Ravens’ Lamar Jackson has his eyes on the prize: ‘I’ve got to get a championship now’

Lamar Jackson doesn’t spend a whole lot of time reminiscing, but as he studied film in preparation for the Ravens’ Week 15 matchup with Jacksonville and honed in on Jaguars cornerback Darious Williams, he found himself thinking back to his rookie year in 2018.

Williams, who entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent, was part of Jackson’s rookie class in Baltimore. So, too, were Hayden Hurst, Orlando Brown Jr., DeShon Elliott, Bradley Bozeman, Anthony Averett and Zach Sieler, all of whom are now two seasons or more removed from playing for the Ravens.

“I remember coming into the building with all of those guys. Now, it’s just like me, Gus (Edwards) and Mark (Andrews). We had so many guys. It was incredible, man. They’re all around the league right now and we’re not in the same locker room anymore. It’s crazy,” Jackson said in a recent interview with The Athletic.

“It made me sit back and realize, ‘Damn, I’m getting older. I’ve got to get a championship now.’ That’s one of the reasons I’m stressing that I need to win it. I’m not getting any younger. It’s best to win it now.”

Since the moment Jackson held up a Ravens jersey for the first time on draft night and declared that “they’re going to get a Super Bowl out of me,” winning the sport’s biggest team prize has been an obsession for the quarterback. His teammates say that he talks about it constantly. They’ve also said over the past few weeks that they’ve never seen Jackson so locked in on a goal.

Jackson just turned 27 and, yet, there’s only one thing missing from his resume. He’s won a Heisman Trophy and made multiple Pro Bowl and All-Pro teams. He agreed to a contract extension in April of last year that temporarily made him the highest-paid player in the history of the sport. He already has one MVP award, and he’s a few weeks away from potentially winning another. The Ravens have won 58 of the 77 regular-season games that Jackson has started over the past six seasons.

Yet, the one blemish on his young career — and his critics are quick to point it out — is his 1-3 record and seven turnovers in four postseason games. The Ravens haven’t been able to get out of the divisional round with Jackson as their quarterback. Their latest opportunity comes Saturday afternoon against the Houston Texans at M&T Bank Stadium.

“I think it’s safe to say that Lamar hasn’t done great, or the team hasn’t done great with him as the quarterback in the playoffs,” said Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner, an analyst for NFL Network. “When you’ve got the No. 1 seed and things laid out in front of you, I think there’s some expectations there, without a doubt. You get certain guys like Lamar and Dak (Prescott) and it becomes less and less about the regular season and everything becomes about the playoffs. You have to perform well in the playoffs. I think that expectation is definitely there. If they don’t, I think that storyline will obviously continue.”

Fair or unfair, there probably isn’t another player taking part in the divisional round this weekend who will be under more scrutiny and pressure than Jackson.

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Patrick Mahomes already has two rings. C.J. Stroud and Brock Purdy are in their first and second years, respectively. Jordan Love is a first-year starter. Jared Goff and Baker Mayfield have already authored feel-good redemption stories. Josh Allen is in a similar situation to Jackson, but the Buffalo Bills were 6-6 at one point and counted out as legitimate contenders. It feels like they’re playing with house money in many ways.

The Ravens, though, are widely considered the best and most balanced team in the league. Jackson is the presumed NFL MVP, having already been voted as the first-team All-Pro quarterback in garnering 45 of 50 first-place votes.

“I think he’s as ready or more ready than he has ever been,” said ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky. “This is certainly a moment that Lamar has been chasing for years.”

There have been a few occasions during his Ravens tenure where the intensely private Jackson has offered a glimpse of how his insatiable desire to win developed. As an 11-year-old, Jackson led the North Broward (Fla.) Raiders to a victory over the Fort Lauderdale Hurricanes in the South Florida Youth Super Bowl.

Jackson and his teammates got shiny rings to commemorate the victory, but that’s not what he most remembers about the experience. It was the feeling of accomplishment and camaraderie that came with celebrating a championship with friends and teammates that still resonates with him. For the past 15-plus years, Jackson has yearned for that feeling again.

He didn’t win a state title in talent-rich South Florida despite starring at Boynton Beach High School. He led Louisville to plenty of wins, but Jackson and the Cardinals lost bowl games in each of his final two seasons.

In his first five years with the Ravens, the end of the season has often been abrupt and painful. Inserted for an injured Joe Flacco in 2018, Jackson saved the Ravens’ season by leading them to wins in six of seven games. However, he played like a rookie in his playoff debut, turning the ball over twice and getting sacked seven times in a 23-17 wild-card loss to the Los Angeles Chargers. Some fans chanted for Flacco to come in during the game.

A year later, nobody could stop Jackson and the Ravens as they rattled off 12 straight victories to finish the 2019 regular season with a 14-2 record. But they were stunned, 28-12, at home by the Tennessee Titans in the divisional round of the playoffs. Jackson did turn the ball over three times in the game, but he also accounted for 508 yards of offense and got little help from his teammates. Jackson, who would learn a few weeks later that he was just the second unanimous MVP in NFL history, was so distraught after that loss that he didn’t leave his room for days.

“2019 is over with,” Jackson said recently. “We’re always talking about it. I find myself talking about it, but it’s different.”

Jackson and the Ravens got over the playoff hump following the 2020 regular season and avenged the loss to the Titans by beating them in the wild-card round 20-13. Jackson’s 48-yard dash to the end zone late in the second quarter was the biggest play in the game. Yet, a week later, Jackson and the Ravens offense struggled in difficult conditions against a good Bills defense in a 17-3 loss. Eyeing the tying score late in the third quarter, Jackson was picked off in the end zone by Taron Johnson, who returned the interception 101 yards for a touchdown. Jackson was knocked out of the game with a concussion a minute later.

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Three years later, that game in Buffalo marks Jackson’s last playoff experience. Injuries forced him to miss the last four games in 2021 and the final six games last season, including the wild-card loss to the divisional rival Cincinnati Bengals. He returns to the postseason on Saturday, motivated to continue his quest for an accomplishment that’s consumed him since the day he was drafted.

“When I first got here, that’s been the only message. I know since he got drafted, he’s always said he wants to bring a Super Bowl here,” said Ravens safety Geno Stone. “That’s what he’s been trying to do his whole career. All of the accomplishments that he’s had individually, I know he likes them and everything like that, but he always preaches how he wants a Super Bowl.“

One of the few Ravens to experience a Super Bowl victory, veteran wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., was asked Tuesday whether he’s noticed anything different about his quarterback as playoff preparation has ramped up.

He’s been the “same since the minute he stepped in here,” Beckham said. “His eyes are on that prize. His approach, if anything, he looks even more focused and locked in than ever. He’s the leader, the heart and soul of this team.”

Jackson pushes back at the notion that his demeanor has been different this season, that he seems to be having more fun, that he’s more engaged than ever before in everything the Ravens are doing. However, people around the building have noticed it.

“It’s been really cool to see his growth from just signing that (new contract) to being more vocal, leadership-wise,” Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey said last month, acknowledging that Jackson challenged him after one game to play better. “Since he signed his deal, I think everyone can say you’ve seen a lot of changes he’s done to really be the leader of the team, not just the star player. It seems like everything from getting the extra workout, being the first one in, breaking the team down with speeches, getting on guys. All of these things, it’s been really encouraging to have.”

There were times in the previous two seasons when it seemed Jackson had lost some of the exuberance that he played with earlier in his career, that the pressure of playing for and negotiating his own contract and dissatisfaction with the offense had taken a mental toll, and injuries and illnesses had imparted a physical one.

“I’ve always had a lot of fun and I’m having a lot of fun this year,” Jackson said. “It’s like being around my brothers every day. We’re all just trying to get better. We’re in the locker room having fun, but when we get on the field, it’s business. When we’re winning, we’re going to have fun.”

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The Ravens are winning in large part because their $260 million quarterback has flourished while getting more responsibility in Todd Monken’s new offense. Monken texted Jackson before the season and vowed to give him more freedom at the line of scrimmage. The caveat, Monken told him, was that if Jackson’s audible didn’t work, it was on him. That was just fine to Jackson.

He fell well short of some of the numbers he posted during his unanimous MVP season in 2019, but Jackson still set career highs in passing yards (3,678), completion percentage (67.2) and yards per attempt (8.0). He also threw just seven interceptions and accounted for 29 total touchdowns. The brilliance of Jackson’s season, though, was more reflected in how he efficiently and intelligently ran Baltimore’s offense and stressed opposing defenses with his dynamic skill set.

“That’s been kind of the story with Lamar and the Ravens in the past. Teams have taken away the run game and they’ve forced him to be a passer and he hasn’t been able to overcome those things and be good enough as more of a pocket passer to win those games,” Warner said. “If he’s forced to do that this year, I definitely feel he’s more equipped. I definitely feel that the offense is more equipped. … Their pass game is more multiple on top of the fact that they can still run that way. They are set up more to be able to do different things if they need to … and they are set up to help Lamar show what he’s capable of doing as a passer better than they ever were before.”

In the lead-in to the Ravens-San Francisco 49ers’ game on Christmas night, ESPN broadcaster and Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman said, “I don’t think there’s a quarterback in the game asked to do more than Lamar Jackson does.” Jackson then went out and tormented one of the league’s best defenses, throwing for 252 yards and two touchdowns and running for 45 yards.

“You’ve seen the football intellect be at the forefront more, getting out of bad plays, getting into good plays, changing protections,” Orlovsky said. “Number two, I think he’s much more consistent mechanically. I think he gets his hips into throws more and not just relying on natural talent. He has raised his elbow a little bit when it comes to his throwing motion. It used to be low at times and that would force misses. And I think that he has much more patience in the pocket now as a passer.”

Now comes Jackson and the Ravens’ most elusive challenge: proving they can get it done in the playoffs.

“I think the world of what we have going on here,” Jackson said. “It’s hard to come by sometimes. We’re a good team in all phases — special teams, defense, offense — but we know what we’re chasing. We have to stay locked in.”

(Top photo: Ryan Kang / Getty Images)

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