The most high-profile offseason of Lamar Jackson’s young NFL career was defined, in one sense, by what he did not or could not do.
There was the footage of the Ravens quarterback eluding would-be defenders on a South Florida beach last month, only to end up tumbling over an idling Jet Ski. He emerged dripping but unscathed. “I did not run into a Jet Ski,” he said Wednesday, chuckling. “I jumped over the Jet Ski, fell in the water.”
There was the $500 million-plus contract signed this month by Kansas City Chiefs quarterback and NFL champion Patrick Mahomes, who’d preceded Jackson as the league’s Most Valuable Player. “I’ve just got to win me a Super Bowl,” said Jackson, who’s not eligible for an extension until 2021. “I don’t really focus on what he has going on, because I still got to prove myself.”
And there was the coronavirus pandemic that kept him mostly holed up in Broward County, a summer without organized team activities or “Madden” video game photo shoots or many of the luxuries afforded one of the NFL’s most outstanding players.
Jackson addressed Baltimore-area reporters for the first time in over three months Wednesday from a team studio over a Zoom conference call, his face mask and bottle of hand sanitizer at the ready. It didn’t feel like the second day of training camp, even though, technically, it was. Teammates were mostly scattered around Baltimore, awaiting test results. Padded practices were still more than two weeks away.
That is the environment into which Jackson steps, an unprecedented quarterback approaching an unpredictable season. It is a “Super Bowl or bust” kind of year in Baltimore, and yet Jackson has had less power than ever to change the narrative around him. After two straight playoff losses to open his career, Jackson can’t control what people say about him any more than he can the public health crisis that’s kept him from strapping on a helmet.
“I’ve just got to go out there and do my job,” Jackson said. “I’m going to go out there and win games, make it to the playoffs. But our job is to focus on the Cleveland Browns [in Week 1] right now. I can’t really dwell on the playoffs. …
“My rookie season, people didn’t expect us to go to the playoffs at all, and last year, none of us expected us to lose [to the Tennessee Titans]. They came out. They played well. We didn’t. But now, we’ve just got to focus on the Cleveland Browns, and then when we get back to the playoffs, we’ll go from there.”
The bridge between here and there is still being built. The NFL officially canceled preseason games Monday — “I’m cool with it,” Jackson said — and two Ravens have already opted out of the 2020 season. No more than 14,000 fans will be allowed inside M&T Bank Stadium if and when the regular season kicks off in mid-September. Even with proactive testing expected to limit COVID-19 transmission, social distancing will be impossible in a full-contact sport.
Jackson doesn’t know what 2020 will look like because nobody does. His first step toward a strange season was a novel but important one: testing negative for the coronavirus. “And [I’m] going to keep it that way,” he said. “I’m the new ‘Bubble Boy.’ "
Jackson does know, though, where he must improve: on downfield and sideline throws. He even offered a suggestion for how the front office could help him there. “It was nice throwing to Antonio Brown” in Florida, Jackson said, referring to his offseason workouts with the embattled but talented wide receiver. “I was hoping we would get him. I’m still hoping, a little bit.”
But Jackson mostly held back from any predictions for how his third season would unfold. Would he run less after setting the NFL’s single-season rushing record for a quarterback? “If plays break down, no one’s open, then I’ll do my thing.”
Did he expect teams to change how they defended him? “I can’t call it. I’ve just got to do a better job at making myself better, making our team better.”
And how did Mahomes’ record-breaking deal change his perception of his own skyrocketing value? “When that time comes, yeah, we can negotiate after the Super Bowl. But until then, I’m focused on winning right now.”
Jackson has done that like few quarterbacks in NFL history. He is 19-3 in his 1½ seasons as a starter. Last year, he became the league’s second-ever unanimous MVP, passing for 36 touchdowns and rushing for seven on a team that closed out 2019 with 12 straight wins. Even if the Ravens and their offense are due for a regression, it is possible that their talismanic quarterback will be a better all-around player. He is still only 23.
“I’m going to keep working hard,” Jackson said. “My second year’s done with. It’s over with. But I’ve got to focus on this season. Last year’s in the past. It fell short. It didn’t end how I wanted it to end. ... I’ve just got to do better. There’s always room for improvement, and I’ve just got to keep grinding, working on everything — passing, running ability, everything. And I feel like the sky’s the limit for not just me, but the team, the whole organization.”
Jackson’s most persistent opponent might be time itself. He waited seven long months for the chance to get back to work in Owings Mills. It’s another six-plus months until Super Bowl LV. In a season that could go anywhere, he’ll be judged by when and where his ends.