This will forever live in the pantheon of Baltimore sports heartbreak.
They all have different backstories. The playoff game against the Colts after the 2006 season was the most important football moment in Baltimore since the previous franchise’s departure more than two decades earlier. The AFC championship game after the 2011 season spoiled a day during which Joe Flacco outdueled Tom Brady and featured those two plays, either of which would have singularly become the most wretched moment in Ravens history.
For some fans, it’s Zack Britton being left in the bullpen in Toronto while the last good Orioles team of the Buck Showalter era was eliminated, although if we’re being fair that team had little to no chance of doing much more in the postseason anyway. Far more heartbreaking for me was the 1997 ALCS, between Marquis Grissom, multiple BIZARRE plays/rulings at home plate and Mike Mussina’s shutout effort in Game 6 being wasted when Tony Fernandez tagged Armando Benitez.
And to others, it’s the final weekend of the 1989 “Why Not” season or Korie Lucious’ buzzer beater in 2010 or blowing Games 6 and 7 at Memorial Stadium in the 1979 World Series.
This is of that ilk. An overwhelming favorite not just in the game but to win the Super Bowl, there’s no escaping what a colossal letdown the Ravens authored against the Titans Jan. 11. Take nothing away from Tennessee. They were tremendous, they were mistakenly overlooked and they absolutely have a chance to take down the Chiefs next and get back to the Super Bowl.
But it doesn’t change what a massive gag this was from the Ravens. There’s no getting around it. And it’s caused us to handle the loss in a rather “seven stages of grief” type of way. First, it was the shock of trailing at halftime and the denial that things would continue. (With no sense of doubt, I messaged a friend that “as bad as it’s been, I’d rather trail 14-6 with Lamar Jackson under center than lead 14-6 without him.”)
By Sunday we had gotten out our anger, stress ate leftover pasta that, come to think of it, when exactly DID we have pasta? Was that before Christmas? We put our big girl panties on Sunday morning, started working through it and came around to a level of acceptance and the hope that comes with reminding yourself that this is a young team with a league MVP quarterback that returns the overwhelming majority of the roster and has a ton of cap space moving forward, the emotional bases were very much covered.
But as you know about grief, nothing ever truly ties up this nicely forever. We deal with these things for weeks, months, years. Ask your father how he feels about Omar Moreno’s wife’s whistle and, four decades later, you’ll hear your old man flip out as if he just lined up against super swell guy Jeffrey Simmons.
Yes, the most prevailing feeling we should have in Baltimore is hope. There is no reason to think the Ravens won’t be a threat to compete in the AFC North every year for the foreseeable future, putting themselves in position to compete for future Super Bowl trips.
But football is a weird sport. Sometimes you’re the best rushing team in the history of football and when faced with a minimal amount of adversity in the biggest game of the year, you decide that it’s time to start airing things out. And sometimes when you have a perfectly constructed roster set to be very good for the long haul, one injury or one off-the-field issue throws a wrench at everything. Sometimes an outstanding player and perfect teammate becomes a malcontent who seemingly forgets how to football within the span of an offseason.
There IS a possibility that in 10 years we’ll look back on the 2019 season and realize it was the team’s best chance to win a third Super Bowl title and it was wasted by an inexplicable postseason stinker. It’s not likely, but it’s possible. When Lucious hit his dagger in 2010, I certainly didn’t expect that there wouldn’t be another decent Maryland basketball team for the next decade. But sometimes these things happen.
And then there’s the other thing. You know, the one that will dominate conversation for the rest of the offseason. The thing where the NFL MVP is going to have a bit of a reputation for failing to deliver in the playoffs. It’s a thing.
Our inclination is to defend Lamar Jackson. That’s a good thing. Lamar Jackson is outstanding. He’s one of the most talented professional athletes our city has ever seen. He’s proven his doubters wrong. He’s the real deal. We don’t even really have to defend Lamar Jackson anymore. He’s done that himself.
But we do have to recognize that this is a thing. You can try to toss out the numbers he finished with, topping 300 passing and 100 rushing yards, but you saw the game. The bulk of those numbers (much like his first playoff game a year ago) came after the result of the game was no longer in doubt. When things mattered, Jackson didn’t play well. That isn’t to say that Jackson was singularly the problem, either.
To wit, the insane abandonment of running the ball with running backs, a number of ill-timed drops (or the need for better wide receivers down the depth chart), inexplicable fourth-and-1 failures, a defense eventually worn down by a monster running back and did I mention the insane abandonment of running the ball with running backs had at least as much to do with unfolded in the stunning defeat. But Jackson was at least part of the problem. Throws were off. Balls fluttered. For some reason he didn’t run behind his pulling guard on fourth down. In the biggest game of the year, he came up a bit short.
He’ll have to own that moving forward. And based on what we know about him, it will drive him to insane lengths in his pursuit of improvement this offseason. All of the evidence suggests it will fuel him straight through until he gets another chance to rewrite the narrative. I know he’s young and I know other great quarterbacks have struggled and lost playoff games to start their careers. But this is plain and simple.
Lamar Jackson absolutely has to be a better playoff quarterback in the future.
My gut tells me he will be. He’s too good for this to be his story forever. I’d bet on him.
Now back to those stages of grief. I’ve created a sign-up sheet and I’d appreciate it if you’d all take turns bringing me food while I struggle through this.
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox