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OWINGS MILLS, Md. The Baltimore Ravens entered wild-card week against the Cincinnati Bengals with cautious optimism. Quarterback Lamar Jackson had injured his left knee in Week 13, but players and coaches figured he’d be back for the playoffs, according to multiple team sources.

Four to six weeks seemed like a worst-case scenario for recovery, and for a team that closed the regular season losing three of four, including Week 18 vs. the Bengals, help was needed.

But signs of a return weren’t evident. Some in the building were concerned when Jackson didn’t practice at all during Week 18. Over recent weeks, Jackson had attended quarterback meetings but wasn’t a fixture in team settings as he rehabbed in relative isolation, according to team sources. The only game he traveled to was at Pittsburgh the week after he injured the knee against Denver. Jackson wasn’t on the field for team work during the week.

Players took the field for their first practice of the postseason on Wednesday, Jan. 11, to find Jackson still absent. He was gone that week because of illness. Once-hopeful team members started to wonder what was going on. Players who spoke with Jackson got indications he wouldn’t be able to go.

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Then, hours after Thursday’s practice session, at 5:41 p.m. ET, Jackson dropped a now-famous tweet, describing his injury as a Grade 2 PCL sprain with inflammation surrounding the knee and announcing he would not be playing.

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Players had wrapped post-practice meetings by that point; many were headed home. Coaches were in their offices or in meetings.

“Whoo, boy – I was shocked by that,” a team source said.

Coach John Harbaugh said he wasn’t aware Jackson was going to tweet about his injury and hadn’t “paid much attention to it.”

One team source was under the impression Jackson could have played without risking further damage to the knee, but once it became clear Jackson didn’t feel right, “How do you dispute that?” the source said. “You have to respect the player’s outlook on his own injury.”

The Ravens lost 24-17 to the Bengals in a game that turned on backup quarterback Tyler Huntley’s fourth-quarter fumble at the goal line. Jackson did not travel with the team to Cincinnati, but he was back in the locker room the day after the game for the final team meeting.

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Four weeks later, Jackson was not in a joking mood after a 28-27 loss at Jacksonville in Week 12. In a tense postgame media session, he was frustrated about the ongoing troubles in the red zone and uncharacteristically cursed when reminded that EverBank Field was where he lost his final college game. “I lost again, so f- this,” he said.

Jackson’s temper flared even more when he went on social media after the game and saw a tweet from a Ravens fan that read: “someone asking for over $250 million guaranteed like [Jackson] … games like this should not come down to [kicker] Justin Tucker.” The fan added, “Let Lamar walk and spend that money on a well-rounded team.”

Jackson snapped back shortly afterward with a profane reply, saying, among other things, that the fan “never smelt a football field.” Jackson’s tweet was deleted after 3½ hours, and he apologized later that week. That was the last time Jackson spoke to reporters.

Harbaugh said it was “out of character” for Jackson to respond this way, adding, “I’ve never heard him say things like that before.”

A week later, in a 10-9 win over the Denver Broncos in Week 13, Jackson hurt his left knee on the final play of the first quarter and limped to the locker room. He would not play again.

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Jackson is widely considered the best dual-threat quarterback in NFL history, beating defenders with his elusive moves and speed as well as an underrated arm. He became the first player in the league to produce 5,000 yards passing and 2,500 yards rushing in the first three seasons of a career.

His impact on winning is also undeniable. Since 2019, the Ravens are 40-17 with Jackson, averaging 27.5 points per game. Over that same span, Baltimore is 4-9 without him, totaling 17.2 points per game.

The 13 missed games speak to concerns about Jackson’s durability, especially after he failed to finish a second straight season. He has been sidelined for 10 of Baltimore’s past 22 games, including the postseason.

Despite his recent injuries, Jackson’s incomparable skills would make him the marquee quarterback this offseason should Baltimore make him available, according to multiple league execs.

“He goes to the front of the line,” an AFC executive said. “There’s nobody like him. Maybe there’s been some discord there between the player and the team, but overall he’s still a great player and he’s not a bad guy. The durability is a mild concern.”

Jackson injured his left knee against the Broncos on Dec. 4, and he wouldn’t play again despite hopes he would be able to return for the postseason. Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

But multiple rival team officials reached by ESPN said the thought of relinquishing at least two first-round picks – the baseline asking price, based on the non-exclusive tag – for the right to pay Jackson between $230 million and $250 million in guaranteed money could give teams pause.

“Teams always need quarterbacks, so there will be interest as a result, especially if the GM and the head coach need to win now,” an NFC executive said. “But when you factor in future collateral you have to give up, meeting his contract demands, plus the durability issues, that would be a hard sell. There’s a lot to sort through there.”

This offseason could also strengthen the Ravens’ position on not offering a fully guaranteed contract. If quarterbacks such as the Bengals’ Joe Burrow, Los Angeles Chargers’ Justin Herbert and Philadelphia Eagles’ Jalen Hurts don’t get fully guaranteed extensions that exceed the $124 million guaranteed figure given to Wilson, it would underscore how Watson’s deal was more an outlier than a precedent. Watson’s ability to directly negotiate with prospective trade partners and effectively choose his destination also made his situation unique.

And it probably doesn’t help Jackson’s leverage that Watson, Wilson and Murray all struggled and posted the lowest QBRs of their careers after signing those deals. Denver and Cleveland gave up a combined five first-round picks for Wilson and Watson and won a combined 12 games last year. Teams that believe you can win with average quarterback play will cite those examples as a reason not to go all-in on Jackson.

For now, Jackson’s leverage is in doing nothing. If given the exclusive franchise tag, he can wait to sign – or not report to the team at all, which is what former Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell did when he sat out the 2018 season.

“It could become a standoff, because I wouldn’t expect him to sign the tag for a while,” an AFC exec said. “And [the Ravens] will be so far apart in the guaranteed money.”

Will John Harbaugh continue to have Jackson at quarterback, hoping new offensive coordinator Todd Monken could open up the passing attack? Or will Harbaugh go the way of Pete Carroll, who turned to Geno Smith after Russell Wilson’s departure? AP Photo/Adam Hunger

IF JACKSON’S CONTRACT was the overarching storyline for the Ravens during the 2022 season, the future of offensive coordinator Greg Roman increasingly became a point of contention among fans. Roman resigned Jan. 19, and the timing was noteworthy: Just as Jackson’s future with the franchise appeared uncertain, the Ravens sought a new coordinator.

The Ravens spoke with Jackson after they parted ways with Roman, getting his thoughts on personnel and his vision for the offense, a team source said. Baltimore then gave opportunities for Jackson to be involved in the offensive coordinator search. But he did not have direct interaction with any of the candidates.

After interviewing 14 coaches, the Ravens hired Georgia offensive coordinator Todd Monken, who was arguably the hottest candidate available, on Feb. 14. Multiple NFL teams courted Monken, but he prioritized Baltimore, with its stability under Harbaugh and DeCosta and the chance to coach an elite quarterback. The Baltimore OC job was considered the prime position among those available.

The organization greatly respects Roman, whose Ravens were among the league’s best rushing offenses from 2019 to 2022. But a passing game heavily reliant on tight ends and running backs ranked 27th or worse in NFL passing yards in three of Roman’s four seasons as the playcaller there. A team source said Jackson was not dissatisfied with the greater freedom and empowerment in the passing attack he experienced in a 42-38 loss to Miami (21-of-29 passing, 318 yards, 3 touchdowns) in Week 2, and a new coordinator might be able to give him that. Another team source added that since Jackson believes he can do anything with a football, it can be hard to gauge exactly what he wants, and suppressing his running ability would be foolish.

But clear themes emerged from Baltimore’s coordinator search, according to sources involved: The team wants to develop Jackson as a passer, and Harbaugh felt offensive changes were necessary to try to get back to the Super Bowl.

Monken isn’t afraid to throw the ball. When Monken was offensive coordinator of the 2018 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Bucs attempted the fourth-most passes in the NFL (625). But that team also threw the most interceptions (26). In fact, in Monken’s three years with Tampa Bay (2016-18), the Bucs had the second-most turnovers in the league (89). That pattern continued when he joined the Browns in 2019 as Baker Mayfield threw 21 interceptions, second most in the NFL. Distorting that picture is the fact that, although he called plays for one of college football’s premier offenses at Georgia, Monken did not call plays for most of his NFL coordinator stints.

The topic of Jackson was a central piece of the coordinator interview process. The Ravens probed candidates on how they would improve Jackson and build rapport with him, said a source with knowledge of the process.

The coaches outlined plans for Jackson, from footwork to throwing on the run more to offensive concepts for him to study.

One candidate said he came away with the sense Baltimore was planning for Jackson to be back. Another candidate presented offensive plans with or without Jackson, just in case.

At a critical juncture for Harbaugh, the 16th-year Ravens coach must chart a path with Jackson or hope for success following the example of the Seattle Seahawks, who built their roster around a new quarterback. After Wilson was traded following 10 seasons in Seattle, his replacement, Geno Smith, became the surprise story of the NFL, winning Comeback Player of the Year after guiding the Seahawks to the playoffs. Such a route, of course, would come with considerable risk for the Ravens.

If the Ravens parted ways with Jackson, the team would acquire enough draft capital to select a top quarterback prospect in this year’s draft or next year. Baltimore can add a veteran stopgap such as the free agent Mayfield, who has ties with the Ravens’ new offensive coordinator. In 2019, Mayfield threw for a career-best 3,827 yards passing in his only season with Monken as his coordinator.

A fallback, short-term option is Huntley, Jackson’s primary backup for the past two seasons and a restricted free agent. But the Baltimore offense struggled mightily last season under Huntley, totaling four touchdowns in his five starts. Huntley’s fumble at the goal line was also the decisive play in the postseason loss in Cincinnati.

Harbaugh’s players have made their preference clear. During the NFL Network’s Super Bowl pregame show, Campbell said Baltimore should not consider trading Jackson, calling him “a legend” and the ultimate X factor.

“When we’re on the football field and we know Lamar Jackson is back there quarterbacking, we believe we can beat anybody,” Campbell said. “We can’t just put anybody back there and expect to be a great football team.”

Campbell added, “In business, you’re going to have times when you have to entertain ideas, and somebody might come and say, ‘Hey, we’ll give you five first-round picks or whatever.’ But who do you replace him with?

“There’s no guarantee that one of these rookie quarterbacks will come in and be a Lamar Jackson. You go to get a free agent and you don’t know how they’re really going to fit. And really, there’s no free agents out there that are Lamar Jackson. So whatever we need to do. Hey, Eric DeCosta, I love you. Let’s find a way to make this happen, baby.”

DeCosta has shown that he isn’t afraid to move big-name players. He traded Pro Bowl offensive tackle Orlando Brown Jr. and first-round pick Marquise Brown in the past two offseasons, receiving first-round picks in return.

Parting ways with Jackson would be on a different level, however. There have been only nine trades involving NFL MVP quarterbacks – from Roman Gabriel in 1969 to Matt Ryan last year – since the award was first given out 66 years ago. No MVP quarterback has ever been traded before the age of 30. Jackson is 26.

DeCosta did not shoot down the possibility when asked whether the team would entertain trade offers.

“That’s something that we’re not going to talk about at this point,” DeCosta said in January. “Our focus right now is really to get a long-term deal done; that’s our singular focus at this point.

“It’s going to take some time, it’s going to take some effort, it’s going to take great communication – give and take – but I’m confident that we’ll be on the right path to get that done.”

The next step on that path is expected to be the franchise tag – the window to tag players opened Tuesday and closes March 7. What happens from there will frame one of the most compelling storylines of the offseason.

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