Baltimore Ravens rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson talks about preparing this week to play the Bengals. He's still not certain if he'll start if Joe Flacco cannot play due to his injury. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun video)
Lamar Jackson’s locker is in a corner of the Ravens’ locker room, set back far enough that it is inaccessible to media scrums beyond a certain size. Jackson did not take questions at the lectern Wednesday, so when he did speak, it was not at his locker but rather a more central location, where for 5½ minutes he stood, surrounded by reporters and cameras and public relations officials, handling a task every NFL starting quarterback must.
Joe Flacco was unavailable. He did not practice or speak to reporters Wednesday, bothered by a right hip injury that could sideline him Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals (5-4). So Jackson was the one to answer questions alternately silly and serious, from how he was sleeping (“The same — like a baby”) to whether he felt he had earned his teammates’ trust (“Absolutely. [Marshal] Yanda would have said something already”). The 21-year-old did not seem awed by the prospect of making his first NFL start in the most important game of the Ravens’ suddenly teetering season.
“I’m going into it like any other week, just preparing for whatever,” Jackson said, adding later: “It’s not different. No difference at all.”
But a gap as wide as the Chesapeake Bay does stand between a 4-6 record and a 5-5 mark, just as it separates the duties of a backup quarterback and an NFL starter. On Wednesday, it was no clearer whether the Ravens (4-5) were any closer to naming Jackson or Robert Griffin III as Flacco’s would-be replacement.
Harbaugh answered questions about Jackson’s development, Griffin’s readiness and Flacco’s toughness. But he declined to divulge any of the particulars of this week’s quarterback situation.
Could all three be active Sunday? He danced around even that hypothetical.
“I'm just not going to get into it,” he said. “I feel like we don't owe anybody any answers.”
The answer to the Ravens’ most important question will likely not reveal itself before Sunday’s deadline for activating players. On Monday, Harbaugh confirmed that Flacco had injured his hip in the Ravens’ Week 9 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Flacco, despite some obvious discomfort on the sideline, finished the game and told reporters afterward that the injury-inciting hit hadn’t affected his play.
Harbaugh acknowledged Wednesday that Flacco’s “pain tolerance is high”; in his 11-year career, he has missed just six games, all in 2015. Absences from practice will not endanger his streak of 41 straight starts. “It’ll be based on the health of Joe,” Harbaugh said Monday. “If Joe can play, he’ll play.”
And if he can’t? Neither Jackson nor Griffin offered any clues Wednesday about what Sunday might hold for the team’s quarterbacks.
Jackson said the question of who’s atop the depth chart is up to the coaches, but that it’d be “awesome” to start. He said any nervousness would disappear “after the ball is snapped.” He said this week was no different from any other.
The Ravens’ No. 32 overall pick has played in every game this season but has attempted passes in just five of nine overall, his dual-threat talents utilized more in the Ravens’ running game. Jackson, his face framed by a snug-fitting, black hooded sweatshirt, was self-effacing as he recalled his early days with the team, how he struggled to grip the ball during training camp — “I was throwing a lot of ducks” — and relay plays that can read like extended gibberish. One example courtesy of quarterbacks coach James Urban last week: “‘Red left switch tight close Z right sprint right G U corner half-back flat.”
“Before, I had to ask Coach a hundred times, ‘Say it again, say it again,’ but now he’ll say it one time to me,” Jackson said. “Don’t get me wrong: Sometimes, if it’s longer or whatever, I’ll have to say it again, but other than that, I’m getting better with that.”
It was not a day to temper enthusiasm, not with the Ravens facing an uphill climb to the postseason after three straight losses.
Cornerback Marlon Humphrey said Jackson has played “way faster than what I would’ve thought” from watching him on TV. Wide receiver Willie Snead IV said Jackson has learned to trust the scheme and the offense around him. Harbaugh called him a “very diligent, very smart, very aware quarterback” who has shown “tremendous development.” Griffin likened the quarterback to a sponge.
“He's soaking up everything he possibly can, information-wise,” said Griffin, who faced his own two-deep media contingent at his locker as he entertained questions about possibly playing for the first time this season. “He's been doing a great job. Our job this whole time has been to help him become a pro, teach him how to study, teach him how to prepare from week to week and, even when he’s not the No. 1 guy out there playing all the time, to be ready to step in at any time.”
But it is one thing to appear in Jackson’s typical midgame cameos and another to lead a drive, or play a quarter, or finish a game. Jackson last started in late August, when he went 9-for-15 for 109 yards against Washington Redskins second- and third-stringers to raise his preseason completion percentage to an even 50 percent.
He joked that the only thing he would do differently this week is change his clothes. “Everything else is still the same,” Jackson said. But he was willing to acknowledge that that was only an educated guess. This was the first time he’d faced questions like this. “I don’t really know yet.”