BALTIMORE — There have, over the past year, and especially over the past week, been millions of words uttered about what Lamar Jackson can’t do. About how he can’t win in the playoffs, and can’t throw his team back into a game, and can’t throw accurately downfield. About how he couldn’t match Patrick Mahomes, or recapture his 2019 brilliance, and how, because of all that, he can’t be a franchise quarterback.
At 11:20 p.m. Sunday, clinging to a one-point lead, and staring at a 4th-and-1 in his own territory with one minute remaining, Ravens coach John Harbaugh thought about none of that.
“LAMAR!” he screamed. “LAMAR! You wanna go for it?!”
If he did, and failed, he would surely lose, and the noise would grow louder than ever.
Harbaugh didn’t care. Neither did Jackson.
“Hell yeah!” Jackson responded.
And what he can do is unlike anything the NFL has ever seen. It’s worth the mistakes, the imperfections, the overthrows, the interceptions. It is electric, irresistible, at times unstoppable, and it’s why, when the imperfections do appear, teammates like Marquise “Hollywood” Brown don’t flinch.
“Even when he threw his two picks, it was like, ‘Ah, yeah, you threw a pick, but look at that, look at this,” Brown said. Look at the flick-of-a-wrist deep balls, and video game jukes, and the poise. “He still came in there and did what he do,” Brown continued. “I love it.”
For almost three hours at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday, the story of a prime time showdown began and ended with a Jackson mistake. On the third play from scrimmage, he threw a pick-six. “That pissed me off,” Jackson said. It wasn’t even his fault, but it spotted Mahomes a seven-point head start, and it appeared, for almost four quarters, that he wouldn’t be able to make it up. That he wouldn’t be able to catch Mahomes. That he’d fall to 0-4 against the Chiefs. That he’d never be able to measure up.
Ever since 2019, that’s the comparison that has loomed over Jackson. He won a unanimous MVP. He wowed and thrilled all of us. Then he lost a playoff game, and Mahomes won a Super Bowl, and all the commentariat could talk about was whether Jackson could take the next step.
Instead, he regressed, and questions multiplied.
Twenty months later, all around him, the Ravens were seemingly crumbling, and it was fair to wonder how much Jackson’s 2019 greatness had been circumstantial. He’d taken the league by storm running a novel offense behind a road-paving line that stayed healthy. Now, heading into Sunday night, circumstances had soured. The NFL’s defensive coordinators had learned. The Ravens’ injured reserve had overflowed. J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards, the their top two running backs, were out for the year. First-round wide receiver Rashod Bateman was sidelined. So was starting guard Tyre Phillips. Tackle Orlando Brown had been traded, and the reason he’d been traded, All-Pro tackle Ronnie Stanley, was back on the inactive list too.
And Jackson? He’d fumbled twice in a Week 1 loss. He started out of sync against the Chiefs. He’d gifted Mahomes a touchdown, and only the greats can come back from that, and few expected Jackson to. His mistakes, instead, were the story.
But then, throughout an unforgettable second half, he reminded all of us that his one-of-a-kind greatness can transcend all of that. He reminded us, and his teammates and coaches, why they live with the imperfections. They’ve embraced that as an identity, because they understand that the good outweighs the bad like a sumo wrestler would an infant.
“It’s not perfect,” Harbaugh said. “It’s not pretty sometimes — usually. But it is us.”
Jackson is unpredictable, but so magnificent that on Baltimore’s sideline, trust in him never wavers. And that’s why the coaching staff, even after the two picks, entrusted him with a pass over the middle on third-and-7 with 1:11 remaining.
“I have complete confidence in Lamar Jackson to make every play,” Harbaugh said.
That’s why Harbaugh asked him about the fourth down, knowing the answer he’d get. Would Harbaugh have had so much conviction with any other quarterback?
“Well,” Harbaugh said, and paused, and chuckled. “Mahomes. I bet they’re going for it too with Patrick Mahomes.” That, in Harbaugh’s mind, is the elite company Jackson keeps.
Jackson actually wanted his offensive coaches to spread the Chiefs out. The coaches, instead, chose to go to a tight formation. But there was never any doubt who’d get the ball. Brown heard the playcall — a QB run behind two lead blockers — and thought, “Let’s do it.”
And after a magical second half of slippery runs and somersaults, of incisive passes and steel, was there ever any doubt he’d seal the win?
“I feel like we can make anything,” Jackson said. “I feel like we can make anything.”