First some things I learned from weekend videoconferences with the Ravens. For the last five months, Jackson’s days were like all of ours: Groundhog Day.
“I’m just like you, Mr. Peter,” he said. (That’s what he calls me, the sort of respectful Southern honorific.) “It was very awkward and very weird. We couldn’t be places. We had to be inside sometimes. Especially in Florida, they were closing things down for us. Sometimes my teammates couldn’t fly in. We had to just make the best of it. Like the guys who stayed in Florida, I worked with those guys. But the times when they were letting us, a couple guys flew down. A few rookies flew down and we got our grind on and worked.”
Otherwise, he said, “I guess I just quarantined. I stayed away from everything. Stay safe. Just followed the rules. I didn’t really go out. I didn’t go out to party, stuff like that. I don’t feel like I should be celebrating anything no time soon. They were telling us to stay inside, you know, keep your mask on, keep your hand sanitizer. And that’s what I did. I was missing football. I was missing OTAs. It was like, ‘Man, when we gonna be able to go back?’ We started waiting for the call. They’d be like, just wait on it, we’ll have to see come June. I’m like, God, we might never play football this year. But then we got a call. We gotta report in July. It was great. I’m happy to be back right now.”
For every team, it’s been weird since March. The pandemic and the distancing and the George Floyd-prompted examining of consciences and the impersonal virtual learning and the enforced banishment for six months from their workplace and the underlying question in everyone’s mind every day: Can pro football really get played in a pandemic, particularly without a bubble?
Jackson and Harbaugh both took off masks when they sat down to talk with me. It’s a new normal for everyone. Three times after games last year, I spent 10 minutes or so with Jackson, getting to know him a bit. This year, these videos or the phone will be it. “We’ll keep our social distance this year,” Jackson said with a chuckle. No more trips, for the time being, into a raucous and fun Ravens’ locker room, where Jackson, in his MVP season, became the unquestioned leader though he did it in a Brady way—quietly, with an easy confidence, letting others tell the loud jokes. Those others often looked to Jackson for approval. It’s tough to own a locker room at 22, but from what I saw (and what I heard from others in there), Jackson managed it.
The Ravens will be a fascinating team to watch, however this frenetic season plays out. They suffered but one major loss—borderline Hall of Fame-candidate guard Marshal Yanda, who retired—but added four big pieces:
• Ohio State running back J.K. Dobbins, who had every bit the Ohio State career but less fanfare than Ezekiel Elliott, was a bargain-bin draft choice at 55 overall, 51 slots lower than Elliott went in 2016—as if the Ravens needed a boost in the league’s top-rated run game. How could a run game that averaged 206 yards per outing be better in 2020? Maybe it can’t, but Dobbins’ presence might smartly cut down Jackson’s 11.7 rushes/exposures per game.
• Devin Duvernay, the third-round receptions machine from Texas, is a strong 4.39 40-time alternative to take some of the heat off Hollywood Brown; Duvernay went to Florida to run routes for Jackson in the offseason. You can be sure the Ravens, who traded Hayden Hurst to Atlanta before the draft, will move away from the tight-end-heavy offense in recent NFL annals. Amazing study in Aaron Schatz’s Football Outsiders Almanac 2020: Baltimore targeted tight ends on 42 percent of its passes last year, the most in the NFL in the last 35 years.
• On defense, 35-year-old physical marvel Calais Campbell, Pro Football Focus’s top-rated 3-4 defensive end last year, comes in to anchor a solid front.
• First-round linebacker Patrick Queen will have the chance to be the sideline-to-sideline player Wink Martindale’s defense craves in a linebacker.
Good thing Jackson got to throw to his wide receivers in public parks in and around Hollywood, Fla., in the spring. Because he’ll almost certainly be more dependent on them this year.
Now for the 28-12 clunker the top-seeded Ravens played to end the season, the game that still embitters Jackson. The Ravens were successful on 71 percent of fourth downs last year (more on that in a minute), but four times in the maddening loss to the Titans they went for it on fourth down and failed. Just a bizarre bit of malfeasance for Jackson that afternoon: two fourth-down incompletions, two failed fourth-down conversion runs, and two interceptions inside the Tennessee 25-yard line. Five dropped passes. On the other side, 37 rushes for the Titans for 217 yards. No answer for Derrick Henry.
“A perfect storm of bad football for us,” DeCosta said. “Defense gave up some big runs, couldn’t make it on fourth down, dropped passes. Just one of those weird games. I do not know what to chalk it up to, honestly. And Tennessee was really, really tough.”
The numbers, though, are the numbers. Second straight year that a strong offense came up way short. Jackson in the regular season: 19-3, 104.7 rating. Playoffs: 0-2, 68.3 rating.
DeCosta: “I do not subscribe to the theory Lamar cannot win a playoff game. I saw him beat playoff team after playoff team—New England, Seattle, San Francisco, Buffalo, Houston. We just weren’t good enough that day. We own it, and we move on.”
“I just want to get back to that situation so I can perform different,” Jackson said. “Just put it on my shoulders and go from there. I gotta fight to get back to that situation. It’s gonna be a different result this time.”
“They played a really solid Mike Vrabel-type football game,” Harbaugh said. “It happens in football. We’re not . . . we’re not re-questioning everything.”
Watching the Ravens last year, you just got the feeling Jackson would make the play when they needed one. In the Tennessee game, Jackson ran for 143 yards . . . but on the two runs he really needed a hole, two fourth-and-one tries, he hit walls. But the great ones find a way to make plays when the games are difficult like that. Jackson knows that great players are defined by success in January, not October.
But it’s so early in his career, and two games do not prove a guy can’t win in the playoffs. In his short time at Baltimore’s helm, Jackson has shown he deserves the trust of his coach, and of his team, entering year three. A fourth down last October might be the biggest reason why. Baltimore at Seattle, Week 7, late third quarter, 13-all. Already in the game, Harbaugh had chosen to kick field goals on fourth-and-three and fourth-and-eight. Now, on fourth-and-two from the Seattle 8, Harbaugh sent the field-goal team on, content with taking a 16-13 lead with 17 minutes to play.
The offense came off. Jackson, winded after rushing for 13 yards to make it fourth-and-two, glared at his coach.
“I could just see it in his face,” Harbaugh said. “He was so ticked off. Like we’re surrendering . . . I’m like, ‘What? What? You wanna go for it?’ He’s like, heck yeah.”
On the TV replay, Harbaugh can be seen saying to someone on the sideline, “GO FOR IT.” One problem: On the field, the play clock is down to :08, kicker Justin Tucker just blessed himself (his pre-field-goal ritual), and, at :06, snapper Morgan Cox begins to flinch like he’s about to throw it back for the kick. Harbaugh, meanwhile, frantically went down the sideline to call time. At :05, they got the timeout.
Now here came one of the heaviest packages in the NFL: six offensive linemen, three tight ends, and 311-pound whamback (my word, not theirs) Patrick Ricard coming in motion as another pounder in the hole. Jackson, still a bit winded, took the snap, followed these giants to the right, forcing Bobby Wagner to get lost in the scrum, planted his right foot in the ground, jutted through the hole, and sprinted/dove for the touchdown.
Jackson stuck his neck out, even with just a glare. Harbaugh believed in him, and Jackson delivered. The cast will be a little different this year, and maybe Jackson runs for 900 yards instead of 1,200. But he knows success this year will be getting the Ravens deep into the playoffs. Very deep.
“I think about it a lot, to be honest with you,” he told me near the end of our time. “That’s where I wanna be. That’s when everything gets . . . crucial. It’s tough. I remember LeGarrette Blount DM’d me on Instagram. He was like, you know, playoffs is different from regular season. I’m like, nah. But it is, because it’s win or go home. And I’m tired of going home. I just can’t wait to get back in that same spot and perform at a whole ‘nother level.”
Assuming this COVID world allows winter football, Jackson should get that chance.