Lamar Jackson, facing heavy criticism after Ravens loss, still has his teammates’ faith

Lamar Jackson, facing heavy criticism after Ravens loss, still has his teammates’ faith

Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson is facing heavy criticism for his playoff failure, but his teammates have his back. (Kenneth K. Lam/Staff)

Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson is facing heavy criticism for his playoff failure, but his teammates have his back. (Kenneth K. Lam/Staff)

One by one, they stood up for Lamar Jackson. He had taken the Ravens all the way to the AFC championship game, and they were not going to abandon him, just because talking heads had spent the morning labeling him a choker, saying he was out of excuses for his subpar postseason performance.

“They got a job to do, I guess, but I don’t think Lamar cares, nor do I care what other people have to say outside this building,” All-Pro safety Kyle Hamilton said. “That just comes with the territory. Heavy is the head that wears the crown. There’s a lot of people out there, hoping for people like Lamar to fail, but we all know that he’s the best player in this league, and I’m happy to have him on this team.”

Ravens players still felt shocked and pained by their 17-10 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs as they cleaned out their lockers Monday afternoon, less than 24 hours after the final seconds of a wildly promising season had ticked away. Jackson had spoken immediately after the loss — “I’m not frustrated at all. I’m angry about losing” — so he was not around to comment on the aftermath.

But teammates wanted the world to know that they’re eager to move forward with him leading the flock. A year earlier, they had faced questions about whether Jackson would be back with the Ravens at all as he approached free agency. A difficult loss felt better than that grim alternative.

“Lamar’s the man,” veteran guard Kevin Zeitler said. “He’s the leader of this team. He’s fiery. He cares more than anyone. I think it’s very obvious when you watch it. No matter what people want to say, I know he’s going to be back, ready to work when it’s time and take us all the way.”

The Ravens had built their entire offseason around helping Jackson put his best foot forward in year six of his career. They signed him to a $260 million extension, remade his wide receiver corps, replaced offensive coordinator Greg Roman with a more sophisticated pass designer in Todd Monken.

From the beginning of training camp, Jackson met the challenge, insisting that the team remain laser-focused on each granular moment, managing more of the offense while throwing more accurately than he ever had, rallying the Ravens in rare moments when they veered off course.

Eight days before he met the Chiefs, he played the first truly splendid playoff game of his career as the Ravens raced past the Houston Texans with 24 unanswered points in the second half. He seemed loose and eager throughout last week.

And then, Jackson crashed with the world watching. He either rushed or held the ball too long. He overshot deep targets and failed to sense pressure coming from behind him on a strip-sack. When the Ravens still had a chance to get back in the game in the fourth quarter thanks to their stout defense, he threw an interception into triple coverage.

Jackson’s statistical line — 20 of 37 passing for 272 yards, one touchdown and one interception — wasn’t good but did not fully capture how far he fell into his worst tendencies.
Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson is striped of the ball by Chiefs Charles Onenihu for a 2nd quarter turnover as the Baltimore Ravens host the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC championship at M&T Bank Stadium. (Jerry Jackson/Staff)Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson is stripped of the ball by Chiefs defensive end Charles Onenihu in the second quarter Sunday. (Jerry Jackson/Staff)
There were many other reasons the Ravens lost, from Monken’s curious game plan to immature penalties to wide receiver Zay Flowers’ fumble at the goal line. But the story of their ultimate failure could not center on anyone but Jackson, who had made himself the league’s presumptive Most Valuable Player over his previous 17 games.

Here’s a mere sampling of the Jackson takes that cascaded forth Sunday night and Monday morning:

Stephen A. Smith on ESPN’s “First Take”: “With all due respect, it was a choke job. Let’s call it what it is. It’s doing what you’re accustomed to doing until the moment arrives, and then, you don’t.”

The Ringer’s Bill Simmons on his podcast: “The Ravens … got haymakered coming out of the gate and then just keeled over, and all of the fears about that Ravens team and Lamar and the whole era just came seeping out for three solid hours.”

Andscape columnist Martenzie Johnson: “On Sunday night, there was nothing defensible about what Jackson did.”

Teammates anticipated this barrage coming for their leader. As much as they wanted to win the Super Bowl for themselves, they wanted to win it for Jackson. They know how much it means to him and how much weight crashes on his shoulders when the team falls short.

“Honestly, what hurts me the most is that I wanted to get him the recognition that he deserves,” linebacker Patrick Queen said. “It’s a team sport, it’s a team effort, but that guy was the main guy I was playing for, honestly. So much stuff he gets that he doesn’t deserve. This was his opportunity to be able to write some of that stuff off and move on to the next thing. That’s why it hurts, because you want to see people like that, teammates that you love and care about, get what they’re supposed to get, and that didn’t happen.”

Wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. is the rare player who understands how it feels to be as famous as Jackson is. He was one of the first to console the younger man as the game slipped away.
Ravens wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. consoles quarterback Lamar Jackson on the bench late in the game. The Chiefs defeated the Ravens 17-10 in the AFC Championship game. (Kenneth K. Lam/Staff)Ravens wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. consoles quarterback Lamar Jackson, left, late in Sunday’s loss to the Chiefs. (Kenneth K. Lam/Staff)
“When you have a player like Lamar, who — 30 years from now, we’ll speak Lamar Jackson’s name, and everyone is going to know and remember — there are certain moments that define you, and this is just one that will be in his career,” Beckham said. “The greats have all been through tough times, and I don’t think this is going to stop him from wanting to get to the ultimate goal. I think, if anything, he’s going to work even harder. He wants it bad. I had never seen somebody so locked in and just in their flow and in their era, and I just felt like it was his time. And like I say, sometimes things happen in life, and it doesn’t go the way that we plan. It’s just about, what do you do from here?”

As Beckham noted, Jackson is far from the first Hall of Fame quarterback talent to confront cries of “can’t win the big one.”

Dan Marino rewrote the league’s passing records in the 1980s and 1990s but was badly outplayed by Joe Montana in his lone Super Bowl.

John Elway awed NFL evaluators with his package of arm and leg talent but did not lead the Denver Broncos to a Super Bowl win until the penultimate season of his 16-year career.

Peyton Manning won two MVP awards and finished second two other times before he finally reached and won the Super Bowl in his ninth season.

Quarterbacks who sparkle on the biggest stages almost from the moment they hit the NFL — Mahomes, Tom Brady, Johnny Unitas — are the rarest kind. Jackson, for all his brilliance, is navigating a more jagged path.

He did not seem shaken when he spoke after Sunday’s loss. He was angry that he turned the ball over when the Ravens were in striking distance, dissatisfied that the offense did not meet the standard it had set over a string of dominant late-season victories. But he’s not one to sink into gloom, and he gave no indication that will change after this loss, his fourth in six career playoff contests.

“We’ve been waiting all this time, all these moments for an opportunity like this, and we fell short,” he said. “But I feel like our team is going to build.”

Outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney, the No. 1 pick in the 2014 draft, is another in the select group of teammates who can identify with the intense spotlight on Jackson.

“I love him regardless of how that game shook out; it’s just like my brother forever,” Clowney said. “Keep your head up, man. I dealt with that scrutiny throughout my career. I just kept my head up, kept the people around me who love me — kept them close, and you build from there. You continue to move forward.”

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