Amid the many factors that will determine how the Ravens fare in 2019, one gets constantly overlooked – understandably, as it’s an intangible factor, one you can’t see or quantify.
I’m talking about the chip on Lamar Jackson’s shoulder.
You tend to forget about it because Jackson is so easygoing and affable. He often smiles as he speaks. The next time I see him in a bad mood will be the first time. The next time I see him snap at a question will be the first time.
His teammates love him. The coaches love him. I love what Head Coach John Harbaugh said about him last week: “He’s 22 all the time.”
But Jackson’s sunny persona obscures a singular truth about him, namely, that he is fiercely driven not just to win but also to prove wrong, humiliate, any doubts expressed about him.
Some people care about those things. Others shrug and let them slide. Jackson hears them, sees them, and wants to do unmentionable things to them.
If you weren’t already convinced of that, he dashed any lingering uncertainty after his record-setting passing performance in Sunday’s season-opening win in Miami.
“Not bad for a running back,” he said in response to a question about the otherworldly passing numbers he’d posted.
It was a funny comment that drew laughs from reporters and echoed throughout the NFL’s media chamber. But what I find most interesting about it is where it came from, i.e., some burning place deep in Jackson’s psyche.
Yes, he has spoken before about wanting to prove wrong those who’ve wondered aloud whether his skills would work in the NFL. He isn’t trying to hide that it drives him.
Myriad other factors such as the running game, pass rush and development of young players will help determine what the Ravens do this season, but my two cents, Jackson’s chip is so front and center that it qualifies as their secret weapon.
Largely ignored in the runup to the Miami game was the fact that it would be Jackson’s first shot at retribution after he struggled in a playoff loss in January – an outing that, fairly or not, prompted months of conversations about just how well he was suited to being an NFL starting quarterback.
Winning was Jackson’s top priority Sunday, but you can be sure he also wanted to demonstrate that his playoff performance was an outlier and the chatter he’d heard in the offseason was just hot air.
And his chip isn’t going away just because he had one big game. Doubts about his NFL credentials have circulated in scouting and personnel circles since long before the Ravens drafted him. I’m sure that’s embedded in Jackson’s makeup.
Four quarterbacks were taken before him in the first round of the 2018 draft. I’m sure deep down he thinks that was a few too many, and I’m also sure he noticed what fates befell the others Sunday. Baker Mayfield and the Cleveland Browns laid an egg. Sam Darnold and the New York Jets also lost. Josh Rosen was the Dolphins’ mop-up guy. Aside from Jackson, only the Buffalo Bills’ Josh Allen won.
Normally, I’m somewhat skeptical about the “I’ll prove them wrong” motivational gambit. It’s not that it doesn’t work; to the contrary, few things motivate certain people more effectively. But it’s awfully manufactured in some cases.
These days, all you need to do is spend 90 seconds on Twitter to find someone saying less-than-flattering things about you. Anyone can do it.
A year ago, the New England Patriots insisted they were proving doubters wrong as they marched to their third Super Bowl triumph since 2014 and their sixth since 2001.
But Jackson’s passion isn’t manufactured. He entered the NFL with a unique skillset, and even now, I’d say, more analysts and fans are uncertain about him than convinced he’ll become a winner.
That ratio might flip soon, but regardless, the Ravens are benefitting from his desire to send a loud-and-clear reply to the doubters. I’m guessing his desire to keep sending that reply won’t wane anytime soon.