The global pandemic rocked the sports world last spring and nearly brought it to a screeching halt. March Madness was canceled, the NBA regular and postseason had to be delayed, and the NFL offseason was derailed.
With the nation and the world are still battling the virus, its effects, and new strains popping up, it is an incredible feat that the NFL was able to play and conclude the entire 2020 regular and postseason from start to finish without having to delay or extend it at any point.
Outside of a handful of reshuffled games that they anticipated and planned for; the season was completed without a major hitch or hiccup compared to other professional leagues.
The Baltimore Ravens were one of the teams most adversely affected by the coronavirus both during and prior to the season.
While they were able to weather the storm and right the ship after a November outbreak that nearly extinguished their playoff hopes and go on a five-game winning streak to punch their ticket to the big dance, the repercussions and ripple effects of a condensed and mostly virtual offseason program proved to be much more detrimental to the 2020 campaign, particularly on offense.
The COVID safety protocols that were modified as the regular season went along were not in place last spring and in the early part of the summer. The Ravens and all of the 31 other teams were prohibited from physically gathering in person until training camp.
With physical contact between players, coaches, and even scouts and executives, every team’s offseason program, like the Draft, had to be conducted virtually via zoom meetings.
Voluntary workouts, which is the first time that teams are able to reconvene, were conducted remotely in the homes, garages, driveways, and private gyms of players who had their phones, computers, and webcams set up.
The most important portion of the offseason program are minicamp and organized team activities (OTAs), where teams hit the practice field together for the first time since the previous season came to an end.
Those are the times where players can showcase individual improvement, work on their rapport in an official team setting, and get a jump start on installing new wrinkles and concepts to existing schemes.
Coming off a record-shattering 2019 season, Lamar Jackson and the 2020 Ravens as a whole were robbed of that precious practice time that was so vital to both his individual and their collective success the year before.
In Jackson’s first offseason as the full-time starter heading into his second year in the league, General Manager Eric DeCosta built a roster and Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman designed a unique scheme that revolutionized what it means to be a run-first team with the ultimate dual-threat quarterback under center.
The Ravens finished with a league-best record of 14-2, the AFC’s No. 1 seed with home-field advantage, and broke several longstanding rushing records.
Jackson became the first quarterback to run for 1,000 or more yards and throw for 3,500 or more yards in NFL history and despite attempting the least passes, led the league in passing touchdowns with 36 including a league-high 25 from inside the pocket.
Some regression was expected from the team and Jackson after a historic season that saw him become just the second player ever voted unanimous league MVP. But COVID threw an unprecedented wrench in the team’s and most importantly, Jackson’s continued development heading a year where everyone was going to be gunning for them like they won the Super Bowl and trying to figure out ways to slow them down.
“In this past season, there was adversity that wasn’t there (before),” Jackson’s personal quarterback coach Joshua Harris said via the official team website. “The year he won the MVP, it was kind of like a fairy tale. This year there was some adversity, roadblocks, COVID, all kinds of other things. I was so proud of how he handled it and matured.”
Jackson still had a very successful season with 26 passing touchdowns to nine interceptions and he became the first quarterback in league history to record multiple 1,000-yard rushing seasons. All of which was accomplished despite missing a game due to contracting the virus and sitting out several fourth quarters in which his team was well ahead thanks in large part to his efforts in the first three.
Dating back to his rookie year, Jackson has always been a player and particularly a passer that has benefited from the repetitions he received in practice.
In the addition to the individual coaching he received from Harris, the opportunity to run with and operate the first-team offense all offseason in the spring and summer of 2019 was key to his tremendous improvement from year one to year two.
Despite dispelling several narratives in his third season including winning a big primetime game over a playoff team, leading his team to a win after being trailing at halftime, and notching his first playoff win, Jackson’s ability as a passer continues to be widely doubted.
The Ravens’ offense is the highest-scoring unit in the NFL over the last two seasons yet is under constant scrutiny and has been relentlessly dissected and criticized since their season ended after they finished last in the league in passing yards and attempts.
The team’s shortcomings in the playoffs over the last three years and against playoff teams in 2020 has been largely blamed on a passing attack that lacked consistent protection and didn’t have the offseason practice time to refine the connection between Jackson and his targets.
A run-first offense will typically spend more time practicing and perfecting what they do best to ensure the standard remains high and continues to climb. Training camp with no preseason or joint practices isn’t enough time for a young offense to be as sharp as they need to be when the regular season rolls around.
Outside of camaraderie building, positional and other team meetings being conducted virtually isn’t much of an issue. However, in-person practice sessions with and without pads will be essential to the development of Jackson as a passer and the Ravens’ passing offense altogether.
With proper protocols in place and more vaccines being distributed daily, the 2021 offseason program for all 32 teams will have some semblance of normalcy or rather the ‘new’ normalcy. The Ravens and Jackson will have the opportunity to field a more fine-tuned passing attack in the fall that hopefully features some new weapons that will be acquired in the coming months.