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Lamar Jackson and the Ravens give hope to humanity
In the nick of time, too. Baltimore is doing right by its MVP quarterback. Compromise can be a hell of a drug.
We’re in the throes of a sad evolution in human impulse. The norm today is to dig in with zero room for compromise because compromise is a sign of weakness and weakness leads to defeat. Stubbornness is no longer a character flaw — it’s strength, it’s championed.
Pro sports, of course, are forever a microcosm of society.
The NFL’s biggest power brokers cannot suppress ego. No group is immune. Be it a player (Aaron Rodgers) blaming the cell service at his house for ignoring a team’s calls, a coach (Bill Belichick) thinking he can get away with Matt Patricia and Joe Judge running his offense or an owner (Dan Snyder) running a business with the grace of Cocaine Bear. All of the usual trappings appeared to have the Baltimore Ravens on the precipice of purgatory. All because the front office and the quarterback couldn’t reach a contract agreement.
The Ravens did the hard part… they found a top 5 talent at the most important position. Jackson did the hard part… he proved his arcade style can dizzy NFL defenses with a unanimous MVP in ’19. Yet for two agonizing years, the two sides couldn’t meet in the middle for each other’s obvious benefit. Most of us took a stubborn point of view on the matter. I was locked into the opinion that Jackson warranted every penny of a guaranteed contract. The Ravens refused to budge, even allowing other teams to pursue their quarterback via the non-exclusive tag. If a club signed Jackson — and they didn’t want to match — the Ravens would’ve received two firsts. Jackson, agent-less, didn’t flinch. Riiight when head coach John Harbaugh held court at the NFL owners meetings, he told the world he wanted out.
We’ve seen this fight many times in all sports. Reconciliation, at this point, is usually impossible.
Yet, the tension thawed. Before the 2023 NFL Draft began, a news alert lit up your phone: Baltimore and Jackson agreed to a five-year, $260 million deal ($185M guaranteed). Jackson looks smart. After absorbing a downpour of arrows for not having an agent, not only did he avoid those agent fees — he’s now the richest player in the sport. Not bad. And general manager Eric DeCosta also looks smart for not freaking out either direction, be it writing a blank check or shipping Jackson off in frustration when contract talks went nowhere. Without an agent, Jackson had no shield. He needed to hear all of his flaws, all of the reasons Baltimore wouldn’t budge directly from DeCosta and co.
Not easy for the modern athlete. So many have been coddled by yes men since they were 10-year-old prodigies.
All teams should take note. The result of this compromise could be spectacular. DeCosta put it best in a video address to the fans: “We are well on our way to building an undefendable offense.” Not only did two sides at each other’s throats end up shaking hands — a miracle in itself — the Ravens embraced a full-fledged renovation around Jackson that keeps them squarely in the Super Bowl conversation. Out is Greg Roman; in is Todd Monken at offensive coordinator. Roman was the architect of Ravens’ high-tech run game. Ex-Bills Eric Wood and Richie Incognito used to rave about his brilliance at the line of scrimmage as their OC.
Wide receivers, uh, not so much. You heard from Willie Snead here at Go Long.
Snead said the difference between Roman’s offense and what he had in New Orleans (with Sean Payton) and Las Vegas (with Jon Gruden) was “night and day.”
“There’s a lot more creativity in the passing game,” Snead said. “If the Ravens had more creativity in the passing game and they put more emphasis on it during the season, I think more receivers would be open to coming. Because Lamar is a great player to play with. He’s all about the team. He’s fun. He brings the energy every single day. You want to play with quarterbacks like that. But the system pushes guys away. That’s why the Ravens are always drafting two receivers every year. They keep them young. They keep them locked in on contracts, but for an older veteran guy coming in, he might get one shot to do this. I don’t know if the Ravens are going to be that one shot for them unless you’re a tight end or a big-bodied receiver who can win those 50/50 balls.”
This is why Hollywood Brown couldn’t wait to get out of Baltimore as his second contract loomed.
Roman’s passing scheme was exactly what Steve Smith called it in an NFL Network rant: “elementary.” Monken, on the other hand, is known for scheming receivers open.
Speaking of those receivers, it’s a completely different room. Rashod Bateman returns from foot surgery, and he’s joined by first-round pick Zay Flowers, vet Odell Beckham Jr. a full year removed from a torn ACL and a solid No. 4 in Nelson Agholor. Tight end Mark Andrews (266 targets the last two seasons) will no longer need to do all heavy lifting. In theory, the 5-foot-9 Flowers is exactly what the Ravens have been missing — a dynamo in the slot liable to take a four-yard crosser 40 yards any play. The key is making sure Jackson is still unleashed as a runner. Remember, both of his season-ending injuries occurred in the pocket. Few ball-carriers avoid the kill shot quite like him. Baltimore should not warp its offense to the extreme of turning the pocket into a safe space.
Exactly as the Bills paid Josh Allen to be Josh Allen, the Ravens paid Lamar to be Lamar.
His presence alone forces every defense to defend him as a runner every play, a dynamic detailed perfectly by Jackson’s private coach Joshua Harris on a Happy Hour a while back. Jackson wastes zero time making the correct decision in the zone read, a skill the Ravens still must maximize.
“We’ve got this stereotype that if you run a lot, you’re not smart enough to pick up the coverages,” Harris said, “and I think people don’t pick up on the intelligence it takes running the football. Knowing when to run the football. People talk all the time about reading the defense — Tom Brady and presnap reads. But do you understand how fast Lamar reads on that read-zone option? It’s the same thing a quarterback does on the back side. … Now, go watch how fast he does it. That’s the same mental awareness.”
It’s now on Monken to marry the run and the pass together. A fine problem to have.
Through the heated contract talks, DeCosta believes Jackson’s love for the Ravens “was unwavering.” He got the sense that the quarterback genuinely loved it in Baltimore, so that helped. But so did changing up this offense because he said they discussed reloading at wide receiver. Sure enough, the first real sign of progress publicly was OBJ and Lamar telling the world that they had FaceTimed each other after the receiver signed.
Then, in a twist of irony, the GM took advice from the ex-Raven Smith in drafting Flowers. DeCosta spent some time at the Combine with Smith.
“A lot of respect for Steve,” DeCosta said during his press conference Thursday. “One of the great competitors that we’ve ever had here and a fantastic guy. I consider him a good friend. We talk about receivers. He’s got strong opinions, and he loves Zay, too, so it’s mutual. I will say this: if Steve Smith has that much respect for a receiver, you better pay attention. It’s like when (executive vice president) Ozzie (Newsome) loves a tight end, you better pay attention — same deal. So, that resonates with me. If Steve says, ‘That's my guy,’ then I'm kind of like, ‘OK, I better pay attention.’ And so, Zay happened to be a guy that I liked, as well, so it’s like a perfect DNA match when you’ve got a Hall of Fame — someday — receiver like Steve Smith telling you that he loves him, and I like him, and Joe (Hortiz) likes him, and John (Harbaugh) likes him, and Todd likes him. It’s like, ‘OK, this might be the guy.’”
Without a doubt, head coach John Harbaugh’s ironclad support was a factor in getting this relationship through hard times. He repeatedly said he wanted Jackson back, and it was sincere. Harbaugh probably also knows he has Jackson to thank for extending his own reign as head coach — the rookie’s breakout in 2018 pumped new life into his entire operation.
When the Ravens do descend from Cloud 9, they’ll encounter a gauntlet of an AFC North division. Even with the NFL adding a seventh playoff team and dishing out ribbons and pizza parties for all, merely getting to the dance is no guarantee.
At some point, Joe Burrow will get the bag. The Cincinnati Bengals are already adjusting to their new financial reality by selling the naming rights to the stadium and making hard personnel decisions. Losing vets like Jessie Bates and Vonn Bell stings, but they planned ahead in the 2022 draft. Cincy also landed the bargain of the offseason: Tackle Orlando Brown at four years, $64 million.
Mike Tomlin keeps the Pittsburgh Steelers in eternal contention. Now, they’ll welcome back the best player in the sport: T.J. Watt. All rookie Kenny Pickett did as a rookie was steer four game-winning drives. This week, the Steelers found him a new offensive tackle (Broderick Jones), a new tight end (Darnell Washington) and signed a highly motivated Allen Robinson.
Cleveland? Beats me if Deshaun Watson finds his old magic. It was a rusty six-game Browns debut, but even the division’s longtime punching bag enjoyed an impressive meat-and-potatoes offseason: Dalvin Tomlinson (four years, $57 million), Juan Thornhill (three years, $21M) and Ogbonnia Okoronkwo (three years, $19M) beef up the defense.
Losing Jackson would’ve immediately slumped Baltimore to fourth in the pecking order.
Instead, he inks a five-year deal and the Ravens have a new offense waiting for him. They gambled it’d all work out, and it did. Perhaps Jalen Hurts is to thank. One week after Hurts signed his contract — five years, $255 million (179.4M guaranteed) — Jackson earned a tick more. That’s how these deals always worked until Jimmy Haslam broke the bank for Watson, allegations and all.
“Quarterback deals,” DeCosta said, “that’s how you kind of build out the parameters for what you think is fair. The market. The market is what the market is. But I think that the way that we feel about Lamar, it's the market-plus, if that makes sense. We’ve seen Lamar. We’ve won lots of games with Lamar. We’re around him all the time. And we do feel that he’s the best quarterback in the NFL. I think this contract reflects that.”
Common sense prevailed.
Football, and life, doesn’t need to be complicated.
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