The clouds didn’t part to reveal a heavenly choir, but he was back: Lamar Jackson himself, wearing his No. 8 jersey and throwing passes from all angles on a Ravens practice field.
After months of talk about the contract extension he hasn’t signed and the voluntary workouts he didn’t attend, Jackson returned Tuesday to his usual spot at the center of a team built around his unique talents.
He began the first session of mandatory minicamp by spinning a football in his fingers, running it up his legs like a point guard, and then shooting blue, red and yellow targets in the end zone. He kicked off 11-on-11 drills with a touchdown pass to his new No. 1 receiver, Rashod Bateman, and his over-the-top connection to All-Pro tight end Mark Andrews was as fruitful as ever.
Veteran safety Tony Jefferson was the franchise quarterback’s main foe, catching a deflected pass intended for tight end Josh Oliver and getting in front of Bateman for a second interception. But Jackson completed 17 of 26 passes overall in the 11-on-11 setup and all 10 of his attempts in seven-on-seven drills. The offensive operated more sharply than during the OTAs.
“It looked great,” Andrews said. “I think he’s got a lot of confidence, and the more he’s out here running the plays, being with the guys, he’s just going to get better and better. He was in the group, leading the group, hitting the guys. He threw a lot of great balls, straight to the defender’s head.”
Ravens coach John Harbaugh agreed: “He looked good and he was interested. He was in very good shape physically. I thought his arm looked great; you can see that he has been throwing a lot. … It was great to have him there. He also boosted everyone’s spirits a bit.”
Harbaugh didn’t feel the need to sit down with Jackson for a lengthy conversation when the quarterback arrived. “Back to work,” he said. “We are driving now, we are merging, we are rolling. Let’s go to work.”
Most Ravens players hadn’t set foot on a football field with a healthy Jackson since the second quarter of the team’s Week 14 loss at Cleveland.
But the franchise quarterback has fueled endless rounds of speculation since he limped off that December afternoon, first with his apparent disinterest in extension talks, then with his social media reaction to the trade for number one wide receiver Marquise.” Hollywood” Brown and most recently with his decision to skip three weeks of voluntary OTAs (trainings he had attended in previous years).
He expressed periodic annoyance, again via social media, when experts tried to dissect his thinking, but he did not clarify his view of the underlying issues. At 25, he is scheduled to play on his fifth-year option, worth $23 million, this season. Do you think he’s in a contract showdown, as some media outlets have characterized it? Or is he “so obsessed with winning a Super Bowl” that a new contract isn’t in the offing for him, as Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti suggested in March?
Jackson wasn’t saying. He filled the void by posting videos of him training with quarterbacks personal trainer Adam Dedeaux and private trainers.
Harbaugh said he believed Jackson was working hard, but left it up to the quarterback to explain why he didn’t join the team for the OTAs.
That answer will have to wait until Thursday, when Jackson is scheduled to speak to reporters in Baltimore for the first time since January.
But his mere arrival at the team facility created a stir Monday, with news of him taking his physical lead on ESPN.com for much of the day and a brief video clip of him saying he was ready for the season generating more than 1,000 retweets.
It was a foretaste of the speculative limbo that could engulf the Ravens this season and for several years to come if Jackson doesn’t sign an extension. Every single step of it will be scrutinized, whether there is news to report or not. If he doesn’t answer questions about his status, those inquiries will fall to Harbaugh and his teammates.
“You block it,” Andrews said of the constant ruckus around his quarterback. “We’ve all been with the media for a long, long time, and there will be naysayers, but you have to be able to block things like that. We don’t look outward too much.”
Cornerback Marlon Humphrey said he thought about how difficult it would be to walk in Jackson’s shoes, living in an eternal fishbowl.
“It’s probably not that fun to be ‘famous’ famous,” he said. “It’s just a different life when everything you do is viewed positively or negatively, whether it’s [commentators] Shannon Sharpe or Skip [Bayless] or this guy talking. I know it would be annoying if he was in those shoes, but I think he handles it very well.”
Humphrey said there is no disconnect between Jackson and his teammates as the wise man of the contract plays out in the background. “I think really the most important thing is the communication between the guys and the training,” he said. “Sometimes it sucks, being on social media and seeing headline after headline, when you know what’s going on but you can’t really respond to everyone. But I think as long as the team knows where he is and the players know where he is, we’re communicating with him, I think he speaks for himself.”
When Jackson wasn’t around, the Ravens talked about doing the best they could with the available players, but there was no denying the power of his presence.
“Lamar, he’s what drives our team,” Andrews said. “He’s QB1, and the energy around him being here, it lifts everyone.”