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Playoff loss doesn’t negate Lamar Jackson’s game-changing season

The Ravens star, a likely MVP, is just getting started as an NFL quarterback

BALTIMORE — Lamar Jackson didn’t enter the news conference room at M&T Bank Stadium with a standoffish scowl on his face that is the norm for losing players in the playoffs. Instead he sat down in a chair situated about 10 feet from the podium, where Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh was speaking, and looked ahead.

If he ever put his head down, it was only momentarily. As Jackson waited for Harbaugh to finish, Ravens cornerback Marcus Peters sneaked his head into the interview room to give his quarterback some sorrowful postgame dap. When Jackson approached the podium himself, now dapping up Harbaugh, he was more composed than would be expected of a quarterback who has started just 24 career games and had just lost his second career playoff game in as many tries.

Jackson, wearing a gray Ravens T-shirt and shorts with his trademark “wash” braids hanging over his forehead, had the same demeanor he exhibited all season when he was constantly brushing off questions about him winning the MVP award. For every question he was asked on Saturday — What went wrong? How tough was this loss? What was the message after the game? — he came back to one sentiment:

This one game — a 28-12 loss to the Tennessee Titans in the divisional round — doesn’t define him or his team.

“We just beat ourselves,” Jackson said. “I had a lot of mistakes on my half; three turnovers, that shouldn’t happen. They came out to play. We just started out slow. We’ve just got to do better next time, but [now it’s] moving forward, get ready for this offseason, get ready for next year.”

What was supposed to be the coronation of Jackson — with an MVP award likely coming in three weeks — turned into a nightmare worse than season two of The Wire (obligatory The Wire reference now out of the way). The Ravens played poorly and Jackson’s record-breaking season was all but wasted. For a 14-2 team with Super Bowl aspirations, their dream was dashed by a Titans attack led by running back Derrick Henry (30 rushes for 195 yards) and three total touchdowns from quarterback Ryan Tannehill.

While Jackson completed 31 of 59 passes for 365 yards and ran for an additional 143 yards — the first player in NFL history with 300-plus passing yards and 100-plus rushing yards in a single postseason game — he also totaled just one touchdown and turned the ball over three times. Passes he easily completed in the regular season were sailing off target or being dropped all together. Jackson, who set the quarterback record with 1,206 rushing yards in the regular season, had to run more than he ever intended to on Saturday. His 20 rushes are the most by a quarterback in a playoff game in the Super Bowl era, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

That being said, Jackson’s performance isn’t a referendum on him or his ability to play quarterback in the league.

By all accounts, it was an ugly showing. The criticisms will (rightfully) come for him. But for those who try and argue 15 games’ worth of evidence is all negated by 60 minutes are mistaken. This season, Jackson threw for more than 3,000 yards, ran for more than 1,200 and accounted for 43 touchdowns. He ranked first in QBR and third in passer rating; in other words, a wide receiver Jackson is not.

Lamar Jackson #8 of the Baltimore Ravens runs with the ball during the second half against the Tennessee Titans in the AFC Divisional Playoff game at M&T Bank Stadium on January 11, 2020 in Baltimore, Maryland.

Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

What Jackson and his supporters can rest on is that this loss isn’t the end. Jackson had the MVP award wrapped up at 22 years old (he turned 23 last week) and is 27 days younger than LSU’s Joe Burrow, the presumptive No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 draft. This also isn’t the first time a great quarterback has struggled in his first few playoff starts (Jackson was sacked seven times and fumbled the ball on what could have been a game-winning drive in last season’s 23-17 wild-card round loss to the Los Angeles Chargers).

Through his first three playoff starts, Randall Cunningham threw five interceptions against zero touchdowns and lost each game by an average of 12 points; Cunningham came within one game of the Super Bowl during the 1998 season with the Minnesota Vikings before ending his career ranked in the top 50 in passing yards and touchdowns. In Peyton Manning’s first playoff game in 1999 (against the Titans no less) he completed just 45 percent of his passes and didn’t throw a single touchdown in a 19-16 loss, and a season later he completed just 53 percent of his passes and blew a 14-point second-half lead to the Miami Dolphins’ Jay Fiedler; Manning, who like Cunningham didn’t get his first postseason win until the fourth time around, went on to become the most prolific passer in league history and ended his career with two Super Bowl rings. John Elway was blown out in his first playoff game (31-7 vs. the Seattle Seahawks) in 1983, and the following year his 13-3 Broncos were upset by a 9-7 Pittsburgh Steelers team that didn’t clinch a playoff spot until the final week of the regular season: Elway, of course, ended his career with back-to-back Super Bowl titles. Altogether, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Dan Marino began their postseason careers winless like Jackson; it’s safe to say that each of them turned out OK.

Sometimes the best quarterback in the league doesn’t win it all. According to ESPN Stats & Information, in the past 15 seasons, three MVP-winning quarterbacks have lost in their first playoff game that season: Rodgers (2011), Tom Brady (2010) and Manning (2008). Of the 43 quarterbacks who have won an MVP award, only seven have ever won a Super Bowl or NFL championship in the same season.

“I know how he’s going to respond,” Harbaugh said. “He’s going to respond by being extremely motivated and determined to improve as a football player. The strides he made between last year and this year are pretty indicative of that, and we expect him to continue to get better.

“I just know his character and who he is as a person. That’s what he’ll be thinking about.”

This loss doesn’t discredit everything Jackson did this season. Teams were still foolish to have passed on him in the 2018 draft. Any scout who said he needed to change positions still needs every sobriety test at our disposal as human beings. Jackson’s failures in a single playoff game do not suddenly validate the racial stereotypes surrounding black quarterbacks’ intellect and ability to run an NFL offense or dissect an NFL defense; Warren Moon, Randall Cunningham and Russell Wilson don’t suddenly not exist.

Jackson lost on Saturday. He’s going home. But he won’t let this loss be anything more than a roadblock on his course to becoming a great NFL quarterback and winning a Super Bowl.

“I hate losing. I really do,” he said when asked how long this loss will linger. “But we’ve got to move on.”

And move forward.

Martenzie Johnson is a senior writer for Andscape. His favorite cinematic moment is when Django said, "Y'all want to see somethin?"