Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh stepped to the podium Sunday night and saluted his quarterback for fighting through injuries to lead a spirited effort, albeit in defeat, against the defending AFC champion Cincinnati Bengals.
The quarterback whose toughness Harbaugh saluted prominently in his postgame remarks was Tyler Huntley, not Lamar Jackson, whose unavailability six weeks after suffering a sprained knee has fueled speculation about Jackson’s motives in the absence of a contract extension.
As Baltimore’s season ended with a 24-17 wild-card defeat at Cincinnati, the Ravens’ offseason began with NFL insiders questioning how prominently Jackson figures into the team’s plans.
The Pick Six column leads with perspectives from around the league on a subject that simmered for weeks before boiling over as it became clear Jackson would miss a sixth consecutive game, this one in the postseason, despite Harbaugh initially suggesting the quarterback might return a month ago. Will the Ravens trade Jackson? What are the alternatives? That and more in this wild-card edition:
• Lamar Jackson’s future is … where?
• Chargers, Herbert and rookie window
• Bengals’ big play joins historic list
• Under-radar Giants move pays off huge
• Officiating is always worse than ever
• Two-minute drill: Allen, Purdy & more
1. Is Lamar Jackson finished in Baltimore? The situation feels increasingly fraught.
It’s been a strange season for quarterbacks, with Marcus Mariota and Derek Carr both leaving their teams after getting benched. The mystery surrounding Jackson remains unresolved, seemingly by design.
The Ravens easily could have shot down the idea that Jackson’s unsettled contract status might be influencing his availability. Isn’t that what Andy Reid would do if Patrick Mahomes’ motives were suddenly questioned? Wouldn’t any coach do that for a quarterback he wanted to protect?
“That is absolutely how things are done, except for if your last name is Harbaugh, right?” an exec from another team said on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic. “That is what him and his brother do, and there is one more guy who handles business like that — he wears cutoff-arm sweatshirts with hoodies, and his name is Bill Belichick.”
A decade ago, Harbaugh reportedly clashed with legendary safety Ed Reed over practices that Reed and some players found too intense. Any gap between Harbaugh’s expectations for Jackson and Jackson’s expectations could similarly fall along generational lines.
“Harbaugh is a power coach,” this exec said. “It’s like it is 1983 and you’re going to get the kid to come back by saying he is an important part of the team and it’s not a serious injury, but that doesn’t work in today’s NFL. He tries to make it coy and tricky, but he wants to exercise power over players, just like the college coaches he comes from and admires.”
The Ravens moved on from Reed after that 2012 season.
Jackson is much more important to the Ravens now than Reed was then, but injuries have sidelined him late in the past two seasons, raising questions about how much money Baltimore should guarantee for the long term.
Jackson is averaging 10.3 rushes and scrambles per start through 61 career starts, by far the most for any quarterback through 61 starts since at least 2000, according to TruMedia. Cam Newton is next at 6.8 per start to the same point in his career, followed by Michael Vick (6.7), Josh Allen (6.0) and Russell Wilson (5.3). Newton produced an MVP season while helping Carolina to the Super Bowl in his age-26 season, but he never reached the Pro Bowl again and began to decline. Jackson turned 26 last week.
“Has he improved as a passer?” an evaluator asked. “Sure, but he is a running quarterback, and how is it different than the running back position? It is different in terms of number of hits, but the hits can be worse for a quarterback to take. I just would not commit to him more than a year or two.”
Jackson reportedly wanted a fully guaranteed deal like the one Deshaun Watson leveraged from Cleveland when Watson could have signed with other teams. Jackson does not possess that kind of leverage because Baltimore owns his rights through the franchise tag. But he could make the situation in Baltimore untenable if he wished, the way Jalen Ramsey and others have done when seeking out.
Is it really coming to that for Jackson and the Ravens?
“It is hard to get rid of a player who has helped you achieve so much,” another exec said. “You can only do that if you have a replacement ready on the roster or if the locker room is like, ‘We are good without this guy.’ They don’t have the replacement lined up, so it’s going to have to be a thing where the locker room says, ‘Eh, it is kind of messed up, what he is doing.’ ”
After the Cincinnati game, Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey offered support for Jackson, suggesting the quarterback was limping around the facility at perhaps 50-60 percent of full strength, but Harbaugh has conspicuously allowed perceptions to linger when he could have reset the narrative long ago.
“Yeah, he is letting Lamar twist in the wind,” this exec said.
“Nothing but admiration for our guys, very proud of our football team.” pic.twitter.com/ZCSyMbkV44
— Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) January 16, 2023
“Tyler Huntley, coming in and playing the way he played, coming off the shoulder and the wrist injuries and fighting his way back onto the field and just giving everything he had,” Harbaugh said after the game.
Sean Payton predicted on the Fox pregame show Sunday that Jackson had played his final game with the Ravens. Vick, seated near Payton in the Fox studio, suggested Jackson should have “put a brace on” his knee and gutted it out. Earlier in the week, Ravens receiver Sammy Watkins suggested Jackson might be playing if he had entered into a long-term contract.
“I am not a Lamar apologist, but I don’t think any of us knows what he is going through medically,” the evaluator cautioned. “Everybody is different, and a PCL is a weird ligament, and if there is truly inflammation in there, that is hard to play through.”
An agent thought the coming offseason would be a terrible one for teams needing quarterbacks. That could increase the demand for Carr, who is on the trading block. Tom Brady could be available as a short-term fix. Jimmy Garoppolo’s durability will be a factor teams must weigh. Teams drafting outside the top picks can’t count on that avenue.
“There will definitely be a market for Lamar if the Ravens want to trade him,” an exec with ties to the Ravens said. “I was thinking maybe Houston. They have a ton of draft capital. Atlanta comes to mind. Lamar going back home to Miami would be amazing if they could find a way.”
It’s all speculation at this point, but it feels less far-fetched all the time.
“I see a divorce unless their doctors are privately telling them Lamar really can’t play because of the injury, which seems doubtful with the way Harbaugh has handled it,” a longtime exec from another team said. “I could see a trade next spring if they can get a high enough pick to get a new QB. Lamar appears to have a ceiling that Jalen Hurts poked through this year. Harbaugh is making it seem like they are tired of the situation. They will never give him the Watson-type contract he reportedly covets.”
2. Six quarterbacks have achieved Tier 1 status while on their rookie deals since I began polling coaches an executives annually for “Quarterback Tiers” in 2014. The Chargers must regret that Justin Herbert is the only one without a postseason victory.
Herbert becomes eligible for a new contract this offseason after completing his third NFL season. The Chargers could wait another year or move to get something done earlier. If they enter into a new deal this offseason, they’ll have a year or two with smaller salary-cap charges before the big cap hits make it tougher to build a team around him.
Whatever the case, the Chargers’ 31-30 defeat at Jacksonville after blowing a 27-0 lead made Los Angeles the first team since 1999 to lose a game while committing zero turnovers and forcing at least five. Teams had won 101 consecutive games when the turnover dials were cranked to those extremes.
The table below shows postseason records for Herbert and the five other quarterbacks to achieve Tier 1 status since 2014 before signing second contracts. The other five combined for a 17-10 postseason record with one Super Bowl title while still on their rookie deals.
Herbert’s Chargers are 0-1 after their historic collapse.
Playoff Wins While on Rookie Deals
3. How big was Sam Hubbard’s 98-yard fumble return for a Cincinnati Bengals touchdown? Bigger than all but one postseason scrimmage play since at least 2000.
The Ravens were on the verge of scoring a touchdown for a 24-17 lead in the fourth quarter at Cincinnati, or so they thought. Hubbard’s long return of a fumble after Ravens quarterback Tyler Huntley extended the ball toward the goal line, but not across it, produced a 12.0-point swing in expected points added (EPA), according to TruMedia. That number represents the swing from Baltimore having third-and-goal from the 1, which was worth 5.5 EPA in favor of the Ravens, and the very unexpected actual result of the play.
NO WORDS.#BALatCIN | 📺 NBC pic.twitter.com/pAFTy1yqpS
— Cincinnati Bengals (@Bengals) January 16, 2023
Only James Harrison’s famous pick-six interception for Pittsburgh off Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner in the Super Bowl following the 2008 season produced a bigger postseason swing on a single play. Hubbard’s play felt more pivotal because it occurred in the fourth quarter.
John Madden calling the James Harrison pick-6 in the Super Bowl against the Cardinals @jharrison9292 #Steelers pic.twitter.com/0iRiPffkno
— Steelers Depot 7⃣ (@Steelersdepot) December 29, 2021
The top five EPA swing plays from scrimmage in the playoffs since 2000 were memorable ones:
• Harrison: 100-yard pick-six off Warner in Super Bowl XLIII
• Hubbard: 98-yard fumble return for Bengals against Ravens
• Kam Chancellor, Seattle Seahawks: 90-yard pick-six off Carolina’s Cam Newton in the 2014 divisional round
• Champ Bailey, Denver Broncos: 100-yard interception return off Tom Brady against New England in the 2005 divisional round, ending with a fumble out of bounds at the New England 1
• Ronde Barber, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 92-yard pick-six for Tampa Bay off Philadelphia’s Donovan McNabb in the 2002 NFC title game at Veterans Stadium, launching the Bucs to the Super Bowl
The frantic efforts of defenders to head off disaster stood out on some of these plays, adding drama to them: Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald navigating through traffic while trying to chase down Harrison; Baltimore’s Mark Andrews sprinting after Hubbard and diving at his feet; and the Patriots’ Benjamin Watson separating Bailey from the football with a big hit at the pylon. It’s that sort of effort that makes the games so compelling.
4. Isaiah Hodgins logged the 12th 100-yard receiving game in Giants playoff history during a 31-24 victory over the Minnesota Vikings. His claiming off the waiver wire says plenty about the Giants.
Coach Brian Daboll and general manager Joe Schoen took over a Giants team that had tied the Jets for the NFL’s worst record (22-59) over the previous five seasons, just ahead of Jacksonville (25-56). While the Jaguars loaded up on expensive free agents to revive their program, including receiver Christian Kirk for $18 million per year, the Giants enjoyed less roster flexibility. They decided to tough it out in 2022, focusing on establishing a winning culture.
Claiming Hodgins off the waiver wire after trading unhappy and unproductive 2021 first-round receiver Kadarius Toney to Kansas City was consistent with this emphasis. The Giants traded a player who frequently missed practice and who, after the trade, tweeted that the hamstring sidelining him for weeks wasn’t really injured. Toney then deleted the tweet.
For the Giants, the move turned into more than addition by subtraction. It was also addition by addition, as Hodgins outproduced Toney for the rest of the season, albeit while playing in an offense affording him a much more prominent role, based on the team’s limited options.
• Toney with KC: 14 receptions, 171 yards, two touchdowns (seven games)
• Hodgins with NYG: 41 receptions, 456 yards, five touchdowns (nine games)
So far, so good for the Giants. They extracted from the Chiefs third- and sixth-round picks in unloading Toney while signaling to their team that playing time is earned on the practice field.
Hodgins caught eight passes for 105 yards and a touchdown against the Vikings. He made a 9-yard catch on third-and-7 during a drive to a field goal for a 17-7 lead. His 32-yard reception set up a touchdown for a 24-14 lead. His 19-yard grab on second-and-10 sustained a touchdown drive for the final score in a 31-24 victory. Hodgins also made three receptions on second-and-long that set up manageable third-down situations.
The table below shows Hodgins’ 105-yard day ranking 12th on the Giants’ all-time list for postseason games. Bob Schnelker holds the record with 175 yards for the Giants against Baltimore in the 1959 playoffs. He later went on to call plays for nine 500-yard games with Detroit, Green Bay and Minnesota.
Giants With 100+ Yards in Playoffs
|Giants Pass Catcher||Season-Opp||Yds|
5. Officiating is always worse than it’s ever been, according to whoever feels aggrieved at any particular time.
You know officiating frustration has reached elevated levels when ESPN’s top news breaker, Adam Schefter, is writing bylined stories on the matter. Is officiating really bad and getting worse?
Officials’ experience levels could be one difference now compared to the past. The five referees in the wild-card games Saturday and Sunday averaged 5.6 seasons as referees. The four officials who worked wild-card weekend a decade ago in 2012 averaged 9.3 seasons in the role, by comparison. The league has turned over experienced officials in recent seasons.
“It takes four years to become truly competent, based on the complicated nature of the rulebook and the way they keep tweaking replay,” said an NFL team exec with knowledge of officiating. “You put these fifth-year guys in there and you are rolling the dice.”
A few years ago, I went back through old newspaper clippings to compile stories with coaches and team officials complaining that officiating had never been worse than it was at that very moment. There were dozens of stories over the decades, year after year after year.
In 1975, then-Vikings coach Bud Grant called the league “a multi-million-dollar operation being handled by amateurs” from an officiating standpoint. Also that year, late Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson called for a head linesman to be fired for ruling a play had been whistled dead before a fumble. Carroll Rosenbloom, then owner of the Rams, said he’d pay half of any fine levied against Wilson by the league, because officiating was so incredibly terrible.
“I know the feeling,” Rosenbloom said at the time. “I have lost two major playoff games because of bad officiating. I suffered in silence and wound up with a coronary. Wilson will, too, if he doesn’t say something.”
Rosenbloom actually did suffer a heart attack after the controversial call, which may or may not have been a factor.
A decade later, the venerable sportswriter Dick Young said officiating in the NFL was the worst he had ever seen it. Young was born in 1917, three years before Ralph Hay, owner of the Canton Bulldogs, summoned 10 other team owners into his Canton car dealership to found what became the NFL.
“Officiating gaffes more noticeable this year,” an Associated Press headline read in 2012, a quarter century after Young’s passing.
Now, in 2022, officiating is allegedly even worse than that, even though no one can quantify how good or bad officiating actually is, or ever was, or will be in the future. We just know anyone watching any game, in any sport, at any level, thinks the officiating should be better.
6. Two-minute drill: An incredible Josh Allen stat and some perspective for the red-hot Purdy
Did Bruce Arians sneak into the Buffalo Bills’ coaching booth and wrest the headset away from offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey? It sure seemed that way as quarterback Josh Allen fired away downfield in Buffalo’s way-closer-than-it-should-have-been victory against the undermanned Miami Dolphins.
Allen averaged 15.6 air yards per attempt on 39 attempts, meaning the ball traveled that far past the line of scrimmage to its target on average. The 15.6 figure ranks first among 2,372 player games since 2007 when a quarterback attempted at least 39 passes. It is nearly double the 8.2 average for those 2,372 qualifying games.
It was part of a wild ride through the wild-card round for the Bills, who might need to trade some of that volatility for consistency against the Bengals in the divisional round. …
Have a day, rook! Not bad for your first #NFLPlayoffs start. #FTTB #SEAvsSF pic.twitter.com/uB3PRkF353
— San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) January 15, 2023
Brock Purdy completed 18 of 30 passes for 332 yards and three touchdowns in the San Francisco 49ers’ 41-23 victory against the Seattle Seahawks. The glittering stat line included the highest EPA per pass play for any quarterback in wild-card weekend so far. The 49ers appear to be running largely the same offense they ran when veteran Jimmy Garoppolo was healthy, a testament to how quickly Purdy has come along as a rookie.
The 49ers are now averaging 34.8 offensive points per game while going 6-0 with Purdy in the lineup. Coach Kyle Shanahan seems to be scheming up wide-open receivers at his usual rate, while Deebo Samuel, Christian McCaffrey & Co. break tackles and avoid defenders while racking up yards after catch.
What’s not to like about Purdy? Purdy’s inexperience operating the two-minute offense is one area to watch if the 49ers get into high-pressure situations against top defenses. Solving the blitzes and coverages that can be difficult to handle in third-and-longer situations is another.
“What did you think that 2-minute looked like before half?” a defensive coach whose team faced the 49ers earlier in the season said, referencing the game against Seattle. “In drop-back pass, he is scrambling for his life, he is running to the border of the field three times in the same drive, throwing the ball out of bounds, getting hit. Kyle is the one beating guys by 20 in the playoffs with that offense and a top-three defense.”
San Francisco should remain unstoppable on offense as long as Shanahan can keep things on schedule.
“Purdy has done well, but it is amazing how people are trying to anoint him,” an evaluator said. “I don’t want to take anything away, but he has led the NFL in wide-open receivers. And time to throw. These guys are wide open. When they are not, George Kittle catches the ball on third down and wills his way to a first down. It is the absolute perfect setting and every quarterback would dream to be in it. Give the kid credit, but let’s not anoint him.” …
People I know who have worked for the Chargers in coaching and personnel think the team will retain coach Brandon Staley even after blowing a 27-0 lead in falling 31-30 to the Jaguars. They contend ownership will be reluctant to eat Staley’s remaining salary, while noting it could be impractical for any front office to hire a fourth head coach (general manager Tom Telesco has helped hire three already in Staley, Anthony Lynn and Mike McCoy).
The idea that the Chargers might pay top dollar for Sean Payton while parting with draft capital for him and ceding control of personnel to him would also mark a huge departure from previous form for the organization, which is why it seems unlikely.
“I’m sure Sean Payton would love to have Justin Herbert as his quarterback,” an exec from another team said, “but I don’t think he actually wants to deal with the ownership there and the spending issues they have had over the years. All that comes with that organization.”
(Top illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic; photo: Mark Alberti / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)