OWINGS MILLS, Md.--The Baltimore Ravens entered wild-card week against the Cincinnati Bengals with cautious optimism. Quarterback Lamar Jackson had injured his left knee in Week 13, but players and coaches figured he'd be back for the playoffs, according to multiple team sources.
Four to six weeks seemed like a worst-case scenario for recovery, and for a team that closed the regular season losing three of four, including Week 18 vs. the Bengals, help was needed.
But signs of a return weren't evident. Some in the building were concerned when Jackson didn't practice at all during Week 18. Over recent weeks, Jackson had attended quarterback meetings but wasn't a fixture in team settings as he rehabbed in relative isolation, according to team sources. The only game he traveled to was at Pittsburgh the week after he injured the knee against Denver. Jackson wasn't on the field for team work during the week.
Players took the field for their first practice of the postseason on Wednesday, Jan. 11, to find Jackson still absent. He was gone that week because of illness. Once-hopeful team members started to wonder what was going on. Players who spoke with Jackson got indications he wouldn't be able to go.
Then, hours after Thursday's practice session, at 5:41 p.m. ET, Jackson dropped a now-famous tweet, describing his injury as a Grade 2 PCL sprain with inflammation surrounding the knee and announcing he would not be playing.
Players had wrapped post-practice meetings by that point; many were headed home. Coaches were in their offices or in meetings.
"Whoo, boy -- I was shocked by that," a team source said.
Coach John Harbaugh said he wasn't aware Jackson was going to tweet about his injury and hadn't "paid much attention to it."
One team source was under the impression Jackson could have played without risking further damage to the knee, but once it became clear Jackson didn't feel right, "How do you dispute that?" the source said. "You have to respect the player's outlook on his own injury."
The Ravens lost 24-17 to the Bengals in a game that turned on backup quarterback Tyler Huntley's fourth-quarter fumble at the goal line. Jackson did not travel with the team to Cincinnati, but he was back in the locker room the day after the game for the final team meeting.
Jackson was his usual friendly self, dapping up teammates, even having a laugh with wide receiver Sammy Watkins over his pregame comments urging Jackson to play. "Damn, Sam," Jackson told Watkins with a smile.
Although all Ravens personnel interviewed by ESPN considered Jackson's injury legitimate, a few wondered whether having been granted a new contract five months earlier might have made taking the field in the playoffs a little easier for Jackson.
"Lamar can speak to that, but my feeling is no," Ravens GM Eric DeCosta said after the season. "I think Lamar was hurt. We see him every single day -- he's hurt.
"And his unique style as a player, as a quarterback, but as a mobile quarterback ... having a knee injury -- a serious knee injury -- makes it difficult. And so, it's just unfortunate that he got hurt [and] the timing of it. I know he was trying to come back. ... It was just bad timing, and I think bad luck for us and bad luck for Lamar."
If this past season was supposed to provide clarity about Jackson's future in Baltimore, it achieved the opposite. The question of whether the two sides will agree on an extension is as unclear as ever. But a couple of things are clear: The Ravens will have to place the franchise tag on Jackson by March 7 to keep him from becoming a free agent; and there will be no long-term deal unless the Ravens or Jackson -- who is not represented by an agent -- back off the stance each holds regarding guaranteed money.
Jackson -- who has vowed not to speak publicly about his contract since the start of the 2022 regular season -- wants a fully guaranteed deal in line with the five-year, $230 million contract the Cleveland Browns gave Deshaun Watson in March. The Ravens, meanwhile, are balking at guaranteeing the full amount, according to team sources. Jackson turned down a five-year, $250 million contract in September that included $133 million guaranteed -- far less than Watson's deal, but more than the guaranteed figures awarded to Russell Wilson ($124 million) and Kyler Murray ($103.3 million) last offseason.
According to a source with knowledge of Jackson's contract negotiations, all of his counteroffers to the Ravens last year were for fully guaranteed contracts that exceeded that of Watson, who signed his deal with the Browns after being traded from the Houston Texans and before serving an 11-game suspension for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy by committing sexual assault, as defined by the league, on massage therapists.Stephen A., Keyshawn clash over Lamar's next contract
Stephen A. Smith and Keyshawn Johnson break down how they would structure a deal for Lamar Jackson.
"Just because the Browns were desperate doesn't mean that the Ravens are," one high-ranking NFL executive said. "They are a stable franchise. They aren't about to jump at something just because Cleveland did it."
If there is no compromise, the possibility of the Ravens trading Jackson, who in 2019 joined Tom Brady as the only unanimous MVPs in NFL history, has never been more likely. That's assuming another team would be willing to make the necessary commitment, which likely would mean multiple first-round picks to the Ravens and a fully guaranteed deal for Jackson.
Which tag the Ravens choose could be telling. On a non-exclusive franchise tag, prospective teams can submit an offer sheet if willing to relinquish two first-round picks to acquire Jackson in a deal with Baltimore. The exclusive tag, set at $45 million, lets the Ravens control the trade terms. If Baltimore wants more than two first-rounders for him, the exclusive tag is the way to go.
"A couple of months ago, I would have said no way [that a trade will happen]," a team source said in the days after the playoff loss. "Now it feels like anything is possible."
EARLY ON, ITlooked as if Jackson made the right choice by betting on himself and not signing a deal before the 2022 season. He was named AFC Offensive Player of the Month in September after he became the first player in NFL history with at least three touchdown passes and 100 yards rushing in consecutive games.
Then Jackson hit the biggest rut of his career. Over his next nine games, he threw seven touchdown passes and five interceptions.
Not surprisingly, Jackson no longer appeared to be the playful figure who famously danced with teammates on the sideline, handed out water to players during his first Pro Bowl and somersaulted into the end zone to finish off a touchdown run.
Even when things were going well, Jackson seemed to be more on edge. He got in the face of teammate Ronnie Stanley in a Week 9 win in New Orleans, after the left tackle told him to relax following a penalty. In the same game, Jackson threw his helmet down on the sideline multiple times after missing open receivers and throwing interceptions. Two weeks later, he angrily punted the ball after a delay of game penalty in the red zone against Carolina in a game that extended a four-game win streak.
Asked midseason about whether Jackson had become increasingly frustrated, Harbaugh said there is no measure for "increasingly."
"That's the term someone can throw out there to create a narrative, I guess," Harbaugh said in November. "Lamar hates to lose. We all hate to lose, and we hate to not execute, and we all hate to not score touchdowns in the red zone. So, if that's frustration, sure. I don't mind that kind of frustration; I want us to be frustrated with that."
Despite Jackson's insistence he would not talk about his contract situation after Week 1, he found himself in the middle of that hot topic throughout the season.
In a Week 8 game at Tampa Bay, Jackson threw two touchdown passes in the second half of a 27-22 victory. As he jogged into the tunnel to leave the field, a fan's sign broke off its string and landed by Jackson's feet. It read: "Pay 'Em Now."
Jackson autographed it and gave it back to the fan.
"That was funny," Jackson said afterward. "I saw that land right by me and just had to pick it up."
Lamar Jackson approves this message:— Kimberley A. Martin (@ByKimberleyA) October 28, 2022
"Pay 'em now!" pic.twitter.com/9uRyBb5POf
Four weeks later, Jackson was not in a joking mood after a 28-27 loss at Jacksonville in Week 12. In a tense postgame media session, he was frustrated about the ongoing troubles in the red zone and uncharacteristically cursed when reminded that EverBank Field was where he lost his final college game. "I lost again, so f--- this," he said.
Jackson's temper flared even more when he went on social media after the game and saw a tweet from a Ravens fan that read: "someone asking for over $250 million guaranteed like [Jackson] ... games like this should not come down to [kicker] Justin Tucker." The fan added, "Let Lamar walk and spend that money on a well-rounded team."
Jackson snapped back shortly afterward with a profane reply, saying, among other things, that the fan "never smelt a football field." Jackson's tweet was deleted after 3½ hours, and he apologized later that week. That was the last time Jackson spoke to reporters.
Harbaugh said it was "out of character" for Jackson to respond this way, adding, "I've never heard him say things like that before."
A week later, in a 10-9 win over the Denver Broncos in Week 13, Jackson hurt his left knee on the final play of the first quarter and limped to the locker room. He would not play again.
AS SOME OF the best players in the NFL gathered at the Pro Bowl Games in Las Vegas earlier this month, Baltimore cornerback Marlon Humphrey gauged the interest of impending free agents in joining the Ravens.
"Every time I try I'm met with 'Are y'all gonna pay Lamar,'" Humphrey tweeted.
At the Ravens' season-ending news conference in January, DeCosta declined to give a percentage on the odds of getting a deal done with Jackson this year, adding, "It certainly takes two to tango."
The two sides need to bridge their philosophical gap on guaranteed money to agree on a deal, and team officials have said it has been difficult to get Jackson to engage at times during their two years of negotiations since Jackson became eligible for an extension. Several veteran NFL agents say Jackson has shown little to no interest in taking agent meetings, even as dozens have tried. It's unknown whether there have been any substantial contract talks in the five weeks since the season ended.
Jackson's teammate and friend Calais Campbell, who is a 15-year veteran and an NFL Players Association executive committee vice president, is among those who downplays the scrutiny placed on Jackson representing himself.
"It's not like he's just figuring that [contract stuff] out," Campbell told ESPN during the season. "He's spent time and effort to put himself in the best position. ... Most people don't do it in that way. It's kind of admirable."
Jackson is widely considered the best dual-threat quarterback in NFL history, beating defenders with his elusive moves and speed as well as an underrated arm. He became the first player in the league to produce 5,000 yards passing and 2,500 yards rushing in the first three seasons of a career.
His impact on winning is also undeniable. Since 2019, the Ravens are 40-17 with Jackson, averaging 27.5 points per game. Over that same span, Baltimore is 4-9 without him, totaling 17.2 points per game.
The 13 missed games speak to concerns about Jackson's durability, especially after he failed to finish a second straight season. He has been sidelined for 10 of Baltimore's past 22 games, including the postseason.
Despite his recent injuries, Jackson's incomparable skills would make him the marquee quarterback this offseason should Baltimore make him available, according to multiple league execs.
"He goes to the front of the line," an AFC executive said. "There's nobody like him. Maybe there's been some discord there between the player and the team, but overall he's still a great player and he's not a bad guy. The durability is a mild concern."
But multiple rival team officials reached by ESPN said the thought of relinquishing at least two first-round picks -- the baseline asking price, based on the non-exclusive tag -- for the right to pay Jackson between $230 million and $250 million in guaranteed money could give teams pause.
"Teams always need quarterbacks, so there will be interest as a result, especially if the GM and the head coach need to win now," an NFC executive said. "But when you factor in future collateral you have to give up, meeting his contract demands, plus the durability issues, that would be a hard sell. There's a lot to sort through there."
This offseason could also strengthen the Ravens' position on not offering a fully guaranteed contract. If quarterbacks such as the Bengals' Joe Burrow, Los Angeles Chargers' Justin Herbert and Philadelphia Eagles' Jalen Hurts don't get fully guaranteed extensions that exceed the $124 million guaranteed figure given to Wilson, it would underscore how Watson's deal was more an outlier than a precedent. Watson's ability to directly negotiate with prospective trade partners and effectively choose his destination also made his situation unique.
And it probably doesn't help Jackson's leverage that Watson, Wilson and Murray all struggled and posted the lowest QBRs of their careers after signing those deals. Denver and Cleveland gave up a combined five first-round picks for Wilson and Watson and won a combined 12 games last year. Teams that believe you can win with average quarterback play will cite those examples as a reason not to go all-in on Jackson.
For now, Jackson's leverage is in doing nothing. If given the exclusive franchise tag, he can wait to sign -- or not report to the team at all, which is what former Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell did when he sat out the 2018 season.
"It could become a standoff, because I wouldn't expect him to sign the tag for a while," an AFC exec said. "And [the Ravens] will be so far apart in the guaranteed money."
IF JACKSON'S CONTRACTwas the overarching storyline for the Ravens during the 2022 season, the future of offensive coordinator Greg Roman increasingly became a point of contention among fans. Roman resigned Jan. 19, and the timing was noteworthy: Just as Jackson's future with the franchise appeared uncertain, the Ravens sought a new coordinator.
The Ravens spoke with Jackson after they parted ways with Roman, getting his thoughts on personnel and his vision for the offense, a team source said. Baltimore then gave opportunities for Jackson to be involved in the offensive coordinator search. But he did not have direct interaction with any of the candidates.
After interviewing 14 coaches, the Ravens hired Georgia offensive coordinator Todd Monken, who was arguably the hottest candidate available, on Feb. 14. Multiple NFL teams courted Monken, but he prioritized Baltimore, with its stability under Harbaugh and DeCosta and the chance to coach an elite quarterback. The Baltimore OC job was considered the prime position among those available.
The organization greatly respects Roman, whose Ravens were among the league's best rushing offenses from 2019 to 2022. But a passing game heavily reliant on tight ends and running backs ranked 27th or worse in NFL passing yards in three of Roman's four seasons as the playcaller there. A team source said Jackson was not dissatisfied with the greater freedom and empowerment in the passing attack he experienced in a 42-38 loss to Miami (21-of-29 passing, 318 yards, 3 touchdowns) in Week 2, and a new coordinator might be able to give him that. Another team source added that since Jackson believes he can do anything with a football, it can be hard to gauge exactly what he wants, and suppressing his running ability would be foolish.
But clear themes emerged from Baltimore's coordinator search, according to sources involved: The team wants to develop Jackson as a passer, and Harbaugh felt offensive changes were necessary to try to get back to the Super Bowl.
Monken isn't afraid to throw the ball. When Monken was offensive coordinator of the 2018 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Bucs attempted the fourth-most passes in the NFL (625). But that team also threw the most interceptions (26). In fact, in Monken's three years with Tampa Bay (2016-18), the Bucs had the second-most turnovers in the league (89). That pattern continued when he joined the Browns in 2019 as Baker Mayfield threw 21 interceptions, second most in the NFL. Distorting that picture is the fact that, although he called plays for one of college football's premier offenses at Georgia, Monken did not call plays for most of his NFL coordinator stints.Should the Ravens put the franchise tag on Lamar Jackson?
Mike Tannenbaum and Domonique Foxworth discuss the possibility of the Ravens putting the franchise tag on Lamar Jackson and whether he would even agree to it.
The topic of Jackson was a central piece of the coordinator interview process. The Ravens probed candidates on how they would improve Jackson and build rapport with him, said a source with knowledge of the process.
The coaches outlined plans for Jackson, from footwork to throwing on the run more to offensive concepts for him to study.
One candidate said he came away with the sense Baltimore was planning for Jackson to be back. Another candidate presented offensive plans with or without Jackson, just in case.
At a critical juncture for Harbaugh, the 16th-year Ravens coach must chart a path with Jackson or hope for success following the example of the Seattle Seahawks, who built their roster around a new quarterback. After Wilson was traded following 10 seasons in Seattle, his replacement, Geno Smith, became the surprise story of the NFL, winning Comeback Player of the Year after guiding the Seahawks to the playoffs. Such a route, of course, would come with considerable risk for the Ravens.
If the Ravens parted ways with Jackson, the team would acquire enough draft capital to select a top quarterback prospect in this year's draft or next year. Baltimore can add a veteran stopgap such as the free agent Mayfield, who has ties with the Ravens' new offensive coordinator. In 2019, Mayfield threw for a career-best 3,827 yards passing in his only season with Monken as his coordinator.
A fallback, short-term option is Huntley, Jackson's primary backup for the past two seasons and a restricted free agent. But the Baltimore offense struggled mightily last season under Huntley, totaling four touchdowns in his five starts. Huntley's fumble at the goal line was also the decisive play in the postseason loss in Cincinnati.Ninkovich urges Ravens to 'do the right thing' and sign Lamar
Rob Ninkovich and Domonique Foxworth agree that the Baltimore Ravens should stop waiting and sign Lamar Jackson to a new contract.
Harbaugh's players have made their preference clear. During the NFL Network's Super Bowl pregame show, Campbell said Baltimore should not consider trading Jackson, calling him "a legend" and the ultimate X factor.
"When we're on the football field and we know Lamar Jackson is back there quarterbacking, we believe we can beat anybody," Campbell said. "We can't just put anybody back there and expect to be a great football team."
Campbell added, "In business, you're going to have times when you have to entertain ideas, and somebody might come and say, 'Hey, we'll give you five first-round picks or whatever.' But who do you replace him with?
"There's no guarantee that one of these rookie quarterbacks will come in and be a Lamar Jackson. You go to get a free agent and you don't know how they're really going to fit. And really, there's no free agents out there that are Lamar Jackson. So whatever we need to do. Hey, Eric DeCosta, I love you. Let's find a way to make this happen, baby."
DeCosta has shown that he isn't afraid to move big-name players. He traded Pro Bowl offensive tackle Orlando Brown Jr. and first-round pick Marquise Brown in the past two offseasons, receiving first-round picks in return.
Parting ways with Jackson would be on a different level, however. There have been only nine trades involving NFL MVP quarterbacks -- from Roman Gabriel in 1969 to Matt Ryan last year -- since the award was first given out 66 years ago. No MVP quarterback has ever been traded before the age of 30. Jackson is 26.
DeCosta did not shoot down the possibility when asked whether the team would entertain trade offers.
"That's something that we're not going to talk about at this point," DeCosta said in January. "Our focus right now is really to get a long-term deal done; that's our singular focus at this point.
"It's going to take some time, it's going to take some effort, it's going to take great communication -- give and take -- but I'm confident that we'll be on the right path to get that done."
The next step on that path is expected to be the franchise tag -- the window to tag players opened Tuesday and closes March 7. What happens from there will frame one of the most compelling storylines of the offseason.
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