The Washington Post
Franchise game of tag
Signing Jackson shouldn’t be so hard, but provoking fan dissatisfaction when an elite QB seeks a well-earned payday is the NFL’S ultimate ruse
The greatest con in pro sports — a hell of an achievement because deception runs rampant — is an NFL franchise’s ability to provoke public dissatisfaction over a quarterback seeking a wellearned payday. Despite being the most precious commodity in football, an elite quarterback can’t negotiate a lucrative contract without compelling every salary cap neophyte to do the dirty work for billionaire owners by screaming that the compensation, though appropriate, would cripple an organization’s championship aspirations, even if those dreams are overly dependent on retaining the quarterback.
It’s the ultimate team-driven ruse, creating a roster-building perception that skews the interpretation of a fair contract in favor of the owner writing the check. The rancid discourse makes striking a deal seem more polarizing than celebratory. The point is to question the worth of the worthy, and it is working.
Lamar Jackson is at the center of this conflict now. His uncertain future is the most significant story of this offseason. It may end up being the nastiest transaction, too. The Baltimore Ravens are flirting with the possibility of moving on from Jackson, a former MVP who is just 26 and still ranks among the most original talents in football.
On Tuesday, the Ravens placed the nonexclusive franchise tag on Jackson after again failing to agree to terms on a new contract. The sides have been talking for two years, but they don’t seem any closer to a resolution. Jackson, who serves as his own agent, reportedly remains in pursuit of a fully guaranteed contract that rivals the
$230 million pact the Cleveland Browns foolishly gave Deshaun Watson. Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti considers the Browns’ offer — which they made to
entice Watson to accept a trade to Cleveland — an outlier.
Jackson and the Ravens are at an eerie impasse. They’re so respectfully dismissive of each other. They’ve shared their doubts in the most passiveaggressive ways, the Ravens offering empty public praise, Jackson playing nice and limiting his frustration to cryptic social media posts — you know, the modern, civilized way. If not for a slew of anonymous sources leaking details, you would think Jackson and the Ravens were having a grand time shuffling their feet.
But beneath the veneer of civility, it’s getting ugly.
The nonexclusive franchise tag leaves divorce on the table. The Ravens could have given Jackson the exclusive tag, which would have cost them about $45 million for the one-year deal and guaranteed that no team could negotiate with him. Instead, they chose the less expensive nonexclusive option, which will pay Jackson about $32 million for the 2023 season. But the nonexclusive tag is an invitation for Jackson to talk with other teams and see if he can find a deal to his liking. If so, he could sign an offer sheet with that team. Then the Ravens would have to make a decision: Match the offer and keep Jackson or let him walk and receive two firstround draft picks from the other team as compensation. Baltimore also could negotiate a trade with different terms to avoid the offer sheet process.
However, it appears Jackson’s availability is even more limited than that. In a flurry of indifference that reeks of collusion but may be impossible to prove, multiple quarterbackneedy teams quickly made it known that they weren’t interested in pursuing Jackson, a pre-prime superstar who plays the most coveted position in sports. A year ago, franchises ignored nearly two dozen civil lawsuits against Watson alleging sexual misconduct and engaged in a shameful pursuit. It resulted in Browns owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam upsetting their rivals/business partners by giving Watson a groundbreaking, fully guaranteed nine-figure contract. And now teams without starters such as the Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers and Las Vegas Raiders reportedly don’t even want to flirt with Jackson? The NFL is never so transparently uninterested in an exceptional talent. It’s diabolical behavior intended to harass Jackson for valuing himself fully and scare Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow or any other young franchise quarterback who dreams of a contract free of funny money.
The Ravens still say they love Jackson. When available for interviews, Jackson still speaks highly of the team that drafted him and believed in his quarterbacking gifts when others ignorantly called for a position change. They’ll spin their admiration for as long as possible.
“There have been many instances across the league and in Baltimore when a player has been designated with the franchise tag and signed a longterm deal that same year,” Ravens General Manager Eric Decosta said in a statement Tuesday. “We will continue to negotiate in good faith with Lamar, and we are hopeful that we can strike a longterm deal that is fair to both Lamar and the Ravens. Our ultimate goal is to build a championship team with Lamar Jackson leading the way for many years to come.”
Yet for as wonderful as the partnership has been for five seasons, business has left them awfully close to a separation. Kind words can neither diminish the chances of a split nor disguise that frustration and hurt feelings have pushed their relationship to a tipping point.
The list of MVP quarterbacks slapped with the franchise tag is short. This is just the fourth time it has happened. Peyton Manning received it twice, in 2004 and 2011, when he was with the Indianapolis Colts. In 1993, the San Francisco 49ers used it on Steve Young. Both of those quarterbacks were able to negotiate long-term deals instead of playing out the season on the tag. Jackson’s status with the Ravens seems more fragile. It’s indicative of both an awkward situation and changing times.
With a .738 winning percentage in 61 starts, Jackson has enjoyed one of the most successful beginnings to a career in NFL history. And he has done it his way. In 70 career games, he has been a solid passer who has posted a 96.7 rating with 101 touchdowns and 38 interceptions. But he’s the most prolific quarterback runner ever. He has two 1,000-yard seasons. He has averaged 63.4 rushing yards per game. Given good health, he’s not even halfway through his career, and he stands only 1,673 yards from breaking Michael Vick’s record for quarterback rushing yards. The NFL is gradually becoming a dual-threat quarterback league, and Jackson still seems to be from an unfathomable future.
But his gifts come with a price. Because of injuries, he has been unable to play at the end of the past two seasons, missing 10 games total. Questions about long-term availability will always torment mobile quarterbacks pursuing big deals, which makes Jackson’s next contract and how he performs after receiving it all the more important.
It’s not a stretch to consider his saga a seminal process for the league. As revenue continues to explode and player salaries rise accordingly, the stakes are higher every time a special player is eligible for a wage increase. And the resistance is stronger because teams exploit the fact that it’s mind-boggling to most fans that athletes can make so much money.
The players’ income is common knowledge; the owners’ enormous profits are less publicized. That is the game, and it’s easier to criticize the “greediness” of the so-called face of a franchise than to scrutinize the finances of an intentionally faceless owner. The salary cap exacerbates tension because it leads fans to expect their stars to be flawless and benevolent rather than to demand that teams stop wasting their finite draft, trade and free agency resources so that building around great players isn’t a binary proposition.
To pay or not to pay? That doesn’t have to be the question. In the NFL, competing at the highest level requires developing and retaining dominant talent, putting those players in the right scheme and frequently replenishing the roster with the right complementary pieces.
Signing Jackson shouldn’t be this difficult. The Ravens are stubborn because, the way the game is played, they’re allowed to be. But here comes Jackson, disregarded because he represents himself, challenging convention. If he manages to win, the next wave of young quarterbacks will benefit from his audacity.