CANTON, OHIO — The Ravens began their 2018 preseason with a former Heisman Trophy winner under center. He just wasn’t the Heisman winner everyone had waited four months to watch on an NFL field.
The man with the keys to a revamped offense was former NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Robert Griffin III, signed as a potential backup quarterback before the Ravens used a first-round draft pick on the newer model, Lamar Jackson.
Jackson was in uniform Thursday evening and made his pro debut later in the Ravens’ 17-16 Hall of Fame Game win over the Chicago Bears. But fans, who’d traveled from Baltimore to watch Ravens great Ray Lewis be inducted into the Pro Football of Fame on Saturday, had to wait to watch the next potential face of the franchise.
Griffin played most of the first half against the Bears, leading the Ravens to a 10-7 lead. And even Josh Woodrum, fourth on the team’s quarterback depth chart, entered the game before Jackson.
The Louisville sensation finished the first half right where he started it, on the sideline with his helmet clamped on his head.
Fans greeted Jackson with an enthusiastic ovation when he entered the game to start the second half. He scrambled twice for 5 yards on a three-and-out first drive. But he gave the crowd something real to cheer about after a strip by rookie safety DeShon Elliott gave the Ravens the ball on Chicago’s 36-yard line.
With a breathtaking run and several deftly placed passes, Jackson drove the Ravens to the end zone, capping the drive with an 8-yard touchdown strike to fellow first-round pick Hayden Hurst. It’s a combination the Ravens hope to hear from for many years.
Hurst and Jackson room together on the road, and Hurst said they discussed the possibility of a touchdown connection on Thursday morning.
“I’m happy it happened with Lamar,” Hurst said of his first NFL score. “I hope it’s a sign of things to come.”
On the next drive, Jackson looked like the rookie he is, hanging a too-soft pass toward the sideline that was intercepted by Bears cornerback Doran Grant. Jackson finished 4-for-10 for 33 yards, a touchdown and an interception while running eight times for 25 yards.
Jackson said he quickly noticed the speed of the pro game, even in an exhibition against backup players.
“You can’t jog,” he said, grinning. “You can’t jog at all.”
Given that inevitable adjustment, Ravens coach John Harbaugh said he was pleased with Jackson’s debut.
“The first task we gave him was to operate the offense, and he did. He got the plays called, he got people lined up, he got snap counts off,” Harbaugh said. “As a rookie quarterback out there for the first time, handling the whole offense, I thought he did a very good job. And that’s really what I asked him to do. We’ll build from that.”
Jackson’s anticipated debut dominated headlines not just in Baltimore but across the NFL world this week as fans and analysts speculated how the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner would adapt to the professional game.
Those who’ve watched Jackson at Ravens practices know he’s a work in progress whose passes often flutter or miss the intended target. But that hasn’t stopped chatter about when he’ll take the starting quarterback job from Joe Flacco.
There was no comparison to be made Thursday as Flacco sat out along with most of the Ravens’ starters.
With Flacco and Jackson guaranteed to make the 53-man roster, Griffin is trying to convince the Ravens to carry a third quarterback or at least look good enough to draw interest from another team after he did not play in 2017.
Griffin threw an interception on the Ravens’ first drive of the game, but the pass bounced off the hands of receiver Breshad Perriman.
That turnover set up a quick touchdown drive for the Bears.
Starting tight end Nick Boyle also dropped a Griffin pass on the team’s second drive. But Griffin rebounded with 23-yard completion to running back Gus Edwards off a rollout and a 12-yard strike to Boyle over the middle. He finished the drive with a 5-yard touchdown pass to tight end Maxx Williams for the Ravens’ first points of the new season.
Aside from that drive, the Ravens offensive line, playing without projected starters Ronnie Stanley, James Hurst and Marshal Yanda, struggled to protect Griffin against a Chicago defense comprised mostly of second- and third-stringers. Offensive line depth was a problem for the team going into training camp, and Thursday’s performance only reinforced that concern.
Griffin was sacked three times and driven from the pocket several others before leaving the game midway through the second quarter. He completed seven of 11 passes for 58 yards.
“It’s a blessing,” he said of his return to the field after a year away. “People don’t understand that once you’re out of the league for a year, it’s really hard to get back in, especially if you’re a quarterback and a high draft pick, it’s just really hard to do. Today was an emotional day for me, just coming back out here. I know it’s the preseason, it’s the Hall of Fame Game, but to have an opportunity to come back out here and play football is something that I really cherish.”
Griffin had to make his case without help from any of the team’s top three receivers — Michael Crabtree, John Brown and Willie Snead IV. They were among more than 20 Ravens who watched the preseason opener from the sideline without donning pads.
The absences were no surprise given Harbaugh’s promise of a slow beginning to the team’s extended preseason.
The Ravens defense generally outplayed the offense, as linebacker Kamalei Correa made his case for a roster spot with three sacks, an interception and a forced fumble. Starting linebacker Patrick Onwuasor delivered hits all over the field.
Before the game, the guest of honor, Lewis, kicked off the festivities in classic fashion, performing his trademark dance for an appreciative crowd before he slapped hands with the current Ravens during introductions.
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For all the excitement about Jackson, Lewis’ No. 52 still predominated in the purple sections of the crowd, a reminder of the playoff glory the Ravens hope to recapture.