If there’s one thing that can be said about Ravens signal caller Lamar Jackson, it’s that he engenders conversation and discourse like few other players (let alone just quarterbacks) in the NFL. This has been the case since his Louisville days when the debate about what he was doing would translate to the NFL level, and it’s been the case since his first day in Baltimore, as we all who follow the team are well aware.
As we’re also aware, he’s made a habit of taking these narratives and either proving or disproving them on his own terms. In an NFL media cycle where arguments and controversies sometimes grow so big as to take on a life of their own, Jackson has more often than not been on the right side of history when it comes to all the hemming and hawing about his abilities, and he’s done so with a smile on his face and a sunny disposition (with the possible exception being his somewhat acid-dipped “not bad for a running back” comment, which was well worth the price of stepping into petty territory for once.)
The thing that’s always stood out about Jackson and these discussions surrounding him is how polarized they’ve often been; he’s either a below-average-to-bad passer who’s incapable of sustaining long term success in the NFL, or he’s a special player who’s combination of athleticism and it-factor make him a meal ticket type player the league rarely sees come along. The one thing lacking in the situation has been any uncertainty in either side, as he’s always been right there at the forefront to spark these conversations, and further drive people to whatever side of the debate they find themselves on.
In the last few weeks though, this hasn’t quite been the case. Ever since Lamar collapsed to the ground with an ankle injury in Cleveland, his doubters have grasped at straws to point to the performances of his backups as reasons why he isn’t special or worth a big time deal, while his cadre of supporters (including yours truly and I’m guessing many of you reading this) have settled into a bit of a holding pattern considering he wasn’t exactly lighting the world on fire before getting hurt.
Neither side of the argument has much leg to stand on in regards to how the rest of this season for Jackson is going to play out. Right down to the fact that we don’t even know if he’s going to suit up against the Rams on Sunday (his hobbled Wednesday practice reps don’t exactly inspire confidence in that regard), it feels like it’s a bit hard to judge him in the grand scheme of things considering how decimated his offensive line, and the Ravens defense as whole, have become at this point.
But as we all should know by now, that’s what’s going to happen no matter what plays out. A few weeks after the dust has settled on the Super Bowl, the offseason narrative machine will begin to churn itself up, and Jackson (to my earlier point) has been no stranger to serving as the sparkplug for it time and again.
And call it selective amnesia or collective denial, but to the doubters, the amount of players the Ravens were missing won’t matter one bit by that point. Many of them will simply point to raw numbers, and perhaps even the efficiency metrics that have so often favored Lamar, but may not by that point partially due to his subpar supporting cast; those of us who take up for him will go out of our way to underscore that latter fact, but again, it will likely fall on deaf ears.
That’s why the next two weeks (and hopefully for Jackson, beyond them) will be so important to controlling the narratives that swirl around him in a way that he’s been so effective at in past years. But unlike those years, he’s not exactly set up for success in this case.
Consider his rookie season in 2018. That was by no means a world-beating modern offense, but they were built well to take advantage of Jackson’s main strengths at that point as a 21 year-old greenhorn who mainly relied on his legs; when he was pressed into action, Baltimore’s coaching staff re-tooled things and built a well-oiled, road grading ground game that carried them (quite improbably after a 4-5 start) to a 10-6 record and a division title.
The next year, 2019, kicked off following an offseason of doubt in regards to Jackson’s passing abilities following a playoff loss in which many people (incorrectly) assumed that Gus Bradley and the Chargers had provided a seven defensive back-centric “blueprint” to containing Jackson. This narrative was largely hogwash as it ignored the fact that Baltimore simply didn’t execute well on offense in that playoff game, and it was again busted when the young quarterback went on to the lead the league in touchdown passes on his way to an MVP award.
But this success wound up working against him as a stunning home playoff loss to Tennessee set to the table for him to again be relentlessly criticized through 2020. He again responded these criticisms by pulling a COVID-ravaged 7-6 outfit from the brink, and led them to 11-5 and a playoff win over those same Titans who had bullied the Ravens in their last few meetings - this of course didn’t end the discourse around him, but it perhaps quieted it for a time.
The common denominator amongst these three examples are a critical juncture (4-5 ahead of his first start in ‘18, people questioning his long term viability ahead of 2019, and the sinking ship that were the midseason 2020 Ravens) where Jackson rose to the occasion and proved his worth, if not as strictly a passer, than as a downright talismanic football player who gets the job done by hook or by crook. In 2021, this type of scenario again presents itself, but with the straits maybe as dire as they’ve ever been.
By this point, I don’t think any rational person is questioning whether Lamar Jackson is a capable starting quarterback in this league (read: rational - there are still many out there). I’d in fact wager that most who follow football closely enough are smart enough to understand that a long term deal between him and the Ravens is simply a matter of “when” and not “if.”
But a table has once again been set for Jackson to help define the narrative surrounding him this offseason, and assuming a long term contract is hammered out and signed, he’d be saving himself (or, perhaps more accurately, those who argue on his behalf) a lot of headaches by closing the season out as strongly as he possibly can to make a long term deal look to be as much of a no-brainer as many people already see it to be. Considering his supporting cast and the fact that he’s returning from injury (and looking somewhat worse for the wear in doing so up to this point), is it entirely fair to pin the upcoming offseason conversation as it pertains to Jackson on these two upcoming games?
While the reasonable answer is “no” the immediate follow up to said answer is the slightly annoying, but also tried and true mantra that you may have heard from your parents a time or two over the years: “life isn’t fair.” It applies to sports, just as it applied to the chore allocation between you and your siblings - go figure.
With an offensive line that’s 29th in Football Outsiders’ efficiency metrics, a defense that fares exactly the same rankings-wise in DVOA, and a talented but green receiving corps, Jackson faces maybe his toughest test yet as he prepares to save the 8-7 Ravens from missing the playoffs (something he’s yet to do in his career). While I have no qualms about his future as the face of Baltimore’s franchise, I must admit I have little to no idea of how he’s going to be able to pull this one off against a surging Rams team, and a handicapped, but sure to be motivated Steelers squad in what will likely be the final regular season game of Ben Roethlisberger’s career (all of that without mentioning Baltimore also needs help from other teams to make it to the postseason to begin with).
While it’s likely that I felt just as uncertain in the aforementioned junctures in which he came through in the clutch, it’s with equal fervor that I’d point to the fact that Jackson can look back on those moments in a sense of pride and appreciation for what he was able to accomplish. Here’s hoping that over the next two weeks, he’s able to write a similar glorious tale of reacting to, and overcoming adversity in the face of very long odds... Lord knows the offseason (and it’s relentless narrative-driven discussions) will be made much better for it.