Lamar Jackson wasn’t with the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday night during their AFC wild-card game against the Cincinnati Bengals. Not on the plane. Not on the bus. Not in the locker room and not on the sideline.
His social media accounts during an excruciatingly competitive loss were silent, as they have been since he raised eyebrows across the league by tweeting out an injury update Thursday.
The absence was noticeable. The silence is loud. And now the future for Lamar Jackson is as opaque as ever.
Then came a Monday morning update to Jackson’s Instagram story, just hours after the Ravens’ playoff defeat. Cryptic at best and yelling at worst, it read simply, “When you have something good, you don’t play with it. You don’t take chances losing it. You don’t neglect it. When you have something good, you pour into it. You appreciate it. Because when you take care of something good, that good thing takes care of you too.”
In some situations, this is how trades get rolling. In others, it’s how contract negotiations come to a head and deals get done. Either could happen with Jackson and the Ravens in the coming months. This ambiguity will make their union the NFL’s biggest story of the offseason, until either the franchise or the franchise quarterback (or both) step out and publicly settle what is developing into a quiet war over Jackson’s health and forthcoming extension.
Make no mistake, that is what is happening right now: The Ravens are dealing with the frustration of expecting to have Jackson back in the fold for the postseason vs. a quarterback who isn’t going to risk a more significant injury when he doesn’t feel right and still has so much to lose.
Seemingly everyone in the NFL is talking about some aspect of it, titillated by the ambiguity of the situation — or simply reading into the demeanor of Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh or the eyebrow-raising comments of Ravens wideout Sammy Watkins. It’s a small circus that feels like it’s about to get a whole lot bigger and louder, and more dramatic.
As one NFL general manager texted late Sunday night: “Feels good to have [our quarterback’s] deal done!”
Not that anyone in the league is wishing this situation on Jackson or the Ravens. Those in the NFL who have been through this kind of thing — negotiations with record-setting quarterback implications, hurt feelings, angry fans — are a small fraternity. All of them have some kind of scar tissue from the experience, whether it’s setting a new contract standard that pisses off the rest of the league’s franchise owners or signing a deal that eventually turns bad. Few of them, even the most competitive, wants to see others have to go through the experience.
But the Ravens are in it. When it all started, Jackson was the perfect savior for the franchise. He connected with teammates and the coaching staff. Fans gravitated to his candor and charisma. It was suddenly so easy to see how he won the 2016 Heisman Trophy and so hard to understand why he had lasted to the final pick in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft. His league MVP in 2019 came quickly and unexpectedly, but also set an astronomical bar: He’d arrived … now came the period when he would be expected to thrive.
For the most part, Jackson has lived up to it. He has been a prolific winner as a starter, but also requires an offense that is tailored to his strengths. One of those being that he is going to run a significant amount and invite no shortage of injury risk. Another being that he can throw from the pocket with accuracy and efficiency, but still suffers through droughts that rekindle his critics. Wrapped around all of it was the aspect of money and contract and a fan base that has sparred with him on social media. Not to mention the still-pressing issue of how he and the Ravens would navigate a landmark knives-out negotiation without a seasoned agent between the two parties. How much damage would each side do to the other before a deal could be reached? And what if the talks found themselves in the dicey territory of an injury or longstanding disagreement over contract guarantees or structure?
How would each side handle that kind of added drama?
The answer? Not well. Or if you’re a pessimist reading into the current situation: horribly.
That’s how this all feels right now, with Jackson staying home during a playoff game in which he could have supported the team, and no real answer about who made that decision. Not to mention Jackson's decision to tweet out his health status, which can be interpreted as a move to defend himself when it appears the Ravens either wouldn’t or didn’t know it was necessary.
When you calculate this trajectory, it’s not hard to understand where the speculation goes next. None of it is really good. It's at the point where some very well-connected people are now openly opining that Jackson’s days in Baltimore are numbered. That includes one very prominent former head coach who is expected to be a future head coach — maybe even with one of the teams that has the kind of owner who would trade for and pay Jackson the money he’s seeking.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you former New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton, who has significant friendships inside the Ravens that were steeled over years as a member of the league’s competition committee. Now an analyst for Fox Sports, he shared a likely informed opinion that should be taken seriously.
“They’re in a playoff game and I get if he’s not playing, but this whole tweet out [from Jackson last week saying] ‘Let me explain my whole medical status’ — look, I’m hearing grumblings from a handful of folks there that [there are] teammates that feel like his process has been slower than expected,” Payton said. “I just don’t like it. The team’s more important right now than you and we appreciate the information on your injury status. You’re not playing. I get it.
“I don’t see this player back in Baltimore next [season],” Payton said definitively. “I think he’ll end up with another club.”
A few months ago, that statement would have been unthinkable. Right now, it feels possible.
The simple truths are not hard to find in this situation. Jackson and the Ravens were far apart on a contract when this season started, thanks largely to a warped fully guaranteed deal signed by Deshaun Watson and the Cleveland Browns. Well, since the start of the season, things have gotten worse between the two sides. The Ravens have been dancing around any criticism of Jackson and avoiding any talk about why the contract impasse lingers. Meanwhile, Jackson has been sparring with fans on social media in a way that strongly suggests he’s upset about the lack of a deal. Then he ultimately sat out the remainder of the season after suffering a PCL sprain in a Dec. 4 game against the Denver Broncos, watching the Ravens lose, from afar, a hard-fought wild-card game to the Bengals.
None of that feels like a recipe for a good-natured compromise. Instead, it feels like two parties getting further from each other with each passing week. And when you looked at the Ravens on Sunday night, you saw it.
Jackson was nowhere to be found. The Ravens were moving on with what they had. Now more than ever, it feels like that might be exactly how this all plays out.