Dear Lamar, It's Time To Deliver
By Martin Rogers
Okay, Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens, here is another chance, and now it really is the last one. If 2020 is going to be something other than an empty write-off, it is time to get going.
Back at the turn of the year, the Ravens and their electrifying, game-changing, transcendent quarterback were breathing rare air, flushed with the lift of having gone 14-2 and jubilant at the way Jackson’s multitude of threats appeared to be an insoluble conundrum for National Football League defenses.
They were the Super Bowl favorites at the time, poised for a home matchup with the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship, and Jackson had just been deservedly awarded the league MVP.
Then, on Jan. 11, they got stunned by the Tennessee Titans in their playoff opener. And then … 2020 only got worse from there, which brings us to Tuesday (yes, Tuesday football!) and a clash with the Dallas Cowboys (8 p.m. ET on FOX) where there is no more room to maneuver around.
“Both,” replied Ravens head coach John Harbaugh, when asked whether he and his group were focused more intently on this week’s matchup or the reality that, at 6-5, nothing short of five straight wins may be required to secure a playoff spot. “I think the guys understand the big picture. You try to understand the immediate important thing we think about and try to have a long view as well.”
Let’s get a few things straight, because just as overreaction sometimes prevails when a young QB starts to make waves, so too can it be the case when he starts to exhibit his first signs of struggle.
Over these coming weeks, Jackson is not fighting for his reputation as one of the game’s leading lights. His ability to harm defensive schemes with his arm strength and foot speed still stands. He’s not defending his deservedness of what will surely be an upcoming contract in the $40 million per year range, and all things being equal, the Ravens’ position as a team capable of being a contender over the next several seasons should not be in jeopardy.
This is, simply, a matter for now. The Ravens have had a season of limbo and tumult after going into it with stratospheric aims and expectations. Most things that could have gone wrong, have, and the case that is about to be heard – starting with the Cowboys game - is whether despite it all, the Ravens salvage something from 2020 other than regret.
“It does seem there is a need for Lamar to play better, because his numbers are down across the board from his MVP season,” FS1’s Nick Wright said recently on First Things First. “It does seem the league is catching up to him and figuring out a bit the Ravens offensive approach.”
Certainly, there have been some missteps. Against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 8, Jackson was responsible for four turnovers in a four-point loss that set the outcome of the AFC North on its current path.
Jackson recently complained about opposition defenses knowing and calling out the Ravens plays at the line of scrimmage, a failure of planning the appropriate disguising signals. To combat his quickness and dexterity, teams have come with far heavier man coverages.
Injuries hit the Ravens hard, then COVID-19 hit them harder, with more than 20 players and staff contracting the virus, including Jackson himself – on Thanksgiving no less.
And yet, opportunity lingers. While Baltimore would not commit to Jackson’s status earlier in the week, the Ravens did announce today that their star signal-caller has been activated from the Reserve/COVID-19 list.
For a team that might need to win out, the schedule is mightily pretty. Four of their five opponents, the Cowboys, Jacksonville Jaguars, New York Giants and Cincinnati Bengals, have a combined record of 11-35-1. The other, the increasingly confident Cleveland Browns, comes next Monday, a meeting that could allow the Ravens to narrow the gap on Cleveland to a single game, with the tiebreaker in hand.
The fixture list looks so good, in fact, that Five Thirty Eight rates Baltimore (55 percent) more likely to extend its season than either the AFC East-leading Miami Dolphins (43 percent) or the Las Vegas Raiders (47 percent). According to FOX Bet, the Ravens are listed at 33-to-1 odds to win Super Bowl LV, the same odds as both Miami (8-4) and Tennessee (8-4), who are well-ahead of Baltimore in the win column.
Even so, improvement is needed. Jackson’s QB rating has dipped from 113.3 to 93.4 this year, and with 15 touchdowns in 10 games, he is way behind the pace of last year’s tally of 36. Receivers Marquise Brown, Willie Snead and Miles Boykin have not quite met expectations, while tight end Mark Andrews’ COVID diagnosis is being handled with extra care as he has Type-1 diabetes.
“That offense is designed to be explosive with Lamar’s legs,” Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe said on Undisputed. “They haven’t been that. For that offense to be successful, Lamar is going to have to throw the football. I am not seeing the progression of him throwing the football that I need to.”
Baltimore’s ability means they remain a team to watch. Even if this does become a lost campaign, that doesn’t necessarily change. But the NFL is a league where a lot can alter quickly and chances need to be taken when they emerge. The way it sets up this season was always supposed to be theirs, and Jackson’s.
There have been plenty of excuses, legitimate ones, but there is no place for them now. The clock has nearly run out. It is time to deliver.