The first five years of Lamar Jackson’s career in Baltimore have been as thrilling as they have been tumultuous. There’s been triumph and trepidation.
Now, a new chapter, one in which the Ravens and their star quarterback can have only one outcome for it to be considered a successful marriage.
Four months ago, Baltimore made Jackson, a generational talent with a dynamic skill set, one of the richest men in the NFL, signing him to a five-year, $260 million extension that makes him the third-highest-paid quarterback per year in the league.
That’s not all. They’ve surrounded him with the best collection of offensive talent he has had during his tenure, most notably superstar wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and highly touted first-round draft pick receiver Zay Flowers. They’ve overhauled the scheme with the hiring of offensive coordinator Todd Monken, who in the same role with the University of Georgia helped the Bulldogs win two straight national championships with one of the most prolific offenses in college football history. And they’ve given Jackson more say in the offense, in its design and his control in play-calling.
“I’m stepping into my prime right now,” Jackson told The Baltimore Sun, then naming some of the players around him, including All-Pro tight end Mark Andrews, running backs J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards and receivers Rashod Bateman, Devin Duvernay and Nelson Agholor. “I feel like all of us mature. Most of us have been together since my rookie season. Right now is the time to elevate.
“My first two years, there was a lot of things I didn’t know that I do know now. My mind’s more advanced. There’s things I catch on to faster now. I wanna get better at everything — intermediate passes, down-the-field passes, running, instincts, reading the defense, presnap reads. Just being a real quarterback, a real field general.”
Already, Jackson has proved one of the game’s most electrifying players. In 2019, he threw for 3,127 yards and a league-high 36 touchdowns while rushing for seven scores and 1,206 yards to break Michael Vick’s single-season record for a quarterback. He was named NFL’s Most Valuable Player that year, joining seven-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady as the only players to win the award on a unanimous vote.
Yet while the Ravens have gone 45-16 in games in which Jackson has started, a Super Bowl title, or even a deep playoff run, has been elusive. Baltimore has won just one playoff game since he took over as the full-time starter in 2019, and there have been just two playoff victories since the team’s last Super Bowl title in the 2012 season. Jackson has also been unavailable at times, missing a combined 11 games the last two years, including last season’s playoff loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, because of injuries.
The goal, of course, is to change that.
“These guys are different,” Jackson said of the new players around him. “Everyone brings something to the table.”
At 26, Jackson is already one of the indelible athletes in Baltimore sports history, often discussed as a new addition to the city’s pantheon of Johnny Unitas, Brooks and Frank Robinson, Cal Ripken Jr. and Ray Lewis. But each of those figures produced a legacy-defining season.
For Unitas, it was 1958, when he led the Colts against the New York Giants in the “Greatest Game Ever Played.” For Frank Robinson, it was 1966, when he led the league in batting average, home runs, and runs batted in and pushed the Orioles over the top to their first world championship. For Brooks Robinson, it was 1970, when he hit and fielded magically in a triumphant World Series. For Ripken, it was 1983, when he was a precocious MVP and rewarded his family’s commitment to the Orioles with the franchise’s last World Series victory. For Lewis, it was 2000, when he earned unanimous acclaim as the NFL’s top defender and led the Ravens to their first Super Bowl win.
For all the brilliance of his 2019 MVP season, Jackson is still seeking that perfect year, crowned with the Super Bowl victory he promised on the night he was drafted.
“The next three to five years will really determine where he goes down in Baltimore sports history,” said broadcaster Scott Garceau, who has covered every major Baltimore athlete of the last 40 years and serves as the city’s representative voter for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. “If the team doesn’t do well and he doesn’t add to his postseason [resume], it’ll be, ‘My God, he was amazing, running for over 1,000 yards, and we’ll always remember the plays he made, but I’m not sure you’re going to put him up there with Johnny U and Cal and some of those other first-ballot Hall of Famers here.’”
He added that because Jackson is a quarterback, he will be judged by the harshest standard imaginable — championship or bust. He can’t be Ed Reed, a Ravens safety celebrated for his genius despite not winning a playoff game in his first six seasons in Baltimore.
Fans have embraced Jackson as the face of their team, but they, too, want more from him and were ready to feel heartbroken when it seemed he might be traded in March and April. Now, they’re optimistic 2023 could be his time to ascend.
“I want to see what he can do with a new offensive coordinator, plus these new weapons,” said Keon “TrippyKicka” Fisher, a ubiquitous, vocal presence at training camp and other Ravens happenings. “I feel like this could be the year. Going to training camp, you could just feel like, a different energy, like it’s our time.”
Fisher, a 33-year-old Ravens super fan who lives in West Baltimore and grew up on Ripken and Lewis, said he feels like Jackson is already in Baltimore’s sports pantheon, but that he needs a championship to be “officially stamped.” Jackson’s critics would then be left with nothing to say because “he did what he had to do.”
The Ravens re-signed Jackson, reshaped the roster around him and gave him more control of the offense with the expectation that he will lift the franchise to Super Bowl contention.
“We have an understanding of what the vision is,” coach John Harbaugh said. “We’ve been working hard [at] communication. We all understand how it’s built and how we want to operate.”
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Added general manager Eric DeCosta: “I was intrigued in 2019 because I knew that we were going to do something that was different, and it was going to be a difficult offense to defend. … I do think it could be a really cool thing to see this group kind of come together.”
At the center of it is Jackson and a new offense that will call for the quarterback to run less, throw more and get the ball into the hands of those around him in open space as quickly as possible.
“The offense looks very different than it has in years past,” ESPN analyst and former NFL quarterback Dan Orlovsky said. “This year, it’s gonna be spread people out [and] in doing so, create space and attack that space on the inside [of the field], both in the pass and the run.
Orlovsky said Jackson’s biggest challenge is one that Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes and Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen have dealt with.
“Can you play boring, pinpoint, accurate football for 5 yards? Are you willing to do that? Because that’s really hard for super-talented players,” he said. “The more Lamar can excel at efficient, pinpoint accuracy, drive the field for 10 or 12 plays, the more unstoppable this offense will lean toward being.”
How does the Ravens quarterback see it unfolding?
Said Jackson: “My vision is hoping to be playing in February.”