Ravens HC John Harbaugh defends decision to keep Jackson in against Browns with late lead
The Baltimore Ravens picked up where they left off in last year’s regular-season where they went into the playoffs riding a 12-game winning streak and looking like the best team in the league with their complete domination of the Cleveland Browns 38-6 in their season opener on Sunday.
Baltimore was clearly the better team on the day and was able to execute their game plan on both sides of the ball with relative ease. They showed more balanced on offense and their defense avenged their last loss in the regular season in 2019 where the Browns gashed them for nearly 200 yards on the ground by mostly keeping Cleveland’s run game in check outside of a few chunk-runs early on.
The Ravens had already built an insurmountable 32-point lead with just over 13 minutes left in the fourth quarter and with the way the Browns were playing as a whole, not even the comeback king himself, Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs could have brought them back from the brink of the embarrassing and certain defeat.
With victory well in hand, reporters in attendance and many fans watching at home that didn’t have rooted fantasy interest vested in the reigning league MVP assumed that quarterback Lamar Jackson would be done for the day following the sixth and final scoring drive he led in yet another outstanding Week One performance where he threw for three touchdowns, had just five incompletions and a near-perfect passer rating of 152.1.
Last season Jackson spent most of the fourth quarters in the regular season on the bench basking in or avoiding the sun while soaking up the taste of sweet victory after he had built up one insurmountable lead after another on a seemingly weekly basis. His Primary backup since he has been a rookie has been former second overall pick and fellow Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III.
The eight-year veteran saw plenty of action in cleanup and closeout duty last season when the Ravens were up big and even got to start a game for the first time since 2017 when he was a member of the Browns in Week 17 when Baltimore already had the AFC North crown, a first-round bye and the top seed in the AFC locked up and decided to rest several starters in the finale, including Jackson.
The wide sweeping assumption was that after rookie J.K. Dobbins punched in his second touchdown of the game, that the ensuing offensive drive and the ones that followed the rest of the way would be led by Griffin. However, Jackson returned for one last drive where the offense went three and out and he was sacked for a seven-yard loss.
The decision to trot out Jackson for another drive puzzled many not within the organization who were watching within the confines of M&T Bank Stadium and watching from home abroad. They were wondering why the Ravens would expose the best and most important player on the team of which your entire championship hopes hinge to additional and unnecessary injury risk with the first win of the season all but wrapped up in a pretty purple bow.
It was especially perplexing for those who noted that it was especially risky considering stalwart blindside protector and 2019 First Team All-Pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley was sidelined for most of the second half with an ankle injury. The dip in pass protection was evident in his absence and I’m sure that everyone exhaled a simultaneous sigh of relief when he didn’t come back on the field for the Ravens’ final offensive drive of the game.
When asked about his decision to keep Jackson in the game deeper for another drive in the fourth quarter, Head Coach John Harbaugh disagreed with the suggestion that he should’ve sat his quarterback sooner.
“This is the National Football League,” said Harbaugh before saying that not too many teams are taking their starting quarterbacks out with 10 minutes left to play.
As unsettling as it was to watch Jackson stay in the game longer than the media and general public deemed necessary, Harbaugh does have a point. This is the NFL and while the chances of Cleveland mounting a comeback were infinitesimal if not nearly nonexistent, getting Jackson and the rest of his healthy starters as many live reps as they can coming off of an offseason that was juristically altered due to the global pandemic makes sense.
Having your starting quarterback finish a game or stay in a little longer into the fourth quarter in a blowout whether a team is on the winning or losing side of it is a common practice that several teams routinely exercise and shouldn’t be blown out of proportion like some fans are making Sunday’s decision out to be.
The constant concern with Jackson is that because of his dynamic dual-threat playing style that he might be more susceptible to sustaining injuries than the typical quarterback that possesses above-average mobility due to his direct and heavy involvement in the running game.
However, because he is so elusive with his legs inside and out if the pocket, he is able to protect himself better than most quarterbacks with for more limited rushing capabilities and when he does take off on a scramble and designed run play, he has done and continues to do a good job of getting out of bounds, avoiding big hits and only lowering his shoulder to initiate contact with a defender if he is trying to cross the goal line for a touchdown.
Griffin still closed out the game on the Ravens final offensive drive that lasted just over four minutes, covered 22 yards in six plays, and ran off the remaining time off the game clock. Going forward don’t expect Harbaugh and the coaching staff to placate to or factor in potential public backlash or the media questioning of their decision on how much or how long to play their star quarterback.
They will do whatever it takes to win in their pursuit of a championship but wouldn’t jeopardize the face and the future of the franchise just to run up a score on a divisional opponent like a college or high school team trying to qualify for the playoffs in a system that factors in point differential.
There’s a method to the perceived madness of leaving the starting quarterback in longer than the majority of outsiders think they should. Not every game is going to a cakewalk in the final two quarters so Jackson needs to be prepared to play a full 60 minutes and then some when the time comes, which could be in two weeks when Mahomes and the Chiefs come to Baltimore for a Week Three Monday Night Football matchup in prime time.