By Mark F. Gray
AFRO Staff Writer
In one unseasonably warm January night the paradigm of Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson’s career took a seismic shift. The NFL’s most valuable player and most marketable commodity, who seemed to have answered all his critics with an epic regular season, ended the year with the same questions surrounding him that his detractors had on draft night.
Jackson entered the playoffs with a halo over his body of work to start his career as an NFL quarterback. He proved already that he could do something his predecessor Joe Flacco couldn’t, which was to win consecutive division championships and that his rite of passage to a Super Bowl was a foregone conclusion. However, as he moves into his second offseason as Ravens quarterback, the halo has become the shadow that no field general ever wants covering him.
The shadow of postseason failure is as much a part of Jackson’s career trajectory right now as one of his SportsCenter Top 10 highlight plays that would land him on the cover of the Madden NFL video game. For as dominant a weapon as Jackson has been during his nearly two years as the Ravens starter, he faces the albatross that is the reputation of being a quarterback who can’t win a playoff game.
As a rookie, he got a pass for being overwhelmed by his postseason moment against the team formerly known as the San Diego Chargers. After this year’s head scratching implosion against the Tennessee Titans the question is fair to ask if Jackson can be the same player during the playoffs that he is during the regular season.
There is no escaping the harsh reality that Action Jackson has lost his first two postseason games at home. That is official and a major part of his narrative until the blemish is removed with a playoff win. He talked all week leading up to the game about how his play in the loss to the Chargers motivated him to the historic regular season he had. Jackson had been magnificent on the biggest stages all year but the Ravens hadn’t faced a must win game since October so he never faced any real pressure. For 12 consecutive weeks he was the best player on the NFL’s best team and the game was so easy to him while he was having fun.
Jackson and the team lost their edge during the bye week and in week 17, where they rested starters and treated it like a final preseason game. Clutch catches became tipped interceptions and Jackson fumbled twice. The defense blew coverages in the secondary and gave up a long touchdown that was essentially a knockout blow in the first half. Derek Henry is still running through their defense now on his way to Kansas City After converting every 4th and one situation all season the Ravens went 0-for-4.
Jackson played tight when things were toughest. He misread a run option on a 4th down and was stopped on a dive and, for the first time, failure seemed to influence Jackson’s body language on the sidelines against the Titans. When the Ravens needed their leader to project calm and confidence, Jackson looked confused and insecure.
It was a total team implosion that reduced what could’ve been a magical season into a horrific nightmare. There were breakdowns on offense, defense and special teams. The Ravens looked overmatched by a well-coached team who figured them. That blame falls on John Harbaugh and his staff not Jackson.
The quarterback gets the glory or takes the blame though. Many have come before Jackson – such as his predecessor Joe Flacco- and overcame early postseason losses to ultimately become championship quarterbacks or hall of famers. These are the growing pains that ultimately are building blocks on the way to a championship, although there will not be any romance for the rest of the journey.
Jackson will never enjoy a season that was as fun as this. He played with tempered expectations and audacity. Now he faces enormous expectations and greater challenges. He will be unfairly judged by what happens in January until he wins a playoff game or can ride the wave of a team that gets hot at the right time on the way to a Super Bowl win.