Sometimes when the going gets tough, it gets worse. That's what happened with Lamar Jackson when he contracted COVID-19.
Coming off an MVP season and voted by his peers as the top player in the NFL entering the 2020 season, Jackson hit some struggles over the first 10 games of his third season.
There was a brutal Monday Night Football loss to the defending champion Chiefs. He put a home loss to the Steelers on his shoulders after four turnovers, including his first career pick-six. He battled Mother Nature in a loss in New England, then came up short in an overtime loss to the Titans in a rematch of last year's bitter playoff defeat.
Jackson has still produced some eye-popping highlights with long runs and jukes. But the Ravens' passing attack ranks last in the league.
For a fierce competitor like Jackson, that didn't sit well. His teammates said he was the same guy, that nothing had changed, but it was clear watching him on the field that Jackson just wasn't having as much fun.
"He's a big-time competitor," Head Coach John Harbaugh said. "He wants to do well every time they take the field, every time he takes the field. And if he doesn't do well, he's not very happy about it."
When he scored on a 37-yard touchdown run in Philadelphia, Jackson hurled the ball into the back wall of the end zone, as if he was exorcising some frustration.
There hadn't been as many smiles or elaborate end zone dances with teammates. There hadn't been any moments of Jackson relaxing with Oakley shades on the bench late in a game.
Everything this year seemed like a battle for Jackson. Every yard was tough to come by as opponents kept all eyes on the MVP. Every win was hard-fought. Every loss was tough to swallow.
So when Jackson tested positive for COVID-19, it was just another blow. He didn't say anything about it on social media. He just stewed and slept.
But Jackson is back now, both physically recovered from the virus, and perhaps emotionally too. When the going gets especially tough, sometimes you come out stronger on the other side. And it showed in the Ravens' win Tuesday night against the Dallas Cowboys.
Jackson said it feels like he and the Ravens are starting anew, refreshed for a playoff run in which they know they may need to win out. Harbaugh noticed it from Jackson and other players returning from the Reserve/COVID-19 list, and he agreed that feeling can be contagious (no pun intended) across the team.
"Sometimes you don't realize how much something means to you," Harbaugh said. "I think these guys do realize how much it means to be playing in the National Football League, but the day-to-day, you don't realize how much it means to you until it gets taken away.
"Even something as simple as weightlifting; I heard the guys excited about getting their lift in – the guys who were away. They're normally not talking like that, because that lift is not easy. So, practice [and] playing in the game for sure, I absolutely think that that's true. It's a good shot in the arm when they miss something like that, and they get to come back and do it again."
Jackson played one of his best games of the season against the Cowboys, throwing two touchdowns and running for one more. It wasn't flawless, and he didn't fill the box score with gaudy stats like he did last season, or even in a Week 1 blowout of the Cleveland Browns.
But the kid-like joy that Jackson played with, and fans fell in love with last season, was back. And that's bad news for Jackson's opponents.
"I did have fun coming back. I was out two weeks. I missed my guys," Jackson said.
"It's win or go home for us right now. Just going out there and putting it all on the line for one another, that's joy for me. Being around my guys, being back out there … being away for two weeks, it felt like a whole year. It's just a joyful day [against the Cowboys] and joyful time for me."
His teammates noticed it too. Running back Gus Edwards said that every time he broke a run, Jackson was right behind him when he turned around. Jackson was running down the field in excitement.
"He was cheering his teammates on, he was real vocal on the sideline," Edwards said. "You could tell he missed the game. You could tell he was having so much fun out there."
The Ravens put up 34 points against the Cowboys, in large part due to 294 yards rushing – more than they had in any game last season. Jackson contributed 94 of those yards, including a 37-yard touchdown run up the middle on fourth-and-2.
Before the play, Jackson waved off the field goal unit, similar to his "Hell yeah, Coach!" moment with Harbaugh last year in Seattle, which proved to be a seminal moment in the season.
"I just told Coach, we've got to do something," Jackson said. "I don't want to kick no field goal."
Jackson did a bit of a high step as he wagged the ball back and forth on his way into the end zone. This time, he pumped like he was going to throw the ball into the stands, then tucked it under his left arm, gave a side hug to a gameday employee, and hopped with and helmet slapped his teammates.
The last time it seemed like Jackson was having so much fun was on Sept. 13. That's when he threw for a season-high 275 yards and three touchdowns in a 38-6 rout of the Browns – the same team he'll face on Monday night.
"The first game it was like, we've got to go out here and just focus on our assignments, everyone do their job, and that's what we did," Jackson said. "We threw the ball down the field, we scored points. That's what we've got to do this Monday."