Whatever else it may be, the NFL is a business – and at no time is it ever not that. Players, coaches, and owners for that matter have varying degrees of motivation for dedicating their lives to the game but make no mistake about it every player, coach, owner and (especially) agent is being paid to be doing what they’re doing. Paid pretty handsomely actually.
Now, how handsome anyone’s salary is comes down to how valuable they are, right? This is mostly like true in your situation. Unless you are somehow unusually tethered to it in a way that disallows you to break free (like a family commitment or something) then your commitment to whatever it is you do for a living is going to track pretty closely with how much you are compensated/treated in your workspace. If the situation becomes untenable or if you feel like you can do better elsewhere, you will (and should) move away from it and towards something that’s more in line with the skills you have to offer and the commensurate compensation it demands.
The reason I’m spending time on this sort of super-basic stuff is because so much of this perspective seems to be lost on people when discussing the Lamar Jackson/Baltimore Ravens fiasco (which by now can probably be graduated up to the level of “ordeal”). It looks to my eye like people are going way outside the formation to miss the really obvious reason why there is about to be a permanent separation between the two parties. Lamar has proven he is worth top-flight money, and the Ravens have made it clear that they are not willing to commit to him in the way that he’s earned. If you were in a similar situation, how long would you stay in it?
To be sure, our situations as mere mortals are not what NFL players are. So it’s easy for the lay-person to eschew the notion that a player claiming to deserve ginormous contract consideration is already over-paid and entitled to boot. Fine, but they still have a market, and the modern NFL athlete (and I would assume this to be true in all pro sports) is someone that has literally spent his entire life honing his body and his mind to play in the NFL. If someone is willing to make that sort of commitment, I’m not going to downplay what the return on that investment ought be. The way I see it the only real answer is: as much as you can get for as long as you can get.
Moreover, the window of time to capitalize on the gift of talent (punctuated by endless hours of really hard work and training) is very, very small. And the competition to be in the spot you want to end up in is among the most fierce the world has ever seen about anything. So realistically, it’s not about “playing a game”, it’s about leveraging all of your youthful strength and physical prowess towards a career that is very much not promised. Many good football players never make the league, because the league is only for the best of the best.
A historic talent
And the best of the best, in terms of importance, obviously is the quarterback position. Lamar Jackson is a unique talent who has also worked very hard to harness that unbelievable ability into a football career that has seen him win the Heisman trophy at the collegiate level and the MVP at the pro level. Only nine players in history have ever done that. So you have to be a pretty special player to be able to pull that off. Lamar Jackson most certainly is that.
The Ravens were quite fortunate to select Lamar Jackson with the 32nd pick overall in the 2018 draft. It’s a wonder that he slid so far (Baltimore themselves having drafted Hayden Hurst with their original 25th overall. LOL) unless you paid close attention to that draft season, particularly as it related to quarterbacks. Of course, we were watching really closely because it was our time to pick one. For many of us, Lamar sliding as far as he did wasn’t a surprise, but we all still collectively said “dammit!” when the Ravens went ahead and took him in the 1st round (supplying that all-important but ultimately deadly 5th year option).
The reason it wasn’t a surprise is because Jackson completely duffed the process that year, and you can 100% chalk it up to his not having an agent, point-blank period. An agent would have made sure he made it to all his team appointments. An agent would have ensured a better score on the Wonderlic (back when that mattered to people). An agent would have gotten the right PR and maximized pro-day opportunities and so forth to build his profile into what it should have been. It’s actually a case study of sorts on how a player’s “draftability” can be more about imaging & branding/marketing than it is what the guy has actually shown on the field he can do.
Because what the guy showed he could do on the field was off the charts. Coming out of Louisville Lamar Jackson was a stud prospect. Yes, the ability to make defenders look absolutely foolish whenever he had the ball in his hands was a transferable trait to the NFL no doubt. However what was also there is all the passing talent you can want from a college prospect. Playing a pro style offense you could see that he could go through progressions and fit balls into tight windows. Sure not the best long-ball accuracy but that’s literally every college prospect except Pat Mahomes (who was every bit the freak at Texas Tech as he’s been for the Chiefs).
NFL teams get rattled pretty easily and also are, on balance, horrifically awful at consistently identifying those rare dudes who can play the QB position at a high enough level to elevate a team into contender status (which presently is the price of admission in the modern league). Thus, this erraticism on the part of Lamar was off-putting enough that everyone passed on him in a draft that saw four (4) other signal-callers – one of them being Josh Rosen – taken in the top 10. Not surprisingly, the great Ozzie Newsome was the only one with enough wherewithal to pull the trigger at the end of the first round.
From a career standpoint on the surface, one may look at this and say ‘what an idiot, he could have made SO much more money if he would have bitten the bullet and gotten an agent to smooth over the rough patches of the draft process’ and that’s true, but also not the complete picture. Look at it like this, if Lamar’s draft slot been appropriately calibrated, he may end up going to us (with Hue Jackson guiding his development) the Jets (with Adam Gase) or possibly the Cards and their first year coach Steve Wilks. Possibly the Bills, but what are the chances you end up in the one place (out of four) that seemed to have a solid idea what they were doing in the development phase of things? In fact they become especially important as this story unfolds.
So then, is it really that crazy or stupid to sort of position yourself as this mystery candidate that is more likely to get snatched up at the back-end of the 1st round as opposed to the front end of it? And then in reality, he doesn’t go to any of those struggling places, he instead winds up at the very stable and highly-regarded (at the time) Baltimore Ravens, and isn’t even tasked with needing to start right away.
Perhaps one could look at it as failing-upward, and you shouldn’t put yourself in such an unpredictable position. While true, there’s something to be said for the idea that removing yourself from the realm of the top crop of QB’s in a draft also removes you from much of the pressure that comes with that status and probably extends the sort-of patience a team may have in seeing if you can get it done. Maybe to that you say something like ‘the great ones don’t shy away from the challenge’ and I get that, but it’s also the case that if your organization is an unmitigated cluster-eff it just may not matter how mentally tough you are if you are trying to figure out NFL speed while your team does everything in it’s power to make your failure more likely and then blames it on you for good measure. There’s no doubt this is a real phenomenon.
Thus, Lamar’s terrible management style of not having an agent cost him in the short run, but he ended up going to a team that would enable him to flourish. I know this will drive the results/process philosophers batty but you have to give the massive dub to Lamar on this calculation. Dude didn’t have an agent, went about the process differently than everyone (on his own terms) and ends up in a great position. Maybe it’s just dumb luck, or maybe this kid is really, really smart. As time goes by my leanings are very much in that direction.
Undeniable NFL production
When Jackson then took over for a substantially-less-than-elite Joe Flacco in 2018, the Ravens modified their offense to accommodate a rookie QB who also happens to be the first player to move like Barry Sanders since that guy retired. It was an effective strategery for the rookie year but then in year 2, Baltimore decided to take that prototype from 2018 and put into full scale production in 2019 and apparently, moving forward.
Lamar ran that offense like a symphony in his sophomore campaign. Leading the league in touchdown passes, he unanimously won league MVP (only Raven in history to accomplish this). That unanimous part is pretty important, as that’s something only he and Tom Brady (2010) have ever done. After year two nobody in the football universe can deny that he’s a superstar, and one of the most talented players to ever play the quarterback position.
There were plenty who did anyway, incomprehensibly continuing along with the ham-fisted analysis from his draft profile that he was little more than a running back who could throw. Like the only guy in history to ever win the Heisman trophy and the unanimous MVP is functionally the same as Pat White or Eric Crouch (and no disrespect to those guys, they still ended up playing the quarterback position better than most humans that ever tried). That proposition was observably absurd, but then people often behold themselves to asinine presuppositions from the draft process whatever the NFL data indicates. ‘Tis what ‘tis.
The Ravens should have been smart enough to know this was wrong-headed as well, but that’s not what their actions indicated heading into year 3. The success of 2019 (which ended with a one-and-done in the playoffs) prompted Baltimore to follow that same formula. I believe this is the crucial part of this story: either they believed this approach was the best way to win a championship, or they didn’t think Lamar could elevate his game and become a truly elite passer. It is my firm opinion that either of these is really, really, embarrassingly wrong.
Nevertheless, with this approach they head into year three against a league of NFL defenses who are more prepared to handle it because that’s what happens in the NFL. A style or approach will work amazingly well for a season or maybe a few (if it’s REALLY good) but then diabolical DC’s study every detail of how it works and come up with ways to screw it all up. You see this pattern repeat across history. Even with that (and the WR quartet of Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, Willie Snead, Devin Duvernay & Miles Boykin) they finish with an 11-5 record and Lamar is once again incredibly good (64.4%, 2757, 26/9, 1005 yards and 7 tuddies on the ground). His legendary performance on a Monday night against us will never be forgotten.
2020 may not have been as banner a year as 2019 but that is still great production – incredible actually, and the Ravens had gotten three years of this out of the guy to this point. Yes it bottomed out in Buffalo in the divisional round of the playoffs (which is exactly as far as we’d get that season) but again I would argue that the type of offense that doesn’t stretch the field is eventually doomed in the postseason. Go back and look through the Super winners in history and you won’t see exceptions to this.
It’s what happened after the 2020 season that’s important though. Both in terms of how the Ravens would proceed offensively and their commitment to Lamar Jackson. With respect to the former, they did draft Rashod Bateman with the 27th overall pick. To date this is the most investment Baltimore have made to the passing game since drafting Jackson three years earlier. The WR corps going into 2021 would be the combo or Bateman & Hollywood Brown along with Sammy Watkins, Duvernay & James Proche. Hard to put too much on a rookie (even though the Bengals successfully did so in the same draft, albeit some 20 picks earlier) but this is the best group Lamar has had to work with at any point.
However, early in that offseason some dominoes began to fall. Dak Prescott, Patrick Mahomes, and (most importantly) Josh Allen all signed mega-deals with their respective ballclubs. The Allen signing (6 years, $258m, $150m fully guaranteed) is especially noteworthy because he’s in Lamar’s draft class. He therefore sort of set the adjustable bar for that class of drafted quarterbacks. Of which, three (including him) were eligible for extensions. The others of course being Jackson and our very own Baker Mayfield. Sam Darnold had already been traded to Carolina by this point and Josh Rosen’s career never really got going as he was given half a year and then replaced by Kyler Murray immediately thereafter. He was last seen being cut by us once DeShaun Watson was reinstated last season.
As I’m sure you’ll recall, we were quite trepidatious about committing to Baker Mayfield at the level the Bills had just committed to Josh Allen. Trepidation or no, that was now the market. Not committing to him at that moment was a risk, because had he really balled out in 2021, we’d have to throw the proverbial bag at him afterwards and undoubtedly pay more than had we made the commitment a year earlier. In this paradigm, we had seen two legit good seasons from Mayfield, and one that was marred by inconsistency and a seeming lack of NFL maturation. We decided to take the risk and make him prove it. I won’t retell the story of how that went down.
The Ravens had the exact same set of choices. They had radically different performance data to weigh. If Baker had two good seasons and one disappointing one, Lamar had a great rookie year, an incredible 2020, and a legendary 2019. Again to compare: Josh Allen had had up to that point objectively one (1) good season for the Bills. His first two were clunkers in terms of passing proficiency and then he turned the corner in unbelievable fashion in year three. That was enough for the Bills to say ‘We’ve seen what we need to see, here’s your money’.
What more was there for the Ravens to see about Lamar Jackson after three years in the league? Furthermore, is there really any objective argument that Josh Allen had performed better than Lamar Jackson to that point? I don’t believe that’s defensible, but that’s what the market was saying, and nobody – including us or the Ravens, had to like it. It was the reality nevertheless.
Instead Baltimore took the easiest path available to them, they invoked the 5th year option, as we had done for Baker. Again, our reasons were because we didn’t feel he had shown enough to make that sort of commitment, and once more that’s a reasonable conclusion to draw at that time. For Baltimore it has to be the same reason, no? Why else wouldn’t they immediately sign him to $44m a year deal, with ~$150m guaranteed? Is there any doubt he would have gone for that at the time? Is there any doubt he was worth making that investment on? I think the answer to both of questions is obvious.
But, they didn’t. And so 2021 plays out. For us, it goes how it goes, ultimately with our ending up looking for a QB upgrade instead of working out a longterm deal with our former 1st overall. For Baltimore, it’s an 8-4 start with continued great play from Jackson. He then gets hurt (against us) and misses pretty much the rest of the season. As a result the Ravens miss the playoffs.
We now enter offseason-2022. Lamar now has one more year left on the rookie contract. It’s the fifth year option that nobody should have ever reasonably expected him to play on. Getting hurt the previous season was unfortunate, but that’s how it goes sometimes. In 2021 the same thing happened with Dak Prescott. What did the Cowboys do? Produce the bag. Because injury concern or no, the alternative to no-Dak was worse than whatever the actual cost of paying him was. In retrospect, both sides kinda won that whole thing.
So tough break for Baltimore, but it’s time to pay up anyway. Except they don’t. And while they don’t, Aaron Rodgers (who’s missed plenty of games due to injury in his time) and our DeShaun Watson sign some of the most lucrative contracts in NFL history. Again, whether Baltimore (or anyone) likes it or not, the bar for QB compensation was raised ever-higher, which was something eminently predictable by anyone paying attention several years earlier. The Ravens’ intransigence (or recalcitrance, if you prefer) put them in this (honestly) stupid predicament. Oh well, you gambled and lost, time to take the “L” and pay the guy.
Except, they don’t. The reality of the market having inflated to historic proportions and Lamar expecting that uptick to be reflected in the negotiation of his extension doesn’t seem to matter to them. They continue to maintain the poker faced-approach that he will take the offer they think is reasonable and that’s the end of it. It really seems at this point like they just don’t understand the dangerous game they are playing, which ought to have been shocking considering the prestige and respect they seem to command from all corners of the NFL universe. People earnestly paying hard attention should have known that him playing one down on the fifth year option meant the end of his time in Baltimore. When that incredible milestone came and went with nary an eyebrow raised, it really set people up to be surprised by an inevitable future which has come to pass in this offseason.
Why? Because (kill-shot coming here) in five seasons playing for Baltimore, Lamar Jackson has made $32,774,549 TOTAL. Of course, Josh Allen makes $43m annually, and that started two years ago. While he was collecting on his accomplishments (which aren’t as gaudy as Jackson’s) the Ravens were dithering and effing around trying to decide if Lamar was worth that sort of investment. Or if they weren’t doing that, they were simply taking advantage of his being on a cheap rookie contract (poorly I might add, it’s not like they assembled a super-team during any of his five years). Or maybe it was a combination of those things or something else, but all of it leads to the same very easily-predictable conclusion for Lamar.
The Ravens either don’t think he’s worth investing in or that he’s basically a sucker that will accept two full seasons making a fraction of what his market (and common damn sense) clearly demonstrates what he’s actually worth. So it’s really one or the other: either the Ravens don’t think he’s deserving or they are comfortable with him getting short-changed for two full seasons for apparently no other reason than that’s the cost of having the privilege of playing for the upright and proper and prestigious and glorified Baltimore Ravens.
Lamar has said very little throughout all this, but the time for talking has been over for a while. His actions will prove that he won this contract negotiation just like he won his draft season. Unconventionally, but with a tremendous result. In this case, it will be a historic fully guaranteed contract from somebody who isn’t the Ravens. And I will be cheering for his success along the way.