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It’s Lamar Jackson’s time to take the next step

Baltimore Ravens quarterback knows how quickly injuries can close a championship window

BALTIMORE — I have been eagerly waiting for Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson to take the proverbial “next step.”

Many of us are. When I say “us,” I’m referring not so much to Jackson fans, but fans eager to see the quarterback position continue to evolve.

Jackson was once the face of that evolution. I realize that it sounds bizarre to suggest that Jackson at age 26 is passé, but he has inspired an up-and-coming generation of young Black quarterbacks (Bryce Young, Anthony Richardson, CJ Stroud) who are making an impact in the NFL.

The next step for Jackson is carrying the Ravens to the Super Bowl.

Jackson is in his sixth season as the Ravens quarterback. When he entered the league in 2018, Jackson was a bolt of lightning, one of the most exciting players the NFL had seen. Six years later, the mountain Jackson must climb to reach the Super Bowl keeps getting steeper and the window of opportunity in a brutal sport is beginning to close.

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (right) celebrates with tight end Mark Andrews (left) after scoring a touchdown in the second quarter against the Detroit Lions at M&T Bank Stadium on Oct. 22 in Baltimore.

Patrick Smith/Getty Images

I was in Baltimore on Nov. 16 when the Ravens hosted the Cincinnati Bengals for what was supposed to have been a colossal showdown between division rivals. Instead, the game served as a reminder of the NFL’s inherent violence, the inevitability of injury and the fragility of an NFL career.

The Ravens came away with a convincing 34-20 victory, but suffered a staggering body blow in the first quarter when tight end Mark Andrews went down with ankle injury. The team announced later that Andrews would miss the rest of the season.

After the game Jackson walked into the Ravens interview room and was clearly affected by the news. Andrews was his safety net, his security blanket, the everywhere anchor Jackson could find after one of his improvisational scrambles. “It’s very tough,” Jackson said. “That’s the guy who I entered the league with. We’ve been bread and butter, peanut butter, and jelly – whatever you want to call it. It’s very tough because that’s my boy.

“For him to go out in the first quarter … He’s been having a remarkable year. We have guys who are going to step up, but it’s tough.”

I don’t know the metrics, but it seems that the Ravens may be among the most injured teams among perennial NFL contenders. They play a pulverizing style of offense that grinds up running backs and runners.

That includes Jackson, who missed the end of the last two regular seasons with injuries. He missed the Ravens’ final four weeks of the season in 2021 with a bone bruise, the final six games last season with a posterior cruciate ligament sprain. He watched the Bengals eliminate Baltimore from the playoffs.

This season, Jackson has a new lease on life. He has an offensive coordinator, a mix of young and veteran receivers. And, oh yes, a new bag of money. After a two-year battle of wills with the Ravens, Jackson signed a five-year, $260 million extension with $185 million guaranteed.

The negotiations were intriguing. Jackson reportedly was after the sort of fully guaranteed contract the Cleveland Browns gave to quarterback Deshaun Watson. Ultimately, he compromised. I wouldn’t call that a defeat for Jackson, but team owners made it clear that guaranteed contracts would be and will be the hill they’re willing to die on.

In ownership’s view, injuries are 100% guaranteed, so why give players guaranteed contracts? Makes no sense. Players argue that precisely because injuries are inevitable, it makes sense to have guaranteed contracts. The NFL made it clear that the fully guaranteed contract Cleveland gave Watson would remain an outlier.

Watson is out for the season with a shoulder injury. Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow suffered a season-ending injury on Thursday against the Ravens. Those injuries reinforce ownership’s position against handing out guarantees.

Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. (left) celebrates with quarterback Lamar Jackson (right) after scoring a touchdown against the Cleveland Browns during the third quarter at M&T Bank Stadium on Nov. 12 in Baltimore.

Todd Olszewski/Getty Images

So now a burden falls on Jackson’s shoulders. The Ravens shelled out record-breaking compensation. Can Jackson deliver a championship?

Since he entered the league in 2018, Jackson has been one of the NFL’s most compelling figures, largely because of who he is and what he represents and the electrifying way he plays quarterback. Just as Tiger Woods introduced next-level conditioning to pro golfers, Jackson made athleticism at the position mandatory though many insist on making a distinction between quarterback and “running quarterback.” One — quarterback — is pure; the other — running quarterback — is “less than,” a reality of the new pro game.

In asking whether Jackson can take the next step, we’re asking whether Jackson can become the first “Black running quarterback” to win a Super Bowl title. He will have to put the Ravens offense on his back. The young receivers — and one old one, Odell Beckham Jr. — will have to help Jackson take that step.

Ravens head coach John Harbaugh says that Jackson is a perfectionist. Jackson seems to understand the urgency of this season, in which winning the regular season is not the priority. He has been there and done that. The regular season is simply a vehicle to reach the postseason. That is where the results have been dismal: four appearances, one win.

At the rate Jackson is playing, he may win another MVP. The larger, more important question is can he flourish in the postseason.

And then, there is the question of legacy.

When and if he leads Baltimore to a championship, Jackson will close a significant chapter in the rich history of the Black quarterback in the NFL. The last chapter was completed in 1988 when Doug Williams became the first African American quarterback to lead his team to a Super Bowl victory. Williams, then 32, led the Washington Redskins to victory in Super Bowl XXII and was named MVP.

Since then, mountains of pages have been written but no Black quarterback who has played the position with Jackson’s style — on and off the field — has won the championship. From the way he wears his hair to the way he speaks to being represented by his mother Jackson marches to the beat of his own drummer. He represents a generation of Black athletes who aspired to play quarterback but who switched to running back and wide receiver because they were deemed too athletic to play quarterback. Athletic and cerebral were not considered compatible. Now they are, thanks to Jackson and to Harbaugh. From the early days of Jackson, Harbaugh went out of his way to praise his football IQ, to laud his vision and decision-making.

But has Jackson done enough to be remembered without winning a championship? He has proven he can win an MVP award, that he can lead the Ravens to a division title. He has not proved that he can do what Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes did and win two Super Bowl titles or do what Burrow and Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts did and lead their teams to the Super Bowl.

Winning the regular season is not enough, that’s what a team like the Ravens is supposed to do. He told reporters this summer that he didn’t feel pressure. “I never thought I had pressure on my shoulders,” he said. “I always felt like we had guys who were going make things happen, they just needed the opportunity.”

Then, after an impressive victory over the Detroit Lions on Oct. 22, Jackson, asked why he wasn’t more excited. “I’m all right with winning, but still, it’s the regular season.”

Losing Andrews and watching Burrow and Watson suffer season-ending injuries was a sobering reminder that windows of opportunity do not stay open forever. We’re waiting for Jackson to take the next step, but that next step may require a great leap of faith.

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer-at-large for Andscape.