Lamar Jackson’s contract fight could impact future generations of NFL players
Whether he knows it or not — whether he likes it or not — the Baltimore Ravens quarterback is carrying the flag for guaranteed deals
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). Part 4 (Jackson and the Ravens’ relationship at a crossroads).
CINCINNATI — In a nearly empty visitors’ locker room Sunday evening, Calais Campbell, the Baltimore Ravens’ veteran defensive lineman, sat in front of his stall, still trying to make sense of the shocking turn of events that unfolded an hour earlier.
“Football is a game of emotion and I was very emotional,” Campbell said. “You’re sitting there thinking ‘If we get seven here, we get to play football; we pin our ears back and go rush. I felt in that situation, we could win the ball game.”
In a flash, things changed. Ravens quarterback Tyler Huntley, playing in place of the injured Lamar Jackson, tried to leap over the Cincinnati Bengals defense to score. He held the ball out, short of the goal line. The ball was punched out and Bengals defensive end Sam Hubbard scooped up the fumble and ran 98 yards for a what turned out to be the game-winning touchdown in a 24-17 Cincinnati win.
The Ravens had three more offensive possessions, but the game was effectively over. The Ravens’ season was over.
Jackson’s time in Baltimore may also be over.
Without Jackson, the Ravens are not better than Cincinnati, Buffalo, Kansas City or any of the other Super Bowl contenders. The Ravens could have stolen a game on Sunday but that would merely have disguised the truth: Cincinnati is a championship caliber team and made a championship caliber play to win a playoff game. Huntley is a capable backup who played heroically for the Ravens. He is not legendary. He is not Lamar Jackson.
The Ravens and Jackson, who represents himself, began negotiations on a contract extension last summer. Jackson said that if an agreement was not reached by the time the regular season began, he would stop negotiations and focus on football. Negotiations would then resume after the season.
Thanks to Sunday’s crushing loss to Cincy, that’s now.
The honeymoon between the Ravens and Jackson is over. These will be serious negotiations with both sides taking hard stands. The Ravens refuse to give Jackson the fully guaranteed contact he feels he deserves. Jackson may be preparing not to play unless he gets one. The Ravens and their surrogates will point out that Jackson has missed 10 regular-season games in the last two seasons because of an ankle and knee injury, respectively.
Precisely because he has been so injured, Jackson knows now — perhaps more than ever — that he needs a fully guaranteed contract because he plays in a high-risk system that increases his exposure to injury.
The Ravens aren’t sure they can trust Jackson to stay healthy. Jackson’s position is “Allow me to become a free agent and I’ll find a team that WILL trust me — and that will give me the guaranteed contract I want because franchise quarterbacks are hard to find.” Earlier this week, Jackson published a cryptic Instagram story that suggested that his issue with the Ravens is not feeling valued or respected.
The Ravens won’t let Jackson walk because they have seen what life looks without him, and it’s not pretty. They’ll slap him with a franchise tag.
Things have gotten messy in Baltimore, even within the Ravens locker room.
Last Wednesday, Sammy Watkins the often-injured wide receiver, seemed to be critical of Jackson’s less-than-gung-ho attitude about playing while hurt.
In a stunningly candid locker room interview with the Washington Post, Watkins said:
“In this league, everybody is pretty much banged up, hurt. I don’t want to speak for him and his situation and whatever he’s going through with the contracts. I don’t know what world he’s in. But for me, you got a chance to do something special. We all know with Lamar Jackson out there, this team is really freaking good, and special things can happen. He can will this team to a Super Bowl. I don’t think he’s thinking about it that way.”
Watkins called on Jackson to consider playing hurt: “He’s got an opportunity to win a Super Bowl. I hope he hobbles back out there. Put him out for the pass plays, and don’t run him at all. But you never know. That could be wrong. I’m being very selfish right now, just to want him to be out on the field. But, man, what a great thing it would be to see [No.] 8 touch the field this Sunday, and we go out there and blow them out. But that’s for Lamar and everybody else to figure out. Hope miraculously something happens, somebody reach out to him, whether it’s a coach or somebody, and he decides to play. But that’s a question if he’s healthy or he’s not. I don’t know. I haven’t been watching him.”
Finally, Watkins said “I think the world is ready to see Lamar back on the field, doing what he does best, and get all the stipulations and contract stuff behind him. I pray somebody talks to him like, ‘Man, just sign the deal.’ You know what I mean? And he gets out there and hopefully, if he’s healthy, he can just come play this Sunday. We all know that’s up to Lamar and whatever goes on. Hopefully, they get something done. The world wants to see Lamar be a Baltimore Raven for the rest of his life. [T]he world wants to watch Lamar Jackson. That’s a phenom talent, a talent that you rarely come by. Things that he does on the field and things that you see, to be quite honest when he’s out there, he makes everybody play better, just to have him in that huddle. I pray that somebody reach out to him or that he’s really truly getting healthy and can play, that he wakes up Thursday and be like, ‘All right, forget it. I’m playing.’ I think that would change the whole trajectory of our season.”
This is the sort of grateful gladiator mentality that has allowed NFL team owners to control and manipulate players while exploiting their insecurities for decades. It’s thinking that has allowed team owners to win every major labor confrontation. Play hurt, play hungry and be ever grateful to the multi-billionaire owners from whom all blessings flow.
To the surprise and consternation of the Ravens, Jackson responded a day later with his own medical update:
“Thank you everyone for your support and concerns regarding my injuries. I want to give you all an update as I am in the recovery process,” Jackson tweeted. “I’ve suffered a PCL grade 2 sprain on the borderline of a strain 3. There is still inflammation surrounding my knee and my knee remains unstable. I’m still in good spirits, as I continue with treatments on the road to recovery. I wish I could be out there with my guys more than anything, but I can’t give a 100% of myself to my guys and fans I’m still hopeful we still have a chance.”
We know now that the Ravens did in fact have a chance and had a healthy Jackson played the Ravens may have beaten Cincinnati. But he didn’t play, and Baltimore lost.
The back and forth over whether Jackson stay or goes is an intriguing issue that will give local Baltimore media endless content for several months. But Jackson’s contract dispute with Baltimore is part of a much larger battle.
Whether he knows it or not — whether he likes it or not — Jackson is carrying the flag and the fight for guaranteed contracts in the NFL.
For decades this has been the hill on which the NFL has been willing to die. The owners have gotten away with it because players have not matched the owners’ resolve to preserve the system with their resolve to change it.
That may have changed earlier this month. Because of what happened to Damar Hamlin on Jan. 2, there is no better time for NFL players to take a hard stand for fully guaranteed contracts. Hamlin, a third-year backup safety for the Buffalo Bills, nearly lost his life after a collision during a nationally televised Monday Night Football game against Cincinnati. Hamlin was revived on the field and again in the ambulance and thankfully has made a remarkable recovery.
Typically, the NFL successfully has spun the Hamlin ordeal in a way that shifts the focus away from the reality of the league’s coldblooded meatgrinder, in which players are replaceable cogs in a wheel. This is a collision-based business that for many years shielded players from the aftereffects of football, and through race norming attempted to make it difficult for Black players to collect benefits from a concussion settlement. This is a business that even now utilizes a collectively bargained system in which low-end players are replaced in three-year cycles to avoid having them become vested in the NFL’s benefits program.
“I do think that Damar’s situation opened our eyes,” Campbell said Sunday evening after the Ravens’ loss. “One play can change everything. Money doesn’t really solve everything, but it does make a difference when you can have a guaranteed contract and know your family is taken care of if something happens. That matters.”
Although he was distraught about the loss to Cincinnati, Campbell, a 15-year veteran, said he is keenly aware of NFL labor issues — especially the need for guaranteed contracts in a game where serious injury is a certainty. To that extent, Jackson’s battle with the Ravens, and by extension with the NFL, for a fully guaranteed contract is a significant marker in the battle.
“It takes players fighting, standing strong, holding their ground to get it done,” Campbell said. “I think it would be in the Ravens best interest to give Lamar exactly what he wants. A 100 percent guaranteed contact would be huge. It would benefit him it would be beneficial for all the people who came after him.”
Achieving guarantee contracts will likely take a strike. The only leverage players have had is their bodies and their talent. Players will have to be prepared to shut down the league. In the past this has proven to be an insurmountable barrier because so many players simply cannot afford to miss significant paychecks. One suggestion for building a war chest is for the NFLPA to sell its building in Washington — a building that has not been fully utilized since the pandemic — and use the substantial proceeds from the sale to take care of 1,600 players for the duration of a missed season.
Although there is a lockout provision in the current CBA as well as a no-strike provision, the players will have to break that agreement and go on strike until the league agrees to fully guaranteed contracts.
The players should also force the league to lower the threshold to become fully vested in the NFL benefits program.
For all the NFL’s pomp around Hamlin, Hamlin is not fully vested in the benefits program because he had not played four seasons. Hamlin has one more year remaining on his rookie contract; that contract is not guaranteed. Every pick outside the third-round signs what is called a split-level contract. If such a player is injured and gets put on injured reserve, the player will receive half of his salary.
Buffalo, because of the high-profile nature of Hamlin’s injury, made an exception and will pay him his full salary. But if he never plays football again, Hamlin will not receive any more money from the Bills because his contact is not guaranteed, and he is not vested in the NFL benefits program.
Campbell said that Jackson’s battle with the Ravens is part and parcel of the battle NFL players must be willing to wage.
“That’s the way it happens in every other sport — baseball, basketball,” Campbell said. “The guaranteed contracts came from star players demanding to be paid guaranteed contracts. The star players has to be conscious of their power.”
In the NFL, the stars are the quarterbacks and historically, quarterbacks have been missing in action during labor disputes.
Jackson needs reinforcements from the rising fraternity of young quarterbacks like Burrow, Josh Allen, Justin Herbert, Trevor Lawrence and, of course, the established icon Patrick Mahomes.
“It has to be quarterbacks first; after quarterbacks start getting it then it will fall to star players. It’ll probably take 20 years but eventually everybody will have guaranteed contracts,” Campbell said. “But it has to start with the quarterback; it’s a quarterback-driven league. If you don’t have a quarterback, you’re not winning nothing.”
Jackson’s fight for a fully guaranteed contract is part of a battle that will impact future generations of NFL players. Perhaps it’s a small part, but if you’re going to be a cog in the wheel, at least be a cog in the wheel of progress.