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Innocence vs. Experience: A dueling dichotomy hanging over Lamar Jackson’s return to the lineup

“It’s not everything it’s cracked up to be, to have experience.”

Training camp has been well underway across the NFL for each and every team for over a week at this point. For the Baltimore Ravens it’s been, well . . . underway. But in some respects, it’s been so in name only for them.

This is particularly true in the case of the offensive side of the football. A re-tooled offensive line, additions at wide receiver and tight end, and a smattering of disruptive new coaches are duking it out on the practice field and attempting to make their mark in whatever fashion necessary. It’s here that things feel strange, or a bit hollow.

No disrespect meant to Trace McSorley or Tyler Huntley, but their efforts at quarterback over the past week or so have been cast under a shadow – the larger-than-life shadow of the player they’re standing in for.

It’s hard to believe Lamar Jackson is standing ready to enter his fourth NFL season — and his third as the Ravens’ full-time starter. It seems not too long ago that this was a franchise floating through the doldrums of mediocrity in spite of their sterling reputation, anchored to a contract given to Joe Flacco who was producing uninspired play in return. Baltimore making the active decision to turn their engine over by selecting Jackson provided them the jump start they needed, and the league at large a lightning rod the likes of which they’d maybe never seen.

When Quentin Tarantino made his professional directorial debut with the release of Reservoir Dogs at the 1992 Sundance Film Festival, New York Daily News critic Jami Bernard compared the film’s unconventional style and (at the time) unprecedented violence to the effect the 1895 film L’Arrivée d’un Train en Gare de la Ciotat had on audiences. When a train bore down on the screen directly towards the camera, the then neophyte moviegoers ducked out of the way for fear of getting hit. Like the Sundance hipsters trying to wrap their minds around the wild stylings of Dogs in 1992, so too did the late 19th century viewers of one of the early examples of a moving picture have trouble processing what they had just seen.

In just his four short years in the NFL, Jackson has put the mind of many a football fan in a (at times irreversible) pretzel.

There are better quarterbacks on offer in the league, but none divide opinions and defy conventions quite like Jackson. From the way he plays, to how he talks and dresses, to how he conducts his business dealings, there have been few (if any) quarterbacks quite like him in the past — and it’s shown in the wide-ranging chasm of discourse surrounding him from (quite literally) day one of his NFL experience.

2018 NFL Draft
From the moment he came onto the scene as a prospect, Jackson has divided opinions and shaken the football world to it’s core.
Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

From his early days as a draft prospect, in which his mere future at a position that he had just spent the last several years dominating in college was debated, all the way to the present day, Jackson has been a one-man Rorschach test.

Those who want to see an electrifying athlete that’s redefining the quarterback position with both his play, and his unconventional profile for somebody in that role see it that way; those who want to see an immature, poorly counseled 24-year-old who’s (to put these critiques kindly) reliance on his legs to mask his passing deficiencies is unsustainable see the story that way in turn. Unlike any player in recent league history, he’s divided opinions seemingly right down the middle.

Recent events haven’t helped in this regard. A positive COVID test simultaneously sidelined him for the first 10 days of training camp and tacitly revealed that he hasn’t received a vaccine to inoculate him against the virus. If you could’ve drawn up a storyline that more perfectly merges two of the most divisive issues in their respective landscapes (Jackson with sports, COVID and it’s vaccines with, well... everything), I would be equal parts surprised and impressed.

It was this medley of controversy coming together as Ravens camp opened that’s placed an even bigger target on the back of Jackson, a matter further complicated by the albatross of high stakes negotiations for a new contract hanging on the shoulders of both him and Baltimore’s brass.

With Jackson's current estimated value well exceeding the $40 million mark set by Dak Prescott, it would seem to behoove all parties involved that he keep his profile as low as possible, and his level of play and respected leadership on the practice field paramount. Unlike the polarized nature of the discourse surrounding the young quarterback however, there are plenty of different levels and gray areas surrounding all of the negative buzz he’s engendered in recent months.

Opining on Jackson’s recent positive COVID test, the Baltimore Sun’s Mike Preston headlined his piece with a barb at Jackson’s “poor decision-making,” saying that it was putting the Ravens in a difficult spot.

“But this isn’t just about Jackson on the field,” Preston wrote in the piece. “Remember in March 2019, when he posted a video of himself driving 105 mph without his seat belt fastened? In June 2020, there was Jackson in a video scrambling during a beach football game and falling over a nearby jet ski. Earlier this month, there was footage of Jackson taking reps at wide receiver and defensive back on a basketball court against local players. Come on now, who is advising this guy? Under sound advice, who risks a $40 million a year contract on a cement surface?”

After summarizing all of these (in the eyes of some at least) transgressions, Preston cuts to the core of what he believes to be the issue:

“It’s time for Jackson to put on his big boy pants, grow up and cut out the immature antics,” he wrote. “Harbaugh and team general manager Eric DeCosta are smart and reasonable men. Jackson has tremendous talent, but they also are seeing a pattern of poor decision-making that they haven’t been able to stop. Defending Jackson has to be getting old, from his lack of ability to throw outside the numbers to his antics.”

Harsh, no-nonsense, and in some ways correct. But where Preston (and to be fair, plenty others) are off the mark with Jackson is the continued distillation of the many multitudes of the Lamar Jackson experience into one (yes, polarized) opinion on what he (again, in their eyes) should be doing with his life. At this point we’ve seen it from Mike Florio, Shannon Sharpe, and plenty others, and that’s just over the past few months.

While Jackson’s vaccination status is in fact “personal” as the quarterback recently put it, criticism of his now public decision to not get vaccinated is to some degree fair game due to the nature of the protocols surrounding how it affects teams from a competitive advantage standpoint.

From the NFL’s memo a few weeks ago which lays out clear as day the competitive risk which comes from forgoing the shot:

“If a game is cancelled/postponed because a club cannot play due to a Covid spike among or resulting from its non-vaccinated players/staff, then the burden of the cancellation or delay will fall on the club experiencing the Covid infection,” it states. “We will seek to minimize the burden on the opposing club or clubs. If a club cannot play due to a Covid spike in vaccinated individuals, we will attempt to minimize the competitive and economic burden on both participating teams. If a game cannot be rescheduled within the current 18-week schedule and is cancelled due to a Covid outbreak among non-vaccinated players on one of the competing teams, the club with the outbreak will forfeit the contest and will be deemed to have played 16 games for purposes of draft, waiver priority, etc. For the purposes of playoff seeding, the forfeiting team will be credited with a loss and the other team will be credited with a win.”

Regardless of your thoughts on COVID, the vaccines, personal decision0making, or free will, the NFL has made it as clear as a cold glass of water: If you want to avoid putting your team in a bad spot win-column wise, get the shot. Free will not to get them is a players’ prerogative; freedom from consequences (both from a competitive standpoint, and more serious ones) is not a part of that deal. In that sense, Jackson has opened himself up to criticism from the media and additional censure in the court of public opinion, something he’s well acquainted with at this point.

But it’s this situation that’s only further crystallized just how ridiculous the conversations surrounding Jackson can (and often do) become. It’s a meeting of the absurd and the austere, the real and the fake, the valid and artificial, and it’s all perfectly summarized by the last few months that the soon-to-be-very-wealthy quarterback has had.

Baltimore Ravens Mandatory Minicamp
Critiques of Jackson’s decision not to receive a COVID vaccine is, to an extent, fair game; shots at his decision making thanks to a video of him running on asphalt are, quite frankly, absurd.
Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

Just a few weeks ago, multiple talking heads with massive platforms on major networks took to the airwaves and internet to criticize Jackson over a video which captured the Ravens quarterback running on asphalt at a youth camp he was helping to facilitate. Mount Everest was made of a molehill that Punxsutawney Phil would find inhospitable as countless hours of time and energy were wasted debating whether it was smart for Jackson to be putting himself at risk on the eve of signing his aforementioned contract extension.

At their best, these critiques were well-intentioned but extremely off-target comments on a (yes) personal choice about what a young man should be doing prior to acquiring (*vomits internally*) “generational wealth. At their worst, these critiques were dog-whistle adjacent attempts to drum up views and clicks amongst the content vacuum that is the dog days of summer, intended to rile up Jackson’s supporters and embolden his detractors.

In a world that in the last few years has become extremely serious, heavy, and at times difficult to process, Jackson (to this very day, even amidst these controversies) seems like something of a counter to this in both mind and spirit. Fun, freewheeling, and effortlessly cool, he wears his heart on his sleeve and his at-times boyish wonder about what the world has to offer in the form of a contagious smile on his face. In an era of a pandemic ravaging the world, the last several years of political fallout we’ve all been captive to regardless of how we perceive it, and a general unease surrounding all of that and more as we enter a new decade, Jackson serves (or at the very least could serve) as a totem for what is and isn’t worth our energy in a world that’s constantly trying to sap us of it.

In controversies such as asphalt-gate and the jet ski incident Preston alluded to in his piece, Jackson’s youthful innocence is on full display. Should he be partaking in these activities if he’d like to avoid hurting himself ahead of a potential new contract extension? Perhaps not, but it’s his carefree attitude and supreme confidence in his physical abilities that’s gotten him to this point to begin with. Maybe we in turn should be asking ourselves if a change in attitude more towards Jackson’s way of carrying himself would help us get to the top of our respective professions.

Baltimore Ravens Training Camp
Jackson’s innocence and laser focus on football leave him ill-equipped to properly navigate the PR landmine of the vaccine discussion; Eric DeCosta and John Harbaugh are all too aware of this at this point
Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

It’s this carefree and fun nature that makes dealing with real world issues such as the COVID pandemic and the vaccine debate a much more unenviable task for the young franchise quarterback. Without moralizing on the topic, all I’d say is that I hope to see Jackson seek out the appropriate avenues (actual medical professionals) to discuss whatever concerns he may have to make an informed decision, make whatever decision he may, and then leave it at that.

With all the talk Jackson engages in regarding a championship, you’d think whatever option gives his team the better competitive chances (i.e. getting vaccinated in this case) may carry a bit more weight. But again, it’s his decision and (yes) a personal one. It’s perhaps through the process of making it that we’ll see Jackson (as Preston puts it) grow up before our very eyes, as opposed to via the process of signing a contract extension which is likely a given anyway.

Regardless of all the controversy, it’s in the best interest of everyone that a healthy, happy, and undeterred Lamar Jackson returns to the practice field ready to enter his fourth season as the best version of himself that we’ve ever seen. And perhaps more importantly, not lacking the youthful exuberance that we’ve come to love him for — both for how it makes him come across as likable and genuine and how it represents a sense of self-belief that often accompanies a young man of his extraordinary talents, unchecked by the weight of repeated failure. A few months ago, three-time major champion golfer Padraig Harrington offered up a few thoughts on the idea of “experience” as a benefit ahead of the PGA Championship that I’ve thought a lot about since hearing them:

“Yeah, look, people often ask in a general term about experience,” he said, when asked if his tenure on the tour would provide him with a competitive advantage that weekend. “Well, as you gain experience, you lose innocence. I suppose if you drew a graph, there’s a crossing point of equilibrium where you have some experience and a certain amount of innocence and enthusiasm. As you get a little bit older and you get all this experience, on paper people might think you get better with experience, but as I said, you’ve seen a few things that you know in your game that you probably never wanted to see, so you kind of lose that little bit of, I suppose, innocence. It’s not everything it’s cracked up to be to have experience.”

Jackson has been in the NFL for three years. Over those three years, he’s seen a lot – more than most quarterbacks (even some good ones) typically do over the course of their careers. The lows of playoff losses, the highs of an unprecedented MVP season, the grind of reviving his team from 7-6 COVID-ridden outfit to an 11-5 record, and finally getting over the hump in the postseason with a gritty wildcard win in Nashville. Jackson has certainly been around the block but in both attitude and practical terms, he’s clearly yet to cross over Harrington’s equilibrium point — or at least whatever the equivalent of it would be for a football player.

He sits in the sweet spot with a smile on his face and a youthful pep in his step, a good example of what good natured optimism can do for a person in otherwise dark times in the world. He’s not perfect by any means and there are many people much better equipped to expound upon serious issues like COVID. However, due to his standing and stature as the quarterback of a high-profile NFL team, he’s found himself directly in the thick of it.

It’ll be through both his words and his actions in the coming weeks that will determine whether and to what degree Jackson has grown via the experience of the last week and a half. Without shouting at him from a soapbox or endorsing his actions as a proxy to confirm our biases, we should all simply hope he’s grown a bit, and for the better. But not too much to the point that he loses even some of his trademark innocence, both for the competitive advantages it provides him, and the personal benefits as well.

An authentic and happy Lamar Jackson is what we’d all like to see as he makes his return to Ravens camp. Here’s to hoping that’s exactly what we get as he retakes the field.