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Lamar Jackson’s absence looms over the Ravens’ playoff hopes and beyond

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson watches from the sideline during the game against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Jan. 1. (Nick Wass/AP)
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OWINGS MILLS, Md. — On Wednesday afternoon, the 38th day since Lamar Jackson last stepped on a football field, three quarterbacks warmed up at Baltimore Ravens practice. None wore No. 8. Still missing was the player around whom the franchise has revolved for more than four years, the quarterback whose presence makes anything possible and whose absence prompts a tangle of confusion and ambiguity.

Jackson did not practice Thursday, either, making the announcement Friday that he had been ruled out for Sunday’s playoff game against the Cincinnati Bengals a formality. When Jackson sprained a knee ligament Dec. 4, Coach John Harbaugh insisted he could return in a matter of days and would probably miss no more than one game. Jackson instead missed the final five games of the regular season without practicing once. He stood on the sideline during games, shades and stocking cap substituted for helmet and shoulder pads. He will now sit in Cincinnati, and the ramifications of the past month may ripple beyond this weekend.

Jackson’s prolonged recovery comes with his contractual status hovering like a cloud. The 2019 MVP will be eligible for free agency this offseason; negotiations on a mega-contract with the Ravens, to which Jackson took an unconventional and resolute approach, stalled in training camp. The timing has made many outside — and perhaps some within — the team’s locker room wonder if Jackson has not returned at less than 100 percent to protect his future earnings.

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Jackson provided a bolt of clarity Thursday night with his first public comments about his health since the injury. On Twitter, Jackson wrote he had suffered a Grade 2 posterior cruciate ligament sprain, borderline to a Grade 3 strain — a more serious injury than previously believed. His knee remains inflamed and unstable.

“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,” Jackson wrote.

Jackson’s update offered a clearer rationale for why he has missed more time than anticipated. But given his contract status, Jackson’s absence has kindled a frequent debate in a league steeped in pain and injury: Should a player, especially one on the verge of a life-changing payday, risk his own well-being for the betterment of his team? And, in Jackson’s case, when does that question even become relevant?

“In this league, everybody is pretty much banged up, hurt,” wideout Sammy Watkins said this week in a quiet corner of Baltimore’s locker room. “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. …

“But 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 [him] 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.”

After Jackson limped into the locker room during the first quarter of a Week 13 game against the Denver Broncos, Harbaugh set Jackson’s return at “a number of days to weeks. We’ll see if he can go back this week.” The next day, Harbaugh said Jackson playing in Week 14 would be “less likely but not impossible” and the next game would be “more and more likely.”

The statement now sits like toothpaste that can’t be put back in the tube. Last week, when asked if Jackson could play in the season finale, Harbaugh said, with a hint of mild exasperation, “I’m just probably going to leave all that stuff alone.”

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This week, Harbaugh extolled Jackson’s work habits during his rehab and insisted only his knee has been holding him back. Tight end Mark Andrews said Jackson has been his usual self, “doing everything he can” to get healthy.

“He’s been great,” Harbaugh said Monday. “He’s always in good spirits. He wants to play. There’s no doubt. That’s my feeling. You know I love Lamar. I love Lamar. I love everything about Lamar. Always have, always will.”

With Jackson sidelined, the Ravens will turn to backup Tyler Huntley or third-stringer Anthony Brown, who faced the Bengals in Week 18 while Huntley nursed a shoulder injury. Huntley threw no passes during the early portion of Wednesday’s practice, and he walked to the field with a trainer at the start of Thursday’s. He is listed as questionable for Sunday.

Even without Jackson, playing on the road against the defending conference champion, the Ravens cannot be dismissed. They have a proud, fierce defense that will include cornerback Marcus Peters back from injury. They have an experienced coach with a Super Bowl résumé who can force a game to be played on his terms. But nobody is underplaying the impact of Jackson’s absence.

“Lamar,” Andrews said, “is one of one.”

The same categorization applies off the field. Jackson does not employ an agent, relying primarily on his mother, Felicia Jones, as his manager. He operates outside the NFL’s typical back channels of communication — agents, marketing reps, publicists — to shape public narrative. His approach makes him inscrutable compared with most superstars, especially quarterbacks. Those who know Jones describe her as protective of Jackson and slow to embrace people outside the family’s tight circle.

“In the beginning, she was very standoffish,” Lamar Thomas, the assistant coach who recruited Jackson to Louisville and ultimately formed a close relationship with Jones, said in a 2020 interview. “She’s about trust. For her son, she only wanted the best. She wanted all the hard work and everything else they had put into this, all the years of training, she wanted the best for him.”

Jackson’s lack of an agent is not prohibitive to him signing a long-term contract extension with Baltimore. Proof arrived this week. Linebacker Roquan Smith, who represents himself, arrived in a November trade and established himself as the heart of the Ravens’ defense. In mid-December, Smith and General Manager Eric DeCosta began exchanging emails and meeting, hammering out details for a deal. On Monday, the Ravens announced a contract extension that will reportedly pay Smith $100 million over five years, making him the highest-paid linebacker in NFL history.

“A lot of times, people say players can’t negotiate without agents,” Smith said. “That’s not something I truly believe in. Talking with Eric throughout the process, he was honest, kept his word. I got a lot of respect for him. I can’t thank him enough for actually being fair and seeing the value in me.”

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Jackson’s negotiations went differently. In the summer, the Ravens reportedly offered him a contract on par with the those of the NFL’s highest-paid quarterbacks. He turned it down, according to many reports, because it did not include the same guaranteed money Deshaun Watson — a quarterback without an MVP award and with a tattered reputation — received from the Cleveland Browns.

Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti acknowledged the guaranteed money Watson received changed the market.

The impasse appears unlikely to break. In the most likely scenario, the Ravens will use their franchise tag on Jackson, paying him roughly $45 million for next season without a long-term resolution. Should Jackson receive the tag, it’s unclear how he would respond. A holdout could strain the relationship or even prompt what once seemed unthinkable for the player who might be Baltimore’s greatest sports icon since Cal Ripken Jr.: the consideration of a trade.

“I think the world is ready to see Lamar back on the field, doing what he do best, and get all the stipulations and contract stuff behind him,” Watkins said. “I pray somebody talks to him, like, ‘Man, just sign the deal.’ You know what I mean? And he get 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.”

A glance around the AFC playoff field underscores Jackson’s centrality. Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Joe Burrow, Trevor Lawrence and Justin Herbert are first-round picks with an MVP in their past or potentially their future. At 27, Mahomes is the oldest. Without a young and incandescent passer, other conference teams are on the wrong end of an unfair fight.

Jackson fits squarely into that constellation — but only if he’s healthy, and then only if he remains in Baltimore.

“I’m blessed to play with him,” Watkins said. “But the world wants to watch Lamar Jackson. That’s a phenom talent, a talent that you rarely come by. Things that he do 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” — Watkins clasped his hands — “that somebody reach out to him or that he’s really truly getting healthy and can play, that he wake up Thursday and be like: ‘All right, forget it. I’m playing.’ I think that would change the whole trajectory of our season.”

When Jackson woke up Thursday, his status remained unchanged. The Ravens went out to work under a gray sky, trees with naked branches framing their practice fields. Jackson was not there, and nobody was quite sure when they would see him again.