The most anticipated throw of Lamar Jackson’s training camp was his first, because it had taken him so long to get there, back to a point where he could wind up and be a Ravens quarterback again.
For 10 days, Jackson had waited until he could rejoin his team in Owings Mills. He had ended mandatory minicamp on such a high, roasting the Ravens defense with deep throws in mid-June, and entered training camp late last month on such a low, returning his second positive COVID-19 test in eight months.
Early Saturday morning, wearing his familiar No. 8 jersey, Jackson kept it simple. He set his feet, readied his hands, took a shotgun snap from center Bradley Bozeman, faked a handoff, reset his base, then lobbed a pass back, nice and easy. It was not the kind of throw that wins a Super Bowl. But early August is when you “build your foundation under your football team,” coach John Harbaugh had said Friday, and for the Ravens there was relief in having their most important player back. Better late than never.
“One step at a time, guys are working hard,” Harbaugh said after the team’s ninth practice of camp. “I’m very happy with how they’re working. [We] got a guy or two back, as you may have noticed.” He grinned at reporters with a knowing smile. “That was nice.”
Jackson did not speak to reporters afterward — he’s expected to be made available Monday — but his debut performance said as much about what he’s missed as it did about what the Ravens have missed. In relatively limited first-string repetitions, Jackson was accurate as a passer and electric as a runner.
But there were also apparent miscommunications with receivers and long periods where he watched from behind the play as reserves Trace McSorley and Tyler Huntley guided the offense.
“I thought he looked really good,” Harbaugh said. “I would say he looked even better than I expected him to.”
Jackson, who tested positive July 27, “got hit pretty hard with the symptoms,” Harbaugh said. He was limited in his conditioning while in isolation and attended meetings with quarterbacks coach James Urban “when he was able to,” Harbaugh said.
Under NFL protocols, Jackson quarantined for 10 days before returning to the team facility Friday morning for testing. He first contracted the virus in November but was not among the approximately 90% of Ravens players who were fully vaccinated entering camp.
“COVID is tough,” Harbaugh said. “He had a lot of symptoms. I think it speaks to how well he took care of himself during that time. and came out and practiced well.”
Unofficially, Jackson finished 4-for-10 in 11-on-11 action, 4-for-5 in seven-on-seven action and 3-for-4 in a half-field passing drill. His workload was limited compared with that of previous camps, and offensive coordinator Greg Roman indicated Wednesday that Jackson would have to hit certain benchmarks to keep pace with the playbook’s installation.
But with the Ravens’ season opener more than a month away, Harbaugh said Jackson wouldn’t be behind in his grasp of the offense for long.
“I don’t think it’s going to be that hard for him,” Harbaugh said. “He’s already been through most of the offense. He already knows it. He’s played in games for a number of years. He’s been through this. There are some things that we put in that we’re working on that I think he’ll merge right in.”
Harbaugh compared Jackson’s latecomer acclimation to a motorist accelerating onto nearby Interstate 695. In that case, the 2019 NFL Most Valuable Player on Saturday looked more like a driver’s ed instructor than an uncertain student.
On his first drop-back in 11-on-11 work, Jackson hit wide receiver Sammy Watkins right between the numbers on a comeback route near the left sideline. Two plays later, Watkins appeared to stop his out-breaking route short of where Jackson thought he’d be running it, and his pass ended up in the grass. In seven-on-seven action, only a drop by running back Justice Hill kept Jackson from a 5-for-5 mark in a session reliant on short- and intermediate- range throws.
The rest of Jackson’s morning was a mixed bag of almost-had-it throws and should’ve-had-it drops. Watkins, Jackson’s top target during minicamp, couldn’t secure a pass on another comeback route. Shortly after, tight end Mark Andrews nearly put cornerback Tavon Young in a highlight reel with a deep corner route, only to have Jackson’s high-arcing pass fall through his hands, just out of reach.
At the end of a cloudy, balmy practice called about a half-hour early, with the defense “outscoring” the offense in a one-sided romp, Jackson had taken a would-be sack, kept a zone-read play for himself up the middle, completed a nice lofted pass to Andrews, hit running back J.K. Dobbins on a swing pass and missed a couple of receivers by margins that suggested they needed more time together.
The Ravens play the visiting New Orleans Saints on Saturday in their preseason opener, and Harbaugh said Jackson’s absence had changed nothing about their plans. “We’re going to keep the train moving,” he said. Jackson was on board and on schedule.
“Good first step,” Harbaugh said. “We have, for the whole team, four to five weeks of work to get ready for the first real game. So we’ll just try to take it one day at a time.”