OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- From the blink-and-he’s-gone scrambles to the countless hugs, Lamar Jackson is playing as loose, confident and enthused as ever heading into a postseason that can go a long way in determining his national perception as a quarterback.
Jackson shook off the weight of expectations that come with being the reigning NFL MVP, as well as a nasty bout with COVID-19, to carry the Baltimore Ravens to five straight victories and back to the playoffs. He is smiling and embracing teammates again (he celebrated the comeback win in Cleveland by lifting up kicker Justin Tucker in a bear hug). He is running circles around defenses again. And, as Baltimore offensive coordinator Greg Roman recently put it, Jackson is the game’s best player again.
But all the talk leading up to Sunday’s AFC wild-card game at the Tennessee Titans (1:05 p.m. ET, ESPN) won’t center on how Jackson saved the Ravens’ season or how he has won 30 games faster than any quarterback in NFL history. The national spotlight falls on the NFL’s most elusive player trying to get his hands on what has slipped through his grasp -- a postseason victory.
Jackson is 0-2 in the playoffs, totaling more turnovers (five) than touchdowns (three). He is trying to avoid becoming the second quarterback in the Super Bowl era to lose playoff openers in his first three seasons (Andy Dalton is the only one).
In talking with those close to Jackson, his postseason struggles don’t place any additional pressure on him this week.
"It’s not a cop-out answer: He’s going to think about beating the team we’re playing,” Ravens quarterbacks coach James Urban said. "He is very single-minded. He has this unique ability to do that in a situation. You’ve seen it. ‘Hey, Coach, let’s run it. Let’s go for it.’ It’s that determination in the moment.”
Jackson's playoff rematch with the Titans on Sunday comes one year after a surprising 28-12 loss to Tennessee in the divisional round, which took a toll on him emotionally. Jackson didn't leave his room in the days following the defeat. He was angry and depressed.
Some believe he has never really moved past it, but it's not to the point where he's bent on revenge. From Jackson's viewpoint, he has unfinished business. His goal -- his obsession, others have said -- is to repay Baltimore with a Lombardi trophy for selecting him after the rest of the league passed on him in the first round of the 2018 draft.
"I won’t say he’s sitting there like, 'Man, I gotta get the Tennessee Titans back,'" said Joshua Harris, Jackson's personal quarterback tutor. "It’s just the fact of, 'I didn’t accomplish my goal. And my goal has always been to win the Super Bowl.' That’s on his mind. That’s his constant motivation, but not in specifics like, 'I lost in the playoffs again.' He doesn’t think that way."
Steve Young, a Hall of Fame quarterback and ESPN analyst, doesn't believe the Ravens' playoff failures should fall squarely on Jackson's shoulders. This summer, Young spoke to Titans coach Mike Vrabel, who acknowledged his team can stop a high-level running game like Baltimore's by committing enough resources to do so. Vrabel, though, told Young he doesn't have a defense for Jackson's skill set combined with an advanced passing attack.
Young feels it's up to the Ravens' front office and coaching staff to put Jackson in the best position to succeed when it matters most.
"He can be the greatest player that ever played the position if we can develop some more sophisticated passing talent," Young said. "I’m just telling you that he will be on the Mount Rushmore of quarterbacks with this talent, with this ability. If you just tell me that we’re going to keep running this same offense with the same players, then he will always be an electrifying winner of rank-and-file football of NFL games. But I think in the more challenging games, it will always be a 50-50 enterprise."
Jackson has filled YouTube with his juke and spin moves in the open field. His unquestioned best change of direction, however, came in December.
After a 10-day quarantine for testing positive for COVID-19, Jackson surprised everyone by returning with a new exuberance. He was no longer a picture of frustration on the sideline after not living up to whatever he thought was expected of an NFL MVP. In his first game back, Jackson ran onto the field during pregame warm-ups and hugged everyone in the huddle.
"I definitely think that bout with COVID-19 was really eye-opening for him," Roman said. "And just the appreciation for the opportunity to be around the teammates, and play this great game, was magnified, really, by that whole experience. So, I definitely noticed a little pep in his step."
This different mindset coincided with a phone call between Jackson and Harris three days before the quarterback tested positive on Thanksgiving. Harris reminded Jackson that his gift is his legs, pointing out how he can manipulate defenses and go on the attack by using his athleticism.
"Let's get back to that," Harris suggested to Jackson.
Jackson suddenly wasn't worried about proving he was a pocket passer. He wasn't hesitant about taking off when he dropped back and no one was open. With scrambles, sprints and spirals, Jackson was nearly unstoppable over the last five games of the regular season, producing an NFL-best 93.3 Total QBR and running for 430 yards (sixth best in the league).
"I think he just got back comfortable in the essence of who he is," Harris said. "I think we’ve seen the MVP Lamar."
In the midst of touchdown passes and highlight-reel runs, Jackson dealt with his share of adversity. While sick with the coronavirus, he lost all sense of taste and smell. The lack of appetite affected his weight and nutrition.
It is believed this led to Jackson's cramps in Cleveland on Dec. 14, when he spent most of the fourth quarter in the locker room getting treatment. Both hands clenched up tightly. When trainers opened up his hand, it would snap back into a fist. His calves also balled up.
"I’ve never seen anything like it," Urban said. "The cramping in that Cleveland game was real. This virus is nothing to play with."
Jackson dramatically returned for the final two minutes in Cleveland, where he threw a go-ahead, 44-yard touchdown pass and then calmly moved Baltimore into position for Tucker's winning 55-yard field goal with two seconds left.
"He’s a guy that can look tough situations squarely in the eye and try to figure out a way to overcome them," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "He never gets too down about anything; he’s always upbeat, and he always works hard. So, those are the things that you appreciate about him.”
Prepared for the postseason
Jackson hasn't won a postseason game, but the Ravens are in the wild-card round Sunday because he has excelled in a win-or-go-home mentality.
He turned around a 6-5 team by scoring an average of 37.2 points the rest of the way. If Jackson had slipped up once in the final five weeks, Miami would've bumped out Baltimore for the final playoff spot in the AFC.
"So, if we’re gonna be fair about the scenario, technically, these are playoff games," Harris said.
Last season, Baltimore was on such a big roll that it clinched the AFC's top seed in Week 16. After resting Jackson and some other starters for the regular-season finale and the first-round bye, the Ravens were unable to recapture their rhythm and edge in an upset loss to the Titans.
This year, Jackson and the Ravens have been on a relentless mission through the final game of the regular season.
"For Lamar Jackson, this has been his grow-up season," said Marcus Spears, a former NFL defensive lineman who is now an ESPN analyst. "The fact that he had to go fight in Cleveland and had to go undefeated leading up to these playoffs, you cannot tell me that won't serve him better than the previous two years. I think the expectation for the Baltimore Ravens within their building is for them to make a deep playoff run and potentially get to a Super Bowl."
The start of Jackson's career has been as scintillating and spectacular. Since taking over the starting job in the middle of the 2018 season, Jackson has won more games (30) than any other quarterback during that span. Along with Dan Marino, Jackson is the only quarterback to win NFL MVP while guiding his team to the playoffs in each of his first three seasons.
But it hasn't been about the regular season for Jackson for a long time. The question of whether he can win in the postseason has lingered over him since the Ravens collapsed to the Titans a year ago. Now, against the same Titans, the time has come for Jackson to put those doubts to rest.
"He leaves his ego at the door, and to him, the ultimate goal is to win," Ravens defensive end Derek Wolfe said. "That’s all he cares about is winning. You can’t ask for more from a quarterback than just to want to win -- and his will to win. He’ll sacrifice his body and take off running and put himself in situations that a lot of quarterbacks wouldn’t put themselves in. So, I appreciate it; I know the rest of the team appreciates it. We’re behind him, no matter what.”