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Lamar Jackson, the Ravens and the arrival at a crossroads

His injury absence and lack of a new contract have hovered over the organization, but does the team see him as a generational QB?

Editor’s note: This is part of a series on Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson that focuses on the phenomenon and uniqueness of the 2019 NFL MVP in the final guaranteed year of his rookie contract. Part 1 (Jackson as seen by teammates and opponents). Part 2 (Jackson through the eyes and words of the fans). Part 3 (Quarterback-turned-defensive coordinator Vance Joseph on the shift in quarterbacking in the last 30 years).

BALTIMORE — Regardless of how the rest of the Ravens’ season unfolds, this much is clear: the franchise and its star quarterback, Lamar Jackson, have arrived at a critical crossroads in their relationship. The question is coming down to this: can the Ravens envision life without Lamar Jackson; can Jackson envision life without the Ravens?

Including the game in which he was injured, the Ravens have played five games without Jackson, winning three and losing two. That’s enough of a sample size to show the Ravens what life might look like without Jackson, who turns 26 on Jan. 7. Since Jackson was injured against Denver, the Ravens’ offense has scored 59 points, for an average of 11.8 points per game. They were averaging 25 points per game before the injury.

And it’s not clear whether Jackson will play in the season finale in Cincinnati.

Even in the cold business of NFL football, some players are harder to replace than others. This is true of the Ravens with Jackson: especially at a time when four AFC rivals have found potential generational quarterbacks: Cincinnati with Joe Burrow, Buffalo with Josh Allen, Jacksonville with Trevor Lawrence and the Los Angeles Chargers with Justin Herbert. On Sunday, the Ravens were beaten by their archrival, the Pittsburgh Steelers, when the Steelers’ rookie quarterback, Kenny Pickett, drove 80 yards and threw a game-winning touchdown. Pickett is 24 years old.

Even though Jackson has been sidelined since Dec. 4, his presence hovers over the organization like the ghost of Edgar Allen Poe, the Baltimore-born poet who is the Ravens’ patron saint. In some ways, Jackson’s contract saga, indeed, his NFL career, has become a drama that Poe could have imagined.

A young African American whose father died when he was young, raised by his mother who eventually became his agent. He goes to college, wins the Heisman Trophy as a quarterback, bursts onto the NFL scene when the incumbent Ravens quarterback is injured. He then becomes the league’s Most Valuable Player in his first year as a starter and shatters, perhaps forever, the resistance by NFL gatekeepers to young uber athletic quarterbacks who play outside “the pocket.” He ushers in an era of mold-breaking quarterbacks: Justin Fields, Jalen Hurts, Kyler Murray — who have been the beneficiaries of Jackson’s success.

Will Jackson become a victim of his own success?

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson scrambles as Denver Broncos defensive lineman DeShawn Williams rushes during the first quarter at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore on Dec. 4, 2022.

In 2019, Jackson set a high bar when he became the league MVP. A year later, the Ravens finished 11-5-0, good for second place in the AFC North. Jackson won his first playoff game when the Ravens defeated the Tennessee Titans. They lost to Buffalo a week later.

The 2021 NFL season wasn’t great for Jackson or the Baltimore Ravens. Jackson started just 12 games in 2021 and missed the last four games of the season due to an ankle injury. He threw 13 interceptions, a career high, and only 16 touchdowns, his lowest total since his rookie season. The Ravens finished in last place in the AFC North with an 8-9 record and missed the playoffs. Now he’s hurt again.

This season, the Ravens were 8-4 when Jackson was injured, but even before the injury the Ravens’ season was marked by a series of blown leads — against Miami, against Buffalo, against the Giants, and against the Jaguars. Last week, the Ravens earned a playoff berth without Jackson even being in the lineup.

So how will this drama end?

The Baltimore Sun recently reported that the Ravens and Jackson will resume negotiations when the season ends. Jackson and his team are gambling that the Ravens’ season will end next month at the Super Bowl in Glendale, Arizona. It may take that kind of improbable championship run to compel the Ravens to give Jackson the fully guaranteed contract he feels he deserves. Such a run will beef up his modest playoff record which includes three appearances and one victory.

That will be a steep hill for a less-than-100% Jackson to climb. To even reach the Super Bowl Jackson — and the Ravens defense — must go through a veritable Murderers’ Row of quarterbacks in the AFC: Buffalo’s Allen, Cincinnati’s Burrow, Jacksonville‘s Lawrence, Los Angeles’ Herbert and of course, King of The Hill, Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes.

Short of achieving that? Rough and tumble negotiations. When the Browns signed Deshaun Watson, Ravens owner Steve Biscotti intimated that the signing was not a model he planned to follow, that he would not make a move that did not make good business sense. Does it make business sense to let Lamar Jackson walk? The Browns were desperate to sign a quarterback with Watson’s skill. The Ravens, so Biscotti’s thinking went, are not desperate. After all, they already had a generational quarterback in Jackson.

But the contract impasse and the back-to-back injuries raise the question: do the Ravens see Jackson as a generational quarterback, or simply as a quarterback who can only function in the system they created for him?

But do you want to let him go and begin all over?

Thus far, the negotiations between Jackson and the Ravens have avoided the sort of acrimony that has become commonplace in the sports arena. Jackson is apparently well liked within the Ravens organization and the word within Jackson’s tight circle is that the superstar quarterback respects the Ravens and would like to stay. Both sides have agreed to wait until the season ends to resume contract negotiations, one can only wonder who will have the leverage when talks resume.

Much of that will depend on how the season ends. Will it end with an unexpected championship run with Jackson hoisting the Lombardi Trophy? Will it end in a deep playoff run with Jackson on the field? Will it end with an early exit?

Jackson remains popular among the Ravens fans, but how long will the good will last if the player who wants a record-breaking contract keeps missing championship moments?

Jackson and the Ravens have arrived at a crossroads in their relationship. Which of them can envision life without the other?

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.