One by one, the most respected voices on the 2022 Ravens stepped up to issue their closing statements on a rocky season that had ended Sunday night with their 24-17 playoff defeat to the Cincinnati Bengals.
One by one, they said they would prefer to move forward with Lamar Jackson, the quarterback who had missed the last six games because of a widely debated knee injury.
At a time when the outside world wondered if the Ravens had begun to splinter because of Jackson’s absence and his uncertain contract status, teammates defended his efforts to get back to the field and said their future would be brighter with him in it.
“You can’t let a guy like him go,” veteran defensive end Calais Campbell said. “I know it’s football and there’s always some new exciting toy, a new exciting kid that has potential to go out there and be great, but this is a for-sure, a known. You know Lamar Jackson is an incredible player. I think it’s in the best interest of the Ravens organization to give him a long-term contract and make him our guy. I know the front office is feeling the same thing. They’re smart guys.”
Jackson, 26, was at the Ravens’ practice facility Monday as the 2022 team met for the final time and players cleaned out their lockers. But he did not speak to reporters, leaving his recent social media posts as our only portal into his thinking as he exits another injury-aborted season and turns toward free agency. The only remaining item in his locker was a bobblehead of himself, holding the 2019 NFL Most Valuable Player award.
The Ravens still have time to negotiate an extension with their quarterback, or they could use the franchise tag — a mechanism by which NFL teams pay premium salaries to keep players off the open market — to retain him in 2023. For quarterbacks, the cost would be roughly $45 million for one year; teams have a 15-day window from Feb. 21 to March 7 to designate a franchise player. Or they could do the previously unthinkable and trade the dazzling performer who seemed on track to become the defining Baltimore athlete of his generation.
Jackson’s knee injury not only derailed the Ravens’ season, it illustrated the eternal tension, perhaps greater in pro football than any other sport, between sacrificing for team success and protecting one’s own health and earning potential.
The Ravens were designed to win with Jackson as their engine and sure enough, they sputtered when he was out of the picture, scoring 16, 3, 17, 13, 16 and 17 points in the six games he did not play. Fans’ hopes rose with every report of his imminent return and fell each day he did not trot onto the practice field.
This was no ordinary injury vigil because Jackson is no ordinary player, and he’s about to earn life-altering money, either from the Ravens or another team. With hundreds of millions of dollars at stake, some observers inevitably wondered if Jackson was refusing to play hurt because he worried about his wallet.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh painted an optimistic picture, initially suggesting Jackson would miss just a week or two after he limped to the locker room on the first Sunday of December. Harbaugh’s updates grew more cryptic over time, but he maintained that Jackson had a good chance to be back for the playoffs. Thus the disconnect when Jackson took the extraordinary step of providing his own medical update three days before the Ravens would face the Cincinnati Bengals in the wild-card round of the playoffs.
“There is still inflammation surrounding my knee and my knee remains unstable,” the 2019 NFL Most Valuable Player wrote to his 1.1 million Twitter followers. “I’m still in good spirits, as I continue with treatments on the road to recovery. I wish I could be out there with my guys more than anything but I can’t give a 100% of myself to my guys and fans I’m still hopeful we still have a chance.”
Suddenly, the discourse around Jackson went nuclear, with some fans, teammates and former players empathizing while others suggested he could and should do more to rescue the Ravens.
“It’s the playoffs; you’re three games away [from the Super Bowl],” chided former NFL quarterback Michael Vick, one of Jackson’s boyhood heroes, on Fox’s NFL pregame show. “Put a brace on it. Get it going.”
Jackson’s former Ravens teammate Robert Griffin III fired back, noting that his career was never the same after he attempted to play hurt at the end of his rookie season in 2012.
“This is why you don’t just put a brace on it and play,” Griffin wrote on Twitter, accompanied by a photo of him stumbling with a brace on his knee. “Played with no ACL and LCL for my brothers/team changed the trajectory of my career. Hindsight is 20/20. I didn’t have the luxury of that. Lamar does. He is DOING THE RIGHT THING.”
Former Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan chimed in on ESPN to say Jackson has played his last game for the team. “This organization has a business model; they stay with it,” he said, predicting the Ravens will trade Jackson for at least two first-round picks. “They value draft picks. They also develop players. That’s what this organization does. And if I’m a betting man, I think that’s going to happen.”
Most Ravens offered minimal comments on Jackson as the team prepared for its playoff matchup with the Bengals, but wide receiver Sammy Watkins was an exception, telling The Washington Post, “I hope he hobbles back out there.”
Watkins was a Raven in 2021 and rejoined the team last month after the Green Bay Packers released him. Many fans and commentators wondered if his comments reflected growing frustration with Jackson inside the team’s locker room.
Running back J.K. Dobbins added fuel after the Ravens’ season-ending loss when he concluded a frustrated commentary on his own lack of carries by saying “if we’d have had Lamar, we’d have won too.”
If there was bubbling dissension, however, it was not evident Monday afternoon as the Ravens stuffed their gear into garbage bags and prepared to part until summer.
Reporters crowded around Watkins to ask if he would double down on his previous comments about Jackson. “If a guy is hurt and can’t play, he shouldn’t be out there,” Watkins said. “I was just very selfish in saying, ‘Shoot, I hope he plays, and I hope he hobbles out there.’ It was nothing personal. [Lamar] said something to me the other day; we laughed about it.”
Left tackle Ronnie Stanley felt outside pressure to play before his ankle felt fully healed at the start of the 2021 season. He performed poorly in one game, then decided to have a second surgery. When he came back in 2022, he was determined not to enter a game until he felt 100% confident in his health.
He brought that perspective to his outlook on Jackson, the man he’s paid to protect: “I never once questioned Lamar’s tactics when it came to his body. He knows what’s going on in his body more than we all know. I felt the same about my situation. There are a lot of things that may look good to the normal eye that may seem like someone can perform, but when you do this at a high level, you know if you can be effective or not.”
Player after player testified to the seriousness of Jackson’s injury, which he said in his Twitter post was a Grade 2 sprain (or partial tear) of his posterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.
Campbell has played 15 NFL seasons and suggested that with greater experience, Jackson will “learn how to take care of his body in different ways” so he will be equipped to rehabilitate injuries more efficiently.
But the gravel-voiced veteran dismissed criticism of Jackson’s efforts as “a lot of outside noise.”
“I was rehabbing with him,” Campbell said. “I know he put the work in; he just didn’t get back in time. Those injuries, I know how it goes.”
Harbaugh and Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta have yet to say their final peace on the 2022 season. The window for the Ravens to place a franchise tag on Jackson, a likely step whether they plan to negotiate an extension or explore a trade, will open Feb. 21. For now, everyone who cares about his future in Baltimore will wait.