Lamar Jackson entered Baltimore a strange sort of figure. One introduced perhaps ahead of his time, to sit and watch and learn from more experienced hands, before being promoted to fill the void generated by the inevitable, but not yet apparent, departure of Joe Flacco. Jackson was a saviour-in-waiting, all the promise and potential in the world stoppered up in a bottle and placed on a high shelf, while his fellow rookie quarterbacks descended on the league, and began to impose their visions of football’s future, all death stares and running and delightful gung-ho abandon; Jackson was, and was always planned to be, an enigma, at least for the foreseeable future.
But now his rookie campaign is over, and he has become far more than hope in a glass. He has become the present of Baltimore, not its idealised, rose-tinted future, leading the team to an impressive playoff berth and orchestrating the greatest running attack to grace the NFL in close to 40 years. He may well be a generational talent – provided he can learn to throw the ball with a modicum of accuracy – but he has also proven himself to be a generational human being.
“I see something long-absent in the sunken faces of passersby: a glimmer of hope”
By Week 10 of the season, the future looked dim for the Ravens. A battered squad sat at 4-5, fresh off a three-game losing streak against the Saints, Panthers and Steelers, two of them one-score games, and one of them a crushing one-point defeat against New Orleans in the Superdome. Former Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco also looked irreparably damaged, his body wounded and slow, his arm gashed and twisted, and his statistical performances backed up the decline: in the first four games of the season, with the Ravens jumping out of the gate to a 3-1 start, he threw for 1,252 yards and a TD:INT ratio of 8:2; in the next five, as the team slumped to a 1-4 stretch, he threw for 1,213 yards and a ratio of 4:4.
But the Football Gods threw the Ravens a bone, and as the team’s brass sat huddled around their campfires, wagons circled ahead of a season-defining game against the division rival Bengals, news broke that Flacco’s hip injury would keep him out of the game. Many had been clamouring for Jackson, and his almost sorcerous ability to run the football, to be taken off the shelf and released onto an NFL field; with the coaches’ hands forced by injury, the rookie was thrown into the fire, and the Ravens soared.
The team went 6-1 over the last seven weeks of the season to sprint to an AFC North title and the number four seed. While Jackson himself was thoroughly impressive, leading the charge with 556 yards and four scores in those seven starts, including a crucial brace in the Week 17 finale against the Browns to book their tickets to the playoffs, he did what only a few players have done throughout league history, and elevate the play of the team around them. Tom Brady does it. Andrew Luck does it. Baker Mayfield is starting to do it; and Jackson did it over the last seven games of the season.
The Ravens were built in the image of the historic 2000 team, with a suffocating defence that kept games close, providing a platform for an offence to do just enough to get over the line. But defence-first football is most effectively teamed with a powerful running game on offence, to maintain possession of the ball, keep the defence fresh, and ensure a close, low-scoring affair; Flacco has never offered such a thing, but Jackson certainly does. In the mould of the 2015 Panthers, armed with an all-time linebacking corps and an offence that flowed through deceptive running, the Ravens squeezed 654 yards out of undrafted rookie Gus Edwards alone and romped into the playoffs as the one team no other side would like to face, and a dark horse for many to reach the Super Bowl.
Not since the division rival Steelers and Ben Roethlisberger has a rookie quarterback found himself in such a perfect environment, and primed for such immediate success.
“The human mind; fragile like a robin’s egg”
Much of Jackson’s success had come with a wave of euphoric delight; of hope that the drudgery of the latter Flacco years would be done away with for good; of genuine excitement at the youngest quarterback to ever start a playoff game leading the Ravens to host a playoff game against the Los Angeles Chargers, and beyond, for the next decade; all wonder and heart.
Then on Sunday, a wave of Horror spread around M&T Bank Stadium. Piercing tentacles, shining in white and gold, sprung out of the ground, from the sidelines, and down from the heavens themselves, pinning the wide-eyed denizens of the Ravens’ Flock, choking the hope from them, and sending torrents of madness crashing around the seats.
On the pitch, the abominable bolts presented a more tangible threat, great walls of pulsing sinew and muscle, that seemed to ebb and flow in perfect harmony with the beleaguered Ravens, mirroring their every moves, harassing them in backfields, and killing their offence before it could lumber out of the starting blocks. They were shiftier, stronger and smarter than their opponents, sending All-Pro defensive backs hurtling through chinks in the Ravens’ line, claws and teeth and steel eviscerating the greatest running attack of the last 40 years within a mere half hour, an effortless dominance that burst the Jackson bubble, and brought the team crashing down to earth, suddenly aware of the realities of their existence: their offence is offensively one-dimensional and almost entirely reliant on rookies.
But by far the ugliest scenes came in the stands, as the Ravens faithful vented their frustrations in entirely the wrong way, by fighting amongst themselves, and with Chargers fans; bodies hurtled over chairs, fists flung and barbed words traded up and down the bleachers. Many more called for a return to Flacco as a collective violent hysteria gripped the stadium, and cornerback Jimmie Smith was seen arguing with fans, insisting that they should be supporting Jackson and his offence as they huddled under the Chargers’ siege, rather than call for an injured and out-of-form Flacco to return to the field.
“A moment of valour shines brightest against a backdrop of despair”
As all Hell broke loose around him, and his team’s season stared into the depths of its own mortality, Jackson remained calm. While he did not put up a stunning statistical performance by any stretch – 14 of 29 passing for 194 yards, two scores and a pick – those scores both came in the last seven minutes of a game that was, for the most part, completely lost, as the Chargers sat atop a 20-point lead with nine minutes left to play. Jackson remained oblivious to the calls from his own supporters for him to be replaced, and managed to find holes in the swarming white jerseys that had wrecked the Baltimore offence for the prior 51 minutes, and author a pair of touchdown drives totalling 20 plays and over 150 yards.
And while the Ravens will go into the offseason with considerable work to do to their offence, namely in improving Jackson’s throwing ability, and finding him some receivers with which to play catch, their quarterback has already displayed an incredible mental resilience, and ability to perform in the clutch, that single him out for greatness, even at this incredibly early stage of his career.
The 2018 Ravens were defined not by what they did on the field necessarily, but by the hope that underpinned a lot of those games; the AFC North can quite cleanly be divided into those going backwards – the head coach-less Bengals and the soon-to-be-Antonio-Brown-less Steelers – and those going forwards – the Browns and Ravens, buoyed by exciting young quarterbacks – and the Ravens will be excited to be on the positive side of that distinction. And with a quarterback with such a positive, seemingly unbreakable mentality, let’s hope the Ravens can keep up a similarly optimistic outlook on their team; passion over violence, perspective over expectation, because they might just have a diamond under centre.