Lamar Jackson needed one word to sum up his state of mind going into Monday’s season opener against the Las Vegas Raiders.
“Finally,” the Ravens quarterback said Thursday as he began his news conference at the team’s training facility in Owings Mills.
After eight months of questions about his playoff failures, his contract negotiations and his refusal to say whether he would receive the COVID-19 vaccine, Jackson gets to play a football game — the realm in which he has always seemed most joyous.
The impending meeting with the Raiders did not protect him from the ever-present vaccination question. He again declined to say whether he’s received the shot. “I want to keep that between me and my family and the doctors,” he said.
The issue could linger, given that Jackson has already contracted the virus twice, missing a game last year and 10 days of training camp this year. He was nonetheless in the mood to exhale as final preparations for the opener continued.
Jackson believes he’s throwing better than he ever has, and he’s eager to get a feel for his new teammates under competitive conditions.
“I don’t know,” he said, when asked to describe the Ravens’ offensive identity for 2021. “I don’t want to lie to you and say something crazy. I don’t know yet.”
We know for certain that whatever the Ravens are this season, Jackson will be at the center of it. With the team expected to contend for a high playoff seed again, all eyes will be on him every week. It doesn’t matter that the Ravens have already lost No. 1 running J.K. Dobbins to a season-ending knee injury or that first-round pick Rashod Bateman will miss at least the first three weeks because of groin surgery. Jackson, the 2019 NFL Most Valuable Player, will still be expected to make the machine hum.
“It’s always going to come down to Lamar Jackson, and I was encouraged by what we saw in the wild-card game a year ago [against the Tennessee Titans],” said ESPN “Monday Night Football” analyst Brian Griese, who will help call the season opener. “It wasn’t pretty in the first half of that game, but he found a way to make the play, to get the momentum sparked, as he always has.”
That playoff win allowed Jackson to check one milestone off his list, but his disappointing performance the following week in Buffalo — an interception, three sacks and a season-ending concussion — sent him back to the drawing board in his obsessive quest for a Super Bowl.
Despite Jackson’s playoff setbacks the last three seasons, Griese’s “Monday Night Football” colleague, Louis Riddick, said he’s on “a nice, steady trajectory” in his development as an all-around quarterback. Riddick noted that Jackson’s percentage of off-target throws has declined, indicating his growing comfort in the pocket.
“I would expect that to improve all throughout this year,” he said. “I would hope that he has a good game doing that out here in Vegas in a couple days, that he shows people that he is a guy who has worked very, very hard, put in the time to go ahead and become a better all-around passer and be the kind of guy who can beat you in multiple different ways, which is what John Harbaugh and Eric DeCosta and Ozzie Newsome had envisioned when they drafted him in the first place.”
Jackson said he’s throwing tighter spirals after an offseason spent sharpening his footwork with private quarterback consultant Adam Dedeaux, whose past client list includes Drew Brees and Tom Brady. He played just one series in the preseason but wowed observers during more than one practice this summer.
“If you do it on the practice field, it’s probably going to translate to the game,” he said.
“I’ve always loved Lamar’s ball,” said Ravens tight end Mark Andrews, Jackson’s favorite third-down target and one of his most outspoken fans. “Some of the best balls I’ve ever caught have been from him. He throws a real, real tight spiral [and] puts it right where it needs to be. The thing about Lamar is … a lot of people don’t talk about it, but he’s always protecting receivers. He doesn’t throw you into a headache; he’s very conscious about where he throws the ball, what angle he throws the ball and leading you into a good spot. So, if a defender is right next to me, he’s not going to throw me into him. He’s going to throw me away from him, just so I can shield myself. He thinks stuff like that, which a lot of quarterbacks don’t do.”
Jackson has not had many opportunities to play with his full starting offense, and he won’t in Week 1 either, with Bateman on injured reserve and tight end Nick Boyle still working back from a serious knee injury. The revamped offensive line that’s tasked with protecting him is only now developing chemistry after several starters were absent for stretches of the preseason.
“I’d rather have it come now than during the season,” Jackson said of the health interruptions.
One thing that hasn’t changed is the faith Jackson inspires in teammates. Even Ravens defenders cite him as the No. 1 reason they believe this team can reach the Super Bowl.
“When you’ve got a young guy like Lamar at quarterback, it’s always going to start with the quarterback piece for any franchise,” cornerback Marcus Peters said. “He’s going to give you a chance to win. I just love being in the same building as the dude.”
He added that it’s easy to get behind a quarterback who plays with such passion, who fought his way up from challenging economic circumstances in childhood.
“I’m going to say it for both us; we come from places where football is the only way to get out,” said Peters, who grew up in Oakland, California.
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Veteran outside linebacker Justin Houston has only played against Jackson.
“I can’t wait to see him actually from the sideline on a game day,” he said. “I’ve always been on the other side, and I’ve seen it in practice. But I know there’s another gear. I’m just excited to have a front-row seat.”
Monday, 8:15 p.m.
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