Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson was absent from practice again Wednesday, dampening hopes that he might return to start the team’s playoff opener Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals.
As the Ravens prepare to play without their superstar, speculation around Jackson’s future with the team will rev up. He’s about to become a free agent, and fans from other cities are already choking social media with trade proposals for the 2019 NFL Most Valuable Player.
Jackson has not practiced or played since he suffered a knee injury in the first quarter of the Ravens’ 10-9 victory over the Denver Broncos on the first weekend of December. Though Ravens coach John Harbaugh initially said the injury was not season-ending and expressed optimism that Jackson would be back for the playoffs as recently as two weeks ago, he never put a definite timeline on his franchise quarterback’s recovery.
“I don’t really have anything to add on that,” Harbaugh said Wednesday when asked if Jackson will miss the wild-card round.
On Monday, he said: “Lamar has been in great spirits. He’s been working super hard. He was out there again today. I mean, I don’t watch the workouts. He’s with the trainers. And hopefully, it’s progressing to the point where he can get to practice sometime soon. That’s what we’re all hoping for, for sure.”
With Jackson’s availability for the playoff game in doubt, questions will turn to backup Tyler Huntley, who missed Sunday’s regular-season finale in Cincinnati after he was limited in practice by shoulder and wrist injuries. Huntley practiced Wednesday, again as a limited participant.
“He’s doing a lot better,” Harbaugh said. “He was out there at practice today and took a bunch of plays, so he had a good day. I’d say he’s on schedule.”
At the end of last week, Huntley said he had a “good chance to play,” so perhaps Harbaugh simply held him out for precautionary reasons. He also did not use running back J.K. Dobbins, tight end Mark Andrews or right guard Kevin Zeitler against the Bengals. Undrafted rookie Anthony Brown started at quarterback and turned the ball over three times in the first half to help Cincinnati build a 24-7 lead on the way to a 27-16 victory.
Hearts sank all over M&T Bank Stadium when Jackson limped to the locker room on the afternoon of Dec. 4. Had he suffered a severe knee injury? Given the uncertainty around his impending free agency, had the home fans just watched the most dazzling star in franchise history play his last game as a Raven?
Harbaugh seemed to allay those fears after the game when he called the injury “not a season-ending-type of knee.”
“We’ll see; we’ll see if he can go back this week,” he added. “If not, it’ll be some time after that shortly.”
Optimism pervaded for several weeks, with periodic reports, some on national game broadcasts, suggesting Jackson was near a return. But with each practice, 16 of them counting Wednesday, hopes rose and then fell when No. 8 did not appear.
Now, the Ravens face the prospect of a do-or-die game against an ascendant AFC North rival without their most important player. They plummeted out of the playoff picture last season with Jackson missing the last four games because of a bone bruise in his ankle.
Their offense, which has not scored more than one touchdown in a game since the last weekend in November, is not the same without him. No one disputes that. “Our offense is built for Lamar, around Lamar, and to play with Lamar’s talents and abilities — that’s what we’re built for,” Harbaugh said last week.
At the same time, teammates have grown used to playing high-stakes games without the 2019 MVP.
Andrews was asked if it’s difficult to contemplate going into a playoff game without Jackson, whom he’s called the best player he has ever played with. “That’s a tough question,” the Pro Bowl tight end said. “Obviously, Lamar is one of one, but you look at the other two guys, [Tyler Huntley] and Anthony Brown; there’s so much trust in both of them. That’s with everybody on the team. We know whoever we put out there … we’re going to be all right. We’re going to be ready to go.”
Defensive end Calais Campbell said he’s not sure “anybody’s going to believe in us outside [the team],” but he’s confident the Ravens are primed to compete with or without Jackson.
“Of course, Lamar, if he’s able to go, that gives us the best chance to win,” Campbell said. “I’m rooting for that and hoping it happens, but at the same time, it’s football. It’s no different. … So, whoever we put out there, we’re going to give it our best shot.”
With the growing possibility that Jackson will not play again this season, talk will turn sharply to his future with the Ravens. Will they sign him to a mammoth extension? Will they use the franchise tag, projected to be about $45 million, to keep him in Baltimore for 2023? Will they trade him?
When linebacker Roquan Smith agreed to a five-year, $100 million extension on Tuesday, the question immediately arose: How would this new commitment affect the team’s available budget for Jackson?
Smith’s contract doesn’t make it any easier for the Ravens to keep Jackson, but it doesn’t rule that possibility out, said Eric Eager, vice president of research and development at Sumer Sports, a startup that advises NFL front offices.
“I think, after they do some restructuring and things like that, they can still franchise tag Lamar,” he said.
Eager predicted that’s more likely than an extension, though he cautioned against using the franchise tag on a quarterback.
“I think you either have to long-term deal him or you have to let him go or trade him,” he said. “The franchise tag to me just delays the inevitable.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Hayes Gardner contributed to this article.
Ravens at Bengals
Sunday, 8:15 p.m.
TV: Chs. 11, 4
Radio: 97.9 FM, 101.5 FM, 1090 AM
Line: Bengals by 8 1/2