Lamar Jackson has been knocked by NFL cognoscenti from Day 1 and still has detractors despite his success. In much the same way that Cam Newton was never going to appease a not-small number of people for multiple reasons, it seems Jackson has met a similar fate.
He has done things his way, an unorthodox way, and it has worked beautifully over the first few years of his pro career. He doesn't want to do things the way they've always been done, and the cognoscenti doesn't like it.
Last week, Jackson offered his first update on the status of his injured left knee, the one that kept him on the sideline for the final weeks of the Ravens' season, including the team's AFC wild-card loss to Cincinnati on Sunday.
Jackson wrote that he had a Grade 2 PCL sprain, "on the borderline of a [Grade] 3" and that he was still dealing with swelling and instability. The PCL is one of the main stabilizers of the knee joints; a Grade 2 sprain is a partial tear, and Grade 3 is a complete tear.
On the field, Lamar isn't Lamar without two good knees.
Off the field, he doesn't have a contract for the 2023 season and beyond, an issue that has been in headlines all season.
Fans are fans, and so it is to be expected that a Twitter search for "Lamar quit" would turn up plenty of missives from those who say Jackson should put his health, well-being and financial future on the line with no guaranteed money if things go wrong. But it wasn't just fans who were critical of Jackson. On the Fox Sports pregame show, Sean Payton was uncomfortably disparaging toward Jackson, telling the quarterback, "the team's more important than you."
Michael Vick parroted Payton and then said, "put a brace on it, get it going. Put a brace on, let's go."
Outsiders will always have their opinions, and many still refuse to consider professional athletes as human beings because some of them earn extra-large paychecks, but this call came from inside the house. That's some dirty work.
If we wanted our inner Petty Betty to run wild, this is where we'd remind you that Payton was suspended for an entire season for turning a blind eye to the bounty program one of his New Orleans assistants ran (which former NFL player Junior Galette sharply pointed out) and that Vick derailed his meteoric rise with categorically stupid decisions. But that would be trifling, right?
Payton, who stepped away from coaching last year because he said it wasn't where his heart was, seems to be heading down the well-worn path Jon Gruden once trod, teasing that he'll leave his cushy broadcasting gig to be a franchise savior — only if the price and situation are right, natch. Yet he refused to acknowledge that perhaps Jackson is doing the same thing and looking out for his best interests, both his current and future earning potential, and his current and future physical and emotional health. Jackson wants to be paid and, we assume, able to walk on his own in 40 years. Payton wants to be feted. And paid.
Let's say Jackson had played against the Bengals. Had put on a brace, as Vick so blithely opined, and started the game. Dr. Jess Flynn, a Boston-based sports medicine physician, told Yahoo Sports that Jackson risked tearing his meniscus or cartilage in the knee; those tears frequently require surgery, and some cartilage damage can be a lifelong issue, Flynn said.
Let's say the worst happened. If Jackson had sucked it up as they wanted and played poorly, Payton and Vick likely would've been first in line to belittle his performance. And would they have offered to make up the difference on whatever money Jackson lost in his contract? Of course not.
It would've been Robert Griffin III all over again, a talented quarterback harming his career long-term by addressing the team's immediate need. Griffin posted as much on Twitter in defense of Jackson. Playing hurt for his "brothers/team...changed the trajectory of my career," Griffin tweeted.
This is why you don’t just put a brace on it and play. Played with no ACL and LCL for my brothers/team. Changed the trajectory of my career. Hindsight is 20/20. I didn’t have the luxury of that. Lamar does. He is DOING THE RIGHT THING. pic.twitter.com/UPY5pKNOcH
— Robert Griffin III (@RGIII) January 16, 2023
The inimitable reporter Jim Trotter said recently on NFL Network that after a December game, a player from a different team approached him and, unsolicited, brought up Jackson's injury. That player told Trotter he'd suffered a PCL sprain in Week 1 and months later still wasn't 100 percent.
Lamar Jackson is not using an agent, and it's hurting him
A complicating factor in all of this is that Jackson doesn't have an agent. He really, really should have one. Representing yourself — or working in tandem with a family member, as Jackson does — is fine to a point, as rookie contracts are slotted and mostly standard. But the point when Jackson should've relented and hired an agent is long past.
An agent tells the player's side of things through the media, so when Jackson got hurt in December, and Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh told reporters it was "week to week," thus setting an expectation that it was a game-to-game situation, an agent would've come behind Harbaugh and said it was at least a four-week timeline, which is in keeping with the average recovery for a PCL injury like Jackson's.
An agent would've dealt with the team, pushing back on the client's behalf to make sure Jackson wasn't rushed back too soon, a move that usually benefits the team over the player.
An agent also has the arguments at the bargaining table so the player doesn't have to have them, and when a deal gets done, any lingering bad feelings are mostly between the organization and the agent, not the player.
Jackson and the Ravens have made a mess of all of this, and it seems like it's getting worse. Not just because Jackson doesn't have an agent but because he is too online, and every cryptic message and public response to a troll has amateur sleuths trying to figure out what it "really" means.
Also because many of Harbaugh's public comments don't come across like those of someone who's looking forward to welcoming back a franchise quarterback who turned 26 earlier this month and already has an MVP on his résumé, as if that type of player can be easily replicated.
And because Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti doesn't want five-year, fully guaranteed contracts, a la the one Cleveland agreed to with Deshaun Watson, to become the standard.
And because everyone has an opinion, too many of them supporting the NFL's antiquated status quo: Who cares about tomorrow, get shot up and play through it today. You don't matter, get out there for the team.
That all overlooks the cold truth: The team is a business and will mercilessly cut a player the minute it thinks that's what's best for business and the bottom line, no matter how many injuries he played through.
Lamar is a business, too. He knows it and moves accordingly.
But his next move, as he continues to rehab his knee, should be to get someone to do the dirty work for him.