When Head Coach John Harbaugh tried to get his starting offense just one series together in the preseason, disaster struck.
When J.K. Dobbins went down with his season-ending knee injury, Lamar Jackson simply shook his head on the bench. When Harbaugh sat down next to him to lament the loss and the decision to play the starters, Jackson – gazing off with a blank look on his face – simply said, "That's football."
It was an offseason full of upgrades and promise – the breakout of Dobbins, the signing of Sammy Watkins, the first-round pick of Rashod Bateman, the offensive line additions of Kevin Zeitler and Alejandro Villanueva. Hope of an expanded profile that would make Baltimore more bullet-proof in the playoffs spread.
But once training camp started, the Ravens offense took one hit after another.
First it was Jackson and running back Gus Edwards testing positive for COVID-19, requiring 10 days in quarantine. Then Marquise "Hollywood" Brown suffered a hamstring injury that knocked him out of almost all of camp. Then Bateman went down with a groin injury that required surgery and now at least three games on the shelf. Sammy Watkins had an extended absence from practice, as did Miles Boykin. At one point, Jackson was throwing to a bunch of wide receivers who wouldn't even make the team.
Then Dobbins was lost, a burgeoning star who was going to bring another playmaking dimension to Baltimore's offense that would help take some of the pressure off Jackson to be a magician. Now, Dobbins' replacement, Gus Edwards has reportedly suffered a torn ACL as well.
There's still a lot to like about the Ravens offense. But as it enters Week 1 on Monday Night Football against the Las Vegas Raiders, there's no doubt that the star of the show will have to be bigger than ever – perhaps even back to his 2019 MVP levels. And the Ravens have full confidence that Jackson will be.
Has the league "figured out" Jackson, as insiders expressed to ESPN's Jeremy Fowler? Nah, they're still all chasing.
"It's like when we first saw [Michael] Vick. Guys had to try to figure out new ways to stop him," cornerback Marcus Peters said. "With Lamar, the game is at his disposal. He can do whatever he wants to do out there on that field.
"It's wonderful to see him grow, all the way around. You know what type of person he is. He really cares about this game; he has a passion about this game. … He's just going to keep getting better and better and he's just going to keep winning and winning."
Jackson started off training camp throwing to his cousins in his backyard. When his receivers started dropping like flies, he didn't blink an eye throwing to their backups – or their backups' backups. Jackson has simply worked this offseason, a trait that does not go unnoticed around Baltimore.
As he enters his fourth season, with a mega contract extension waiting sometime in the wings, Jackson has focused on improving his game across the board. Whenever he, or anyone in the Ravens organization, is asked about specific focuses, the answer is always the same. It's everywhere.
Part of it is between the ears, reading defensive coverages and adapting to take what's given to him. It's no secret that Jackson has excelled throwing the ball over the middle of the field and defenses have adjusted to clog the lanes. But that leaves other spots open, and Jackson is becoming more adept at reading what defenses are trying to do.
"I think mentally, he understands the game so well," tight end Mark Andrews said. "I think it's so slow for him, just to be able to see things and see how the coverage kind of unfolds. I think it's gotten really slow for him, just being able to see that. He's matured as a person [and] as a player, and he's continued to do that year after year."
The other main improvement is with his mechanics. Jackson went to work with 3DQB's Adam Dedeaux, a disciple of throwing expert Tom House. Dedeaux works with about half of the NFL's starting quarterbacks.
Jackson could always throw, but when he first came into the league, it wasn't too uncommon to see some wobble in his passes, particularly when he had to drive the ball to the sideline or deep. That's far less common these days, with one Carolina Panthers coach who watched Jackson in the teams' joint practices saying it looked like Jackson's passes were coming out of a JUGS machine.
Asked whether he feels he's throwing the ball better than ever, the always-modest Jackson said, "Yes, I think so."
"First thing I was working on was my footwork," he said earlier this offseason. "That's a big emphasis for me – just working on my footwork, making sure I stay open so the ball can drive, so I can put a little tight spiral on the ball."
Except for Dobbins, most of Jackson's prime targets have returned and are ready for Week 1. Andrews, fresh off a four-year contract extension, will still be leaned on heavily. Brown is back to making big plays in practice with the promise of more in games. Watkins brings a new element, and James Proche II and Devin Duvernay have both shined this summer, offering promise that they can step up with Bateman sidelined.
"We're very confident because we know what we're doing," Jackson said. "Our guys who came in and filled in for those guys who went down, they've been doing a tremendous job. … We've been doing a pretty good job in practice, going against our defense. So, we're just going to have to see Monday night. But I think we'll do pretty good."
Jackson isn't the only one excited to see what the Ravens' 2021 offense has in store. Take all the other factors away and Jackson – one of the NFL's most exciting and dynamic players – is still at the core. And he, alone, is incredibly tough for defenses to stop. Justin Houston, who played against Jackson as an Indianapolis Colt last season, knows full well.
"It's special to sit there and watch," Houston said. "I can't wait to see him from the sideline on a gameday; I've always been on the other side. I've seen it in practice, but I know it's another gear [on gameday]. I'm just excited to be able to have a front-row seat to watch this in-person."
Jackson was asked Wednesday whether he feels more pressure to perform at a higher level, or do more himself, considering the injuries.
"No," he said. "I'm always going to try to do more, regardless of the fact."