BALTIMORE — It was the surest of bets at Thursday’s NFL Honors show: Lamar Jackson was named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player. For the past six weeks, the expectation was seeing Jackson walk upon the stage, and at age 27, become the league’s youngest two-time MVP since the merger.
But what might be easy to forget is how much of a long shot this was once considered.
On March 2, the low point of Baltimore’s contract negotiations with Jackson came when Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta received a message from his franchise quarterback that would derail his NFL combine in Indianapolis.
Jackson requested a trade.
How Jackson went from a potential divorce from the Ravens to becoming the NFL’s top player for them in 11 months was a bumpy road that involved a lesson learned from Ray Lewis, a turning point at a movie theater and an assist from a quarterback who plays two hours up the interstate.
“We just stayed the course and stayed positive,” DeCosta said last month. “I felt like at some point there’d be an opportunity for us to kind of reach a common ground, and fortunately, right before the draft, we did.
“I think there were several things along the way that all worked in our favor.”
Jackson agreed to a five-year, $260 million deal with Baltimore hours before the start of the draft April 27. He then became the best player on the league’s best team in the regular season, leading the Ravens to a 13-4 record. Jackson’s difficulties, however, resurfaced in the postseason as the Ravens lost to the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game, dropping his playoff record to 2-4.
Up until the point when he signed his new contract, some of Jackson’s teammates said they didn’t know what was going to happen with their All-Pro quarterback. Might he move on to another team or sit out the 2023 season in Baltimore?
“There’s definitely times when, especially when you see the trade request, that you’re like, ‘Oh shoot,’ and there’s a slight panic,” Ravens nose tackle Michael Pierce said. “Thankfully, that’s all behind us.”
FIVE DAYS AFTER Jackson’s trade request, Baltimore used the nonexclusive franchise tag on him, not the expected exclusive one. That meant Jackson was free to engage in contract talks with other teams.
From the outside, it appeared Baltimore was taking a major risk. The Ravens could lose the face of their franchise.
From inside the Ravens’ facility, this wasn’t an unprecedented move. In 2009, Baltimore let future Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis test free agency for the first time in his career and he ultimately re-signed with the Ravens.
“I learned this from Ozzie [Newsome, former Ravens GM],” DeCosta said. “Sometimes it’s good for the player to get out and kind of get a sense for what other people think about him or what his market value might be.”
Just like with Lewis 14 years ago, no teams made a major push to sign Jackson. Sources told ESPN’s Adam Schefter that only the Las Vegas Raiders and Carolina Panthers expressed mild interest in Jackson, and neither came close to signing him to an offer sheet that Baltimore would have had a chance to match.
Instead of attempting to acquire Jackson, the Raiders signed Jimmy Garoppolo and the Panthers traded up to select Bryce Young with the No. 1 overall pick. Las Vegas and Carolina both finished with losing records.
The issues working against Jackson included his injury history after not being able to finish the 2021 and 2022 seasons, his steep asking price and the perception that the Ravens would match any offer sheet. In the end, of the eight teams that either drafted or signed a free agent quarterback last offseason to start Week 1, only two (the Houston Texans and Tampa Bay Buccaneers) reached the postseason.
“You never know, but my thought was that it was going to happen — that he was going to be a Raven, just because I felt like he wanted to be a Raven,” Baltimore coach John Harbaugh said near the end of the regular season. “And that being the case, it was going to work out one way or another, somehow.
“So I was just patient in my mind that when we start practicing, Lamar will be out there.”
THE ROUGH OFFSEASON between the Ravens and Jackson began to change in early April while DeCosta was at a movie theater with his two sons watching “Air,” based on Nike’s pursuit of Michael Jordan. DeCosta received a text message during the movie, but unlike the one he got at the NFL combine, this was good news.
Ravens vice president of football administration Nick Matteo had received the latest counteroffer from Odell Beckham Jr.’s agent. It wasn’t out of the ballpark from what Baltimore had proposed. DeCosta finished watching the movie thinking the Ravens had a real shot at the superstar wide receiver.
“I was intrigued by it. Steve [Bisciotti, Ravens owner] was intrigued by it. John was intrigued by it,” DeCosta said. “We thought it would help with Lamar. And in the end, it did.”
Within a couple of hours of Beckham agreeing to a deal on April 10, he posted a screenshot of him FaceTiming with Jackson along with the caption “Truzz.” The Ravens reached a one-year, $15 million deal with Beckham, which was seen by some as Baltimore overspending on a wide receiver who hadn’t played in a year. But it was also a high-priced message to Jackson.
A few months earlier, DeCosta had a three-hour meeting with Jackson in Florida. Jackson had talked about wide receivers he wanted to throw to, mentioning Beckham as one.
Beckham doesn’t know how much influence his arrival played in the team’s contract negotiations with Jackson. But he said there was “no doubt” Jackson was going to be his quarterback when he signed with the Ravens.
“Not to say I didn’t come here for any other reason, but that’s why I came here. It was Lamar Jackson,” Beckham said. “So it just was all a crazy situation. I think it just took some time for everyone to figure that out.”
The addition of Beckham gave the Ravens the most decorated wide receiver in their history, as well as something even more important — momentum toward a deal with Jackson.
WHEN THE PHILADELPHIA Eagles’ Jalen Hurts reset the quarterback market by signing a five-year, $255 million extension April 17, it provided a brotherly shove to get Jackson’s deal across the goal line.
“The final piece probably was just that the Hurts deal came in, and that was the highest paid, and we beat it,” DeCosta said. “And quite honestly, the deal that we offered Lamar prior in September [when talks were shelved before the 2022 season opener], it was not much different from the Hurts deal.”
Just 10 days after Hurts reached his agreement, Jackson struck his deal with Baltimore, receiving $5 million more than his counterpart in total and guaranteed money.
“When the contract situation was settled … I felt like we were going to do something special this season,” Jackson told the Ravens’ website Thursday night. “But I didn’t think I would be MVP. I thought I would be on my way to the Super Bowl in Vegas.”
Whether Jackson will hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy is the biggest question hanging over him. Jackson has won multiple MVPs. He has captured multiple division titles. He has led Baltimore to multiple No. 1 seeds.
But the Ravens’ 17-10 loss to the Chiefs was just the latest postseason opportunity squandered.
So, when you don’t win the last game, especially a home AFC Championship Game, which is so rare and so hard to get to, then it’s like, ‘Whoa, is it success [or] is it a failure?'” Harbaugh said. “Lamar Jackson is a phenomenal success. He’s a phenomenal success as a football player. He’s phenomenal success as a person, as a leader, as a family man.
“In my opinion, there’s nobody better in this league, especially nobody better for the Baltimore Ravens, and for this organization, and for this city. I’m excited about the future.”
Jackson’s contract will impact how the Ravens build a supporting cast around him. His $32.4 million salary cap hit is the largest on the team and currently ranks 10th among all quarterbacks in 2024.
“Now it’s going to be a challenge moving forward with the roster,” DeCosta said. It’s going to affect the way that we do business. But there’s no denying that, with Lamar on the field, we’re a winning team. And that’s going to be something that carries us forward.”