A week or so ago, I was killing quarantine by YouTubing all of the NFL channel’s full-game highlights from this past Ravens season. As might be expected when there’s literally nothing else in the world to do, this devolved into a pointless yet painstaking cataloguing of my ten favorite plays. After barely any deliberation, I settled on a clear favorite, one I’d assume most fans would agree with. On third and nine with less than three minutes until halftime of the Wildcard game, Lamar’s pocket collapses, his instincts kick in and he torches Tennessee’s defense with a jaw-dropping, spine-tingling, sham-narrative-eviscerating forty-seven-yard TD scamper. One that will be a part of every Lamar-centric highlight reel put together until the end of time. And no matter how many times I see it, I’ll always parrot Kevin Bacon with, "Thank you sir, may I have another."
The original runner-up came in the fourth quarter of a Monday night shootout. A cramp-hobbled Lamar returns from the locker room to face a daunting fourth and four with the season on the line. He takes the snap and bolts to his right on what is sure to be a drive-extending first down run, since he’d punished Cleveland with his legs all game. Only he eschews the guaranteed new set of downs, cocks his arm, plants his foot into the turf that’d been the Browns’ twelfth man that night and floats a gift-wrapped TD into the twilight. The stage, the comeback, the risk vs. reward, the drama--that moment had it all. And like his Tennessee two-step, there’ll be no shortage of this clip in pre- and in-game packages, continually reminding us how lucky we are to call this generational talent our quarterback.
And while those plays started as my Lennon and McCartney of the 2020 season, a Yoko eventually wedged itself between the pair. When the list was finally complete, my second-favorite play of the season wasn’t a lead-flipping TD or a Justin Tucker game winner. Nor was it a strip sack or a fruit punch scoop and score or a haymaker that buckled Derrick Henry’s knees (though those all made the top ten). In fact, my second favorite play of 2020 produced significantly fewer yards than a Tyre Phillips rush (honorable mention), as it was a simple four-yard swing pass. No points. No first down, even. But I couldn’t stop watching it. Over and over, I would drag the little red circle back a few millimeters and fire it off again. At first I was a little confused by my own fascination, to why I was so spellbound by this seemingly inconsequential play. But each iteration exposed its underlying significance a touch more. Like how it was a perfect microcosm of one polarizing Raven's volatile season, with him braving a self-induced midpoint mishap before rebounding valiantly in the end. Or how it dramatically buoyed the fanbase’s spirits, even if we weren’t consciously aware of it at the time. And when these realizations crystalized somewhere around my twentieth view, it captured the second spot and refused to vacate.
With a slight lead in Nashville and starting from inside their own ten, the Ravens line up with Jackson and Gus Edwards in the backfield, as Hollywood Brown goes in motion behind them. Standing at the two, Lamar takes the snap, fakes the give to Edwards, and slings (and I mean fucking slings) it to Brown. Hollywood, who still has both feet in the end zone as the ball's released, flashes his hands chest high, anticipating that it'll hit him in the numbers. But Jackson's pass rises up on him like a four-seam fastball, throwing their seemingly straightforward play call into disarray. Because when Brown lifts up in an attempt to corral the wayward dart, his left hand inadvertently knocks the ball in the direction opposite his route. He frantically swats at his own deflection with his right, and the tip of the ball collides with the dead center of his palm. But rather than anchor in his glove as one might hope, it spins awkwardly before tumbling down onto his right shoulder pad. An unnerved flock braces for the worst, as all logic points to the errant pass slipping out of his tenuous grasp, rolling down his back and scuttling across the goal line. But, with a combination of Danial-san’s reaction time and a rock climber's grip strength, Hollywood turns his right wrist, jabs at the ball with his left hand to stabilize it and pins it firmly against his helmet. After a quick stutter step to gather himself, he secures the ball in his right hand before transferring it to his left, as everyone in the Baltimore region exhales in unison. And finally, with a sprint to the sideline, he turns the averted catastrophe into a modest gain--a borderline miracle considering the expected result about halfway through. But, because it only nets a few yards, because it doesn’t show off his world-class speed or elusiveness, I doubt this captivating clip will get much run in highlight packages. Sadly, despite the elite concentration, reflexes and hand-eye coordination required to pull off, I fear it’s doomed to be chronically underappreciated or, worse, completely forgotten. A depressing fate for what turned out to be such a pivotal play.
But, of course, one can't praise any part of Brown's 2020 season without someone else dredging up his infamous tweet. Eleven little words--twelve if you count the parenthetical "Never!!"--which provided the torch-bearing "Hollywood’s a bust" mob a can of gasoline. And this group, so repeatedly burnt by the litany of pedestrian receivers taken in the first round that they’d rather lash out than risk getting hurt again, was quick to capitalize on his string of misfortunes that would soon follow. To revel in the karmic justice of someone demanding a more prominent role in the offense and then going on to have a fit of the dropsies. To offer full-throated declarations that they’d always been underwhelmed with Brown before listing all the receivers they'd rather we had taken with that pick. To conjure up unfavorable comparisons for his skill set and bleak forecasts of his career trajectory. To use his own words against him, saddling him with a derisive nickname that likened him to a certain mid-2000s rapper with an affinity for post-coital shenanigans. And, even when Brown responded with long receptions and a streak of consecutive games with a score, this lot refused to reconsider their negative evaluation of his attributes and abilities. Instead, they doubled down on their criticisms and united around a simple rallying cry: "Hollywood can’t catch."
But if Brown were an unrivaled drop artist like his detractors insist, he never reels in that backwards pass. Best case scenario, there’s some sort of Little Giants football-stuck-in-his-facemask situation before he trips over his own feet for a one-yard loss. More likely, the ball drills him in the earhole, and a swarm of Titans falls on it for a go-ahead score. Or, possibly even worse from a butterfly-effect standpoint, the ball ricochets off his head and skips through the endzone like a stone over a lake. And directly following the safety, Henry busts an 80-yard TD run against our deflated defense, as all of Nashville immediately starts the victory celebration. Which, honestly, it'd be hard to fault them for, as that sequence would've felt like a death knell to anyone watching. To anyone familiar with the recent history between the two clubs. Because, given how downtrodden this Ravens team appeared after each of the last two Titans losses, such a comically inept display might've broken their collective will. Made it impossible for them to regain their composure. Caused them to completely unravel and limp into yet another off-season.
It’s not only an emotionally painful notion to consider, but a mentally taxing one, too. It’s hard to view this cherished victory, this known quantity, in any other context than the one that’s become cemented in my mind. Because when I rewatch my favorite play of the year, it doesn’t feel like the game-defining play as much as it feels like the game-deciding play. Like it was the exact point in time when we took that incredibly annoying "Lamar will never win a playoff game" bullshit narrative out back for its Old Yeller moment. But, the game (and, by extension, that nugget of asinine pseudo-analysis) was still very much up in the air until the bitter end--even after the Marcus Peters interception. So had Brown not wrangled that swing pass, had he lived down to his doubters' expectations, the Ravens would've likely found themselves choking away another postseason. Logostomping all over our hopes and dreams once more.
And while every season-ending loss is painful in its own right, pissing away that Wildcard game would've been beyond excruciating. Because on top of dropping another postseason game, on top of becoming the laughing stock of the sports world, on top of losing three straight (including twice in the playoffs) to a team that seems to get off on disrespecting us, it would've elevated the Lamar slander to a new, higher, even more insufferable plateau. Yes, emboldened by his most recent January setback, the morning shows would air the safety-td combo clip (aka the butt fumble on steroids) on a never-ending loop, using it as the visual evidence in their smear campaign against him. And overtop the footage, the hosts would bludgeon us with all their rehashed, dimwitted hot takes:
"Sure Lamar had a nice little TD run, but, like usual, it wasn't enough to win when it mattered most. The Ravens will never win a playoff game with him as their QB."
"He can run away from anyone, but he can’t throw it five yards accurately. Forget throwing outside the numbers...this guy can’t throw outside the hashes."
"They’ll never beat this Titans team. Tennessee is just fundamentally tougher than the Ravens. It’s psychological at this point."
"They spent their whole offseason trying to stop one guy...ONE GUY...and he still broke off an 80-yard, game-cinching TD against them."
"Hollywood can’t catch. He only comes through when it’s garbage time. If the game’s on the line, he lets the ball bounce off his head."
This sort of perpetual noise, this ceaseless pestering, this picking at the vulnerable scabs of our fandom would’ve been inescapable. But, thanks to Hollywood’s commitment to his craft, his ability to bounce back from a rough stretch, his knack for delivering in big games, and, at the most minute level, his superb ability to catch a football, we were rescued from this onslaught. His reward for saving us from such dreariness? Endless speculation over who’ll take his job.
Yes, while the Hollywood Edition of the Helmet Catch quashed the above narratives for a few days, Lamar’s subpar Divisional round performance effectively spawned their mutant offspring. "They can’t beat the Titans'' has become "They can only beat the Titans, because they spent too much on their run defense in a pass-first league." "Lamar will never win a playoff game" has become "Lamar will never make an AFC Championship." "Lamar can’t lead a game-winning drive" has become "Lamar can’t lead a game-winning drive without leaving halfway through to take a shit" (OK, that one happened before the Buffalo loss). And "Hollywood can’t catch" has morphed into "He’s ok, but he’s not a #1...he’s not a big-bodied X, who’ll win contested catches."
To be fair, I don’t know if Hollywood’s a #1. I don’t know if his jump-ball skills will improve or if he'll ever be successful working in traffic. All I know is that I’m not ready to completely write off any of these possibilities yet. And that, in my mind, he’s earned one more opportunity to prove he can fill that #1 role. Because if the options are a FA #1 and Hollywood #2 or Hollywood #1 and some mix and match of resigning a couple of our key FAs and signing a Guard/Center/#2 receiving TE, I’m taking the latter--at least for one more offseason.
Based on the surrounding discourse, I’m fully aware that I’m in the minority there. One thing I hope we can all agree on, though, is that with his brilliant second half of the season and by showing up big in two postseason games, he’s earned enough credit, enough respect for us to do him a couple solids. First, it might not get the highlight-reel love it deserves, but let’s never forget how truly impactful my second-favorite play of the year was. Second, can we please stop worrying about which receivers were selected after him. Like Lamar, Brown's a great athlete with his own idiosyncratic, hard-to-replicate skill set. So let's stop sniveling over what he's not and just be happy the Ravens got an extremely talented player in the first round of the 2019 draft. And last, and most pressing, it's long past time that we restored his one, true nickname. Hopefully we've all finally processed and moved past the dark stretch that was the middle of the 2020 season. When, lonely and vulnerable, we found ourselves seeking out the comforting embrace of something new and tantalizing. We should've known better than to link up with something so tawdry, but we did it anyway because it made us feel better about a shitty situation. And, like most questionable decisions, because we got a perverse sort of enjoyment out of it. But the time has come to end our regrettable, little fling once and for all. And as we do, let's give the Souljaboy moniker the disrespectful send-off it deserves--and Superman that ohhhhhh.
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