- The Chargers defense proved to be too much for Jackson and the Ravens this time around, but the rookie quarterback got his team this far, and he’ll be their leader under center for the foreseeable future.
BALTIMORE — On wild-card Sunday—which is not to be confused with college basketball’s Selection Sunday, nor with Black Sunday, the movie about the sniper at the Super Bowl—the team that has been passed back and forth between Los Angeles and San Diego over the past 50-odd years beat the team that Baltimore purloined to replace the team that Indianapolis hijacked from Baltimore, 23–17, in a towering victory for capital mobility and moving vans. The comparatively homeless Los Angeles Chargers now get to travel to Foxborough next week to play the New England Patriots, while Ravens stay where they are. Los Angeles QB Philip Rivers was fairly burbling at the prospect of facing the Patriots.
“We’re going to get to play against a Bill Belichick-led defense,” he said. “That will be tough. The Patriots are used to these games. It’s not easy to make the playoff every year, but they make it look easy. On some level, I’m a fan of those guys. I have a lot of respect for New England. All we ask for is a chance.”
But the main drama of the day centered around Lamar Jackson, Baltimore’s rookie quarterback and 2016 Heisman Trophy winner who was deemed good enough to be selected with last pick of the first round of the NFL draft by Baltimore a year later. Now’s a good time to remember that a whole passel of Anonymous Sources Close To The NFL whispered that he might be better off catching passes in the league rather than throwing them because, you know, intangibles. (And, no, you don’t need to bring Alan Turing back from the dead to break that ancient code.)
Jackson stuck to his identity as a quarterback and Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome, whose last game in that capacity was Sunday, took a chance on the kid from Louisville with the dancing feet and the firehose of an arm. Jackson made his first start on Nov. 18 against Cincinnati, displacing Joe Flacco—as close to a face as this franchise has had, at least on offense—who was sidelined with a balky hip. A few weeks later, Jackson laid down a marker as the Ravens starting quarterback sine die, throwing for 240 yards in a 22–10 upset over the Chargers who, alas for Jackson, kept the game film. On Sunday, for three full quarters, Los Angeles set up shop in Jackson’s head.
Chargers coach Anthony Lynn took a big chance, playing with no linebackers and seven defensive backs in an attempt to show Jackson coverages the rookie never had seen before. “We thought putting the speed guys in there—we didn’t know if that was going to work, but we wanted to take a look at it,” Lynn said. “We feel like, today, it worked fine. They could run it down or at least catch him. With the linebackers in there, the physical guys, the bigger guys, that didn’t work out so well the first time.”
The strategy also depended on the ability of the Los Angeles defensive line to contain Jackson’s gifts as a runner, something that defensive end Melvin Ingram III did particularly well. As for Jackson, by the end of the third quarter, he’d been sacked seven times and had fumbled twice. (Baltimore had recovered both of them.) He’d completed only three passes and, at one point, his quarterback rating for the game was 0.0. On every play, he was presented with a very steep learning curve. With nine minutes left in the game, the Ravens trailed, 23–3, and they were getting booed off the field after every possession and the fans were chanting Flacco’s name.
“We just played like we didn’t want to be here. I did, not my team,” Jackson said. “I feel like I played poorly. I feel like there were a lot of things we could have done, I could have done, I feel, [to] put us in a better situation. We have to move on now, get ready for next year. ... At the beginning, a lot of throws weren’t hit that I was supposed to make, turnover, I fumbled once, and I wasn’t playing my game today. I’m ticked off about that, definitely.”
Baltimore coach John Harbaugh admitted that he was on the verge of changing quarterbacks throughout much of the game, although he ran away from specifics as though they were a nest of vipers. “We were just talking about all those possibilities. I’m not going to go into all that—in terms of what was said and was not said,” Harbaugh said. “I can assure you, we were considering putting Joe into the game and all that kind of stuff. It was part of the conversation. [We] certainly thought about it, certainly talked about it with everybody. I can tell you this—everybody was on the same page with what we did. Everybody, including [Flacco]. That’s where it was at.” When the fourth quarter rolled around, however, Los Angeles chose to sit on their 20-point lead, and they nearly lost it all.
With the Chargers pass rush turned way down, Jackson began to have some time to find the holes in the overcrowded Los Angeles secondary. He also found himself with some room to maneuver in and around the pocket. With nine minutes left in the game, Baltimore finally managed a drive. Jackson took them 75 yards in eight plays. On a first down from the Charger 31-yard line, Jackson found Michael Crabtree near the right pylon of the end zone to cut the Los Angeles lead to 23–10. But it was on the next Baltimore possession that Jackson silenced all the calls for Joe Flacco for good, or at least for the rest of Sunday.
Beginning at his own 20-yard line, Jackson completed three passes in a row and then ran the ball up the middle himself. On a second-and-10 from the 50, Jackson made the only Lamar Jackson play he made all day. As the pocket broke down, Jackson bounced off a couple of Chargers, spun, ran to his right and threw on the run downfield toward Baltimore running back Kenneth Dixon, who’d somehow gotten behind Los Angeles safety Derwin James. The pass barely made it over James’s leap and found Dixon, who brought it 39 yards to the Los Angeles 11. Four plays later, Jackson found Crabtree again, although the Ravens didn’t get the touchdown until after an interminable replay review in which the officials huddled like a county road crew wondering if the hole they’d dug was deep enough.
“[Jackson] played really well in two-minute. I don’t think [Flacco] would have played any better in two-minute than Lamar did,” Harbaugh said. “Give Lamar credit, right? For the way he played in two-minute. He played really well. You have to say, based on that part of it, at that point in time in the game, it was the right decision. We went down and scored two touchdowns.”
Even more spectacularly, Baltimore got the ball back again with 45 seconds left on their own 34-yard line. (The Chargers began to do Chargers Playoff Stuff again. A holding call wiped out an 11-yard game that otherwise might have clinched the win.) Not the best field position, but not the worst, either. Jackson found Mark Andrews for 13 yards and then spiked the ball to stop the clock with 29 seconds left. By now, the crowd in the stadium was steaming.
Jackson took the next snap and looked downfield. Meanwhile, to his left, rookie Charger linebacker Uchenna Nwosu leveraged his way to Jackson’s blind side and knocked away the ball. “ just saw Lamar [Jackson] holding the ball out, Nwosu said. "My eyes got big, like looking at candy when you’re first born, and I just swiped for it.” Ingram fell on the fumble to end the game.
“He’s the future,” Baltimore safety Eric Weddle said of his quarterback. “He’s such a bright kid, unbelievable energy and personality. He’s likeable. He works hard. As you guys can tell, he’s devastated right now, and that’s what’s going to drive him in the offseason.
“And, he’ll come back 10 times better than he was this year. For what he did, and to the belief that he gave not only our team, but our city, this organization, is pretty special. And, no matter how bad they were playing, we still figured out and knew that he was going to turn it around, because that’s what he just does. He doesn’t get too high. He doesn’t get too low. We made a run at the end. We just ran out of time, but he’s going to be a great one. I love him to death, and I can’t wait to see where his career ends up.”
What does one make of Lamar Jackson, then? Clearly, the Sources Close To The NFL were wrong; he has gifts that would have been wasted had someone tried to turn him into a wide receiver, which is what would have happened back in the days when the Colts were in Baltimore and the Browns were not yet the Ravens. Evolution is never pretty, and it works in fits and starts, but dammit, it’s never dull.
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