The clouds did not part to reveal a heavenly chorus, but he was back — Lamar Jackson in the flesh, wearing his No. 8 jersey and slinging passes from all angles on a Ravens practice field.
After months of chatter about the contract extension he has not signed and about the voluntary workouts he did not attend, Jackson returned Tuesday to his customary spot at the center of a team built around his unique talents.
He began the first session of mandatory minicamp spinning a football on his fingers, threading it through his legs like a point guard and then firing at blue, red and yellow targets in the end zone. He kicked off 11-on-11 drills with a touchdown pass to his new No. 1 receiver, Rashod Bateman, and his over-the-middle connection with All-Pro tight end Mark Andrews was fruitful as ever.
Veteran safety Tony Jefferson was the franchise quarterback’s chief nemesis, snaring a wayward pass intended for tight end Josh Oliver and stepping in front of Bateman for a second interception. But Jackson completed 17 of 26 passes overall in the 11-on-11 setting and all 10 of his attempts in seven-on-seven drills. The offense operated more crisply than it had during OTAs.
“He looked great,” Andrews said. “I think he’s extremely confident, and the more he’s out here running the plays, being with the guys, he’s just going to get better and better. He was in the huddle, commanding the huddle, getting guys right. He threw a lot of great balls, right off the defender’s head.”
Ravens coach John Harbaugh agreed: “He looked good and he was into it. He was physically in very good shape. I thought his arm looked really good; you can see he’s been throwing a lot. … It was great to have him out there. It kind of boosted everybody’s spirits a little bit too.”
Harbaugh felt no need to sit down with Jackson for an extended conversation when the quarterback arrived. “Back to business,” he said. “We’re driving now, we’re merging, we’re rolling. Let’s go to work.”
Most Ravens players had not walked onto a football field with a healthy Jackson since the second quarter of the team’s Week 14 loss in Cleveland.
But the franchise quarterback has fueled endless rounds of speculation since he hobbled off on that December afternoon, first with his seeming disinterest in extension talks, then with his social media reaction to the trade of No. 1 wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown and most recently with his decision to skip three weeks of voluntary OTAs (workouts he had attended in past years).
He expressed periodic annoyance, again via social media, when pundits tried to dissect his thinking, but he did not clarify his point of view on the underlying issues. At age 25, he’s slated to play on his fifth-year option, worth $23 million, this season. Does he believe he’s in a contract standoff, as some media outlets have characterized it? Or is he “so obsessed with winning a Super Bowl” that a new contract is not on his front burner, as Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti suggested in March?
Jackson wasn’t saying. He filled the vacuum by posting videos of his workouts with personal quarterback coach Adam Dedeaux and private trainers.
Harbaugh said he believed Jackson was working hard but left it to the quarterback to explain why he did not join the team for OTAs.
That answer will have to wait until Thursday, when Jackson is scheduled to speak with Baltimore reporters for the first time since January.
But his mere arrival at the team’s facility created a buzz Monday, with news of him taking his physical leading ESPN.com for much of the day and a brief video clip of him saying he was ready for the season generating more than 1,000 retweets.
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It was a preview of the speculative limbo that could engulf the Ravens this season and for several years to come if Jackson does not sign an extension. His every step will be analyzed, whether there is news to report or not. If he does not answer questions about his status, those queries will fall to Harbaugh and his teammates.
“You block it out,” Andrews said of the constant hubbub around his quarterback. “We’ve all been with the media for a long, long time, and there’s going to be naysayers, but you’ve got to be able to block stuff like that out. We don’t look at the outside too much.”
Cornerback Marlon Humphrey said he’s thought about how difficult it would be to walk in Jackson’s shoes, living in an eternal fishbowl.
“It’s probably not that fun to be ‘famous’ famous,” he said. “It’s just a different life when everything you do is looked at in a positive or a negative light, whether it’s [commentators] Shannon Sharpe or Skip [Bayless] or this guy talking. I know that would get annoying if I was in those shoes, but I think he handles it really well.”
Humphrey said there’s no disconnect between Jackson and his teammates as the contract sage plays out in the background. “I think really what’s most important is the communication within the guys and the coaching,” he said. “It kind of sucks sometimes, being on social media and seeing headline after headline, when you know what’s going on but you can’t really respond to everybody. But I think as long as the team knows where he’s at and the players know where he’s at — we’re communicating with him — I think it kind of speaks for itself.”
When Jackson wasn’t around, the Ravens talked about doing the best they could with the players on hand, but there was no denying the power of his presence.
“Lamar, he’s what drives our team,” Andrews said. “He’s QB1, and the energy around him being here, it lifts everybody up.”