There was no prolonged mystery as the Ravens began practice Friday. Lamar Jackson bopped around the field in his familiar black No. 8 jersey, tossing spirals despite the blustery chill in Owings Mills.
Jackson was back and feeling “way better than I was a couple days ago” after missing the team’s previous two practices because of an illness he described as “like a cold.” He was joined by two of his top targets, Marquise “Hollywood” Brown and Rashod Bateman, who had also missed preparation time for Sunday’s road game against the Chicago Bears.
Their presence allayed short-term fears that the Ravens would take on the Bears with a diminished offensive arsenal. Jackson nonetheless faced questions about the impact of his periodic absences, especially as the team tries to bounce back from a dispiriting 22-10 loss to the Miami Dolphins.
“I definitely feel less prepared, because I want to be out there with my guys,” he said after practicing Friday. “I know I’m behind, because those guys were still out on the field, doing what they were supposed to do, getting better each and every day. I’m probably like 2% behind them right now. I’ve got to catch up.”
When Jackson missed practice Thursday, it was the fourth time this season he was absent because of an illness. He also missed two practices because of back soreness and was not on the field at the start of training camp because he tested positive for COVID-19.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Jackson looked good at practice, but he acknowledged the difficulty of trying to fine-tune coordinator Greg Roman’s offense when key players are in and out.
“It’s not ideal,” Harbaugh said. “It would be better having those guys out there practicing. Practice is very important. It’s how you get good at what you’re doing. It’s how you get things oiled up. So it’s a factor.”
Jackson’s bouts with sickness have turned Ravens fans into a community of amateur nurses, speculating about the wellness of a 24-year-old athletic phenom.
“They’re showing concern,” Jackson said. “I appreciate it, the fans showing concern for their QB. I love that. I love that.”
He speculated that abrupt temperature changes have contributed to his illnesses, saying, “Usually, I don’t get sick. I used to eat my Flintstones vitamins when I was a little kid; my immune system should be good.”
Teammates have downplayed the importance of Jackson’s absences.
“I really don’t think it’s that big of a deal,” said center Bradley Bozeman, who also missed practice Wednesday because of an illness. “I know Lamar, he’s doing his things at home he needs to do. He’s watching plays, he’s getting everything right at home. When he comes back in, he’s not going to miss a step. He’s done it week in and week out. He’s continued to build on that, continued to step up to the plate when he needs to, so I don’t see that being an issue.”
So far, that view has been correct. The Ravens are 3-0 this season after weeks in which Jackson missed at least one practice, and those games have included some of his better passing performances.
On the other hand, the Ravens have struggled to get their offense on track in the first halves of recent games, and they’re coming off their worst offensive performance of the season against the Dolphins. Jackson’s absence, combined with those of his top two wide receivers, Brown and Bateman, made it more difficult for them to work out the kinks in advance of their Sunday matchup with the Bears.
Brown missed practice Wednesday and Thursday because of a thigh injury, and Bateman was absent Thursday because of an illness.
Despite the frequent hits he takes as a ball carrier, Jackson has been a durable player, missing just two games in four seasons — one for rest and the other after he tested positive for COVID-19 last November.
The Ravens have depended on him more than ever this season, and he has stepped up, ranking ninth in the league in passing and eighth in rushing.
The loss to the Dolphins, in which Jackson struggled to counter repeated Cover 0 blitzes, was an exception. He said the only thing he can do is “move on.”
“If we see them again, it will be different,” he said. “The coaches got right. We got right. We all joined in, and we’re going to make something happen if we see Cover 0 again. We’re going to have an answer.”
He turned the page quickly, traveling to Louisville two days after the Dolphins game to watch his alma mater retire his college number. He reconnected with former teammates and shed a few “man tears” as a video tribute played to commemorate the occasion.
Then, he fell ill again. Jackson said that when he misses practices, he’s not worried about falling behind on the game plan so much as he is about losing the collective sharpness he strives for with teammates.
“I try to stay into it, reaching out to coaches, coaches reaching out to me about what’s going on,” he said. “It’s just the chemistry, being with my guys, hitting them outside the numbers, throwing the ball to them and stuff like that, getting the ball downfield and just keeping our chemistry going. That’s probably it.”
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