OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Robert Griffin III is nurturing a baby bird at Ravens minicamp. He’s raising the bird, mentoring it, caring for it, helping it in any way that he can, because Griffin has lived the life that this bird is about to live. He wants to show the bird what to do and what not to do, because Griffin wants the bird to have an easier life than his and to not make the same mistakes that he did.
“I’m trying to help nurture him as much as I possibly can,” Griffin says, “so that when he flies away, he is ready to fly away. Because when you watch it fly away, at that point it’s up to that bird.”
If you haven’t unraveled Griffin’s metaphor yet, that bird is rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson. The Ravens’ first-round pick has been the most discussed and dissected player on Baltimore’s roster this offseason, despite the fact that he is firmly entrenched in a backup role behind 11-year vet and Super Bowl champion Joe Flacco. With rumors that the relationship between Flacco and Jackson got off to an icy start—rumors that have been unsubstantiated and tepidly denied—the rookie has found a willing mentor in Griffin.
As soon as Jackson was drafted, Griffin sent a tweet welcoming him to the team—despite the fact that the rookie would usurp the veteran for the team’s backup role. Griffin then got Jackson’s number and texted him, letting him know that he is going to be there to help him in all the ways that Griffin wished he had been helped when he was first coming into the league. The two now talk everyday at the facility and meet at least once a week outside of it—often at the hotel Griffin has been staying at until recently.
So why all of the attention on Jackson? The 2012 NFL Rookie of the Year recalls how there was no one on the roster in Washington who could help him navigate his career as an African-American NFL quarterback.
“I try to take that and look at it in a positive way to try to help Lamar navigate a lot of the things that I had to navigate on my own,” Griffin says. “I feel like he really trusts me and believes what I’m telling him and I think that’s made him a better player already in a short amount of time.”
There is a unique connection between different generations of African-American quarterbacks in the league, because the road that they must travel is admittedly different than their white counterparts. Griffin says he received advice from Doug Williams, Randall Cunningham and Warren Moon, but since he and Jackson are on the field together and talking every day, he feels like his impact will be significantly greater. Griffin’s says his biggest message to Jackson—who, absurdly, teams asked to work out as a receiver before the draft—is that he has to stick to “what you know and be true to who you are.”
“Is it different being an African-American quarterback in the NFL?” Griffin asks rhetorically. “Yes, it’s different. But you can’t look at it as a burden. You can’t look at it as something that is going to hold you back. It’s a challenge. You have to accept the challenge and move forward with it. Anytime you are athletic enough at the quarterback position and have similar traits to a wide receiver or running back, it’s going to be talked about. You have to eliminate that noise and understand that, because I have that ability, I am going to be even greater.”
Griffin loves that Jackson has the ability to be a breathtaking playmaker in the open field, and he wants him to keep that facet of his game and exploit it, because it makes him different. But Griffin also wants to help the rookie cultivate and perfect the other aspects required to become an NFL quarterback.
“That’s always going to be there, the natural ability, use it as long as you have it,” Griffin says. “That’s something I had to learn. Continue to use every ability God has blessed you with until you can’t do it anymore. And by that time, you’ve perfected your craft in other areas to where you can do everything.
“When I came in, I wasn’t doing it necessarily like everyone else was doing it. Now at 28 [years old], my goal isn’t to go out there and do it like everyone else is doing it. I’m just more confident knowing, hey I can do this and I can do that. That’s where I want to help Lamar get to.”
Griffin notes that in his six seasons in the NFL, he has played in four different offenses—including this one in Baltimore. He has been a starter and a star, has been in quarterback controversies and competitions, has been a backup and has been out of the league. “I have seen everything,” Griffin says. And he is using that breadth of experience now to not only get his own career back on the right path, but also to ensure that Jackson’s never gets derailed in the first place.
“I want to let him go out, ball out, and make the mistakes he’s going to make,” Griffin says. “But still be able to steer him in ways that he doesn’t make the catastrophic mistakes.”
Griffin sees everything that he has gone through, the ups and the downs of his career, as “a blessing in disguise,” not only because it gives him all of the insight needed to be the perfect mentor for Jackson but also because it has provided him with more certainty on his own path. Because, yes, while he wants to give Jackson the guidance he needs to be a star, Griffin is also here in Baltimore to prove that he can still play quarterback in the NFL at a high level.
“If I hadn’t gone to where I was and where I’ve been,” Griffin says, “I would never know how to get back here and I wouldn’t know if I really loved the game. You can say you love something, but until you get challenged the way that I’ve been challenged over the course of my career, you don’t know. It showed me that this is what God is calling me to do.”
Griffin is reticent to make comparisons between Jackson and himself, or Michael Vick—like linebacker C.J. Mosley did earlier this week—or any other quarterback because he doesn’t think that is fair to anyone. But he will offer this assessment:
“When you are in rare air with your talent and ability,” he says, “you have an opportunity to do things that haven’t really been seen. At the end of the day Lamar Jackson simply has to do Lamar Jackson things.”
Other minicamp notes
• At Thursday’s practice, Jackson got the vast majority of the snaps. John Harbaugh said that offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg made the decision to give the rookie “a chance, putting the pressure on him to have to really run the whole practice, operate the offense.” And while the insights that can be gleaned from minicamp are admittedly tenuous, as defenses are not allowed to tackle or really touch offensive players, Jackson impressed with both his arm and his legs. He threw several nice deep balls, hitting multiple different receivers in stride for long gains. On one broken-down play during 7-on-7 drills, he bounced outside and cut upfield, splitting two defenders, then displayed his patented burst of speed—even with things operating not quite at full speed, Jackson’s athleticism and quickness is obvious. Not all was perfect, though, of course, as he seemed to struggle a bit with intermediate throws, often throwing behind receivers as they ran in-breaking routes.
• Harbaugh’s response to a question about how Jackson has fit in on the team, while a mouthful, is interesting. “Since he’s got here, he’s been all ears, so to speak. He wants to learn, is a very hard worker, very smart guy—probably as a much as anybody. Sometimes, it’s knowing what you don’t know. Some guys don’t know, and they don’t know that they don’t know. He knows a lot, but he also knows what he doesn’t know—which is the type of an offense and the type of systems that he’s going to be exposed to in this league are far different than what he did in college. It’s just a different game.”
• While Jackson is getting the majority of the attention, it is still Flacco’s team (despite not getting many reps on Thursday), and the quarterback has been locked in all offseason. Safety Eric Weddle hypothesized that the increased QB competition has lit a fire under Flacco and caused him to elevate his game, while there is also the belief that he is entering this year healthier than he has been in years past. When asked about how he feels, Flacco said the biggest improvement for him this year has been in his movement. “Extending plays and stepping up in the pocket,” he says. “And not just stepping up in the pocket, but scrambling out and making plays on the run.
• The Ravens receiving group is almost entirely brand new this year, with the additions of Michael Crabtree, Willie Snead and John ‘Smoke’ Brown. And while Brown and Crabtree didn’t practice on Thursday—and as a result there were a litany of drops—one must assume that the group will be an improvement from last season’s abysmal showing. The team has had five different players lead the team in receptions over the last six seasons; Mike Wallace led the team in 2017, with 748 yards, good for 40th in the league. Crabtree will need to find more success in that lead receiver role this season for the Ravens to have any chance at making a postseason run.
• While Terrell Suggs didn’t practice on Thursday, he did speak at the podium, which is always fun. When about the change in vibe with the defense after Dean Pees retired (and then took the Titans job less than a month later) and was replaced by Wink Martindale, known to be a more aggressive play-caller. Suggs responded, “I’m not going to tell you, because we also have some other guys who are also listening to this interview. But, most definitely. It’s changed a lot. We’re happy about it.” While the Ravens defense was good last season—sixth in points allowed, 10th in passing yards allowed and 15th in rushing yards allowed—they faltered late in games. The Ravens are a team that is always predicated on their staunch defense, and they’ll be hoping that the unit takes another leap forward this season.