Ravens' John Harbaugh shared his New Year's Resolution of 'just win baby, just win.' Harbaugh talks about the signing of Jayron Kearse to the practice squad.
Early in a must-win game against the Dallas Cowboys last month, Ravens coach John Harbaugh had a tough call.
Facing a fourth-and-2 within field-goal range, he could bring on kicker Justin Tucker for a 50-plus-yard attempt. Or he could keep the offense on the field and trust Lamar Jackson, appearing in his first game in 16 days, to get the Ravens going.
Jackson made the decision easy for him. Before he would lead the Ravens to the brink of their third straight postseason appearance, the NFL’s reigning Most Valuable Player announced he was back with a wave of his hands and a flash of his feet.
After coming up short on third down, Jackson had looked over at the Ravens’ sideline and motioned for the field-goal unit to stay put, as if to ease their worries that he couldn’t do this himself. Thirty seconds later, he was slicing through the middle of the Cowboys defense, sprinting to the end zone on a 30-yard touchdown run.
Jackson struggled to contain his excitement. He started to celebrate 15 yards from the goal line, the ball bobbing in his hands as he surveyed Dallas’ trailing defenders. Once he scored, he looked as if he might launch it into M&T Bank Stadium’s upper deck. Instead, Jackson tucked the ball away and celebrated with a stadium worker. The Ravens, leading 7-3, were on the way back.
“Well, the one thing you do know about Lamar, you’re going to get everything he’s got,” Harbaugh said after the comfortable Week 13 win, which ended a three-game losing streak. “That’s really all you can ask for. He’s going to give you whatever he has, and it turned out that he had a lot tonight. That was good to see. I don’t think you could predict that.”
Ahead of Sunday’s regular-season finale against the Bengals (4-10-1), the Ravens (10-5) are right where most expected them to be. With a victory in Cincinnati, they’d clinch an AFC wild-card berth and enter the postseason as one of the NFL’s most dangerous teams. Over the past four weeks, only the Buffalo Bills have outscored their opponents by a greater margin than the Ravens.
Last January, Jackson stormed into the playoffs after one of the most impressive years in league history. This season, his dramatic past two months have defined the team’s unpredictable 2020 as much as anyone’s.
When the Ravens’ season started to wobble in November, Jackson was a culprit. When one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in sports depleted the Ravens’ roster around Thanksgiving, Jackson was among those infected. And when the Ravens’ season turned a corner in December, potentially toward a long-awaited postseason run, Jackson was at center stage, reestablishing himself as one of the NFL’s most electrifying players.
“I really don’t want to think about the year once it’s over with, to be honest,” Jackson said Wednesday, chuckling. “There’s been a lot going on this year. I really don’t want to think about it when 2021 comes, or the other years.”
In voting last week, Baltimore media named Jackson the team’s MVP for the second straight season, ahead of three teammates who had been named to the Pro Bowl. Jackson called it a team award, an honor that reflected the Ravens’ perseverance over “so much adversity.” He hadn’t forgotten how far they’d come.
Over the season’s first half, the Ravens didn’t look like the Super Bowl contenders they were supposed to be. In a narrow Week 8 home loss to the Steelers to open November, Jackson’s struggles mounted. He threw two interceptions, one of which Pittsburgh returned for a touchdown, and fumbled three times, losing one just yards short of the end zone.
Jackson had entered the year looking to move past a stunning playoff loss to the Tennessee Titans. He wanted to improve as a passer, eager to shed his label as a run-first quarterback. But after a coronavirus-shortened offseason, there were only glimpses of Jackson’s All-Pro form. His accuracy was off, his running was less productive, and his energy seemed sapped.
After an encouraging bounce-back win over the Indianapolis Colts a week later, the Ravens watched their season spiral. They lost amid a downpour to an underwhelming New England Patriots team. They surrendered a double-digit lead to the Titans at home. The season was 11 weeks old, and already they’d doubled their 2019 season’s loss total.
“It looked like that team wanted it more than us,” Jackson said after Tennessee’s overtime win, which dropped the Ravens to 6-4.
That was the last of Jackson most people saw for a while. A COVID-19 outbreak forced the Ravens to close their team facility, and on Thanksgiving Day — the day of the Ravens’ scheduled rematch with the undefeated Steelers — he tested positive for the virus.
In a statement released by the team last month, Ravens president Dick Cass said “at least four unique strains” of COVID-19 had entered their Owings Mills facility. Over 10 days, 23 Ravens were placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list after either contracting the virus or being exposed to it.
After a six-day delay that included three postponements, the Ravens entered their Dec. 2 game in Pittsburgh missing nine starters, including Jackson. The organization was later fined $250,000 for protocol violations linked to the outbreak, while head strength and conditioning coach Steve Saunders was suspended one month for his conduct.
“With a dangerous virus like this, everyone must comply with the protocol to avoid infecting many,” Cass said in the statement. “We now know that not everyone at the Ravens followed the protocol thoroughly.”
Jackson spent most of his self-quarantine sleeping, shaking off flu-like symptoms. Almost two weeks after he tested positive, he said he still hadn’t regained his sense of taste or smell. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman said the virus hit Jackson “pretty hard.”
His year had until then been saddled with professional disappointments — the playoff loss, an up-and-down 2020 — and personal loss. In October, he mourned on social media the passing of Anthony McCleod, 23, who died in a shooting in Jackson’s hometown of Pompano Beach, Florida. In November, he posted a tribute to Resley Estime, 21, who died after the ATV he was driving crashed into a car in Boynton Beach, where Jackson went to high school.
“Homie,” Jackson wrote in the Nov. 27 post on Instagram, adding a breaking-heart emoji.
The Ravens never needed Jackson more than when he returned. They’d fought valiantly in Pittsburgh, but a third straight loss dropped them to 6-5 overall and ninth in the conference standings, two spots out of the playoff field. Their final five weeks were manageable, but the margin for error was narrowing.
When Jackson emerged from the locker room at M&T Bank Stadium before his game against Dallas, bounding onto the field and embracing teammates as if he’d never left, he set the tone for the Ravens’ postseason push. A forgettable season — and a handful of Cowboys defenders — would soon be in the rearview mirror.
“You could tell he missed the game through that [week of] practice, and then through the game,” running back Gus Edwards said. “You could tell he was just having so much fun out there.”
“I just had to get back out there,” Jackson said. “It felt like I was away from it for so long, and it was only two weeks, and I’m not used to that at all. … It was like, ‘I need to get back out there, because we need to get back rolling.’ ”
Since his return in Week 13, Jackson has played “probably … better than anybody in the league,” Roman said Dec. 24. Over the past four games, Jackson has completed 69.5% of his passes, averaged 7.4 yards per carry and scored 12 touchdowns (eight passing, four rushing). Over 15 games in his record-breaking 2019, he completed 64.8% of his passes, averaged 6.9 yards per carry and scored 43 touchdowns (36 passing, seven rushing).
If the Ravens win their fifth straight game and secure a playoff berth Sunday, no night will epitomize their comeback season better than Dec. 14. In a wild Week 14 road win over the Browns, Jackson dealt with slippery cleats in the first half and debilitating cramps in the second. Facing a potentially crippling loss, he limped out of the locker room late in the fourth quarter to throw a go-ahead touchdown on fourth down. Then, after Cleveland scored, he needed just over a minute to lead a game-winning drive.
It was one of the most memorable performances of his young career, and Jackson seemed unmoved by the moment. In a postgame news conference, he joked about his cramps, pointed out the “little things” that needed fixing and said this was just another win, no more important than any others the Ravens had needed.
There had been worse days this season. And he hoped to have better ones, too.
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“He’s a guy that I’m always very proud of,” Harbaugh said Wednesday. “He’s a guy that can look tough situations squarely in the eye and try to figure out a way to overcome them. He never gets too down about anything; he’s always upbeat, and he always works hard. So those are the things that you appreciate about him.”