’m going to keep my feelings to my family and myself. … I can’t dwell on that right now — how everybody else feels.”
With so much going on in Jackson’s world, it has been easy to overlook the football component, which he’ll tell you is always the real point.
By most standards, he played well in 2020, completing 64.4% of his passes, limiting his interceptions to nine, rushing for 1,005 yards and securing his first playoff win with a dazzling 48-yard touchdown sprint. But he did not handle pressure as well or find the end zone as relentlessly as he had in 2019, and the playoff debacle in Buffalo left a lingering bad taste.
The Ravens answered by redesigning the offensive line that had failed to protect Jackson against the Bills and by adding a pair of high-profile targets in first-round pick Rashod Bateman and veteran free agent Sammy Watkins. The talk going into training camp was that he’d never been surrounded by so much skill-position talent, though injuries quickly thinned out the wide receiver room. Bateman suffered the worst setback — groin surgery that will keep him out for the start of the season.
Jackson gathered with his receivers for offseason workouts in Arizona and Florida, but he’s spoken only vaguely about the improvements he sought to make in his time away from the Ravens’ training facility. He has said he intensified his work as the start of training camp drew near.
When he was shelved by COVID-19, for example, he threw 20-yard passes to his cousins in the backyard of his Baltimore County home, practicing the footwork he’s tried to hone with Ravens quarterbacks coach James Urban and personal throwing consultant Adam Dedeaux.
“That’s a big emphasis for me — just working on my footwork, making sure I stay open so the ball can drive, so I can put a little tight spiral on the ball,” he said.
Urban urged him to think like the greatest NBA players, who seem to come back with a new move or skill after each offseason. “A guy who plays at a very high level and then you just continue to grow his game,” the quarterbacks coach said. “Michael Jordan comes to mind. He had to learn jump shots. So, you learn a jump shot, and you just keep expanding your game that way.”
Jackson threw with noticeable zip after returning to practice in the second week of August, bouncing around with his usual magnetic energy as teammates trudged through daily routines. If the weight of his world pressed in on him, no one could tell.
“You all know I love Lamar,” Ravens tight end Mark Andrews said. “He’s an extremely talented quarterback, with an arm, and he’s throwing the ball … I always think he throws the ball incredible. But yes, he’s slinging the rock, man. He’s putting the ball right where it needs to be, and he’s locked in. He’s more focused than he’s ever been.”