INDIANAPOLIS — When the Baltimore Ravens' braintrust held a season-ending news conference on Jan. 19, the tone was hopeful but pointed: There was significant ground to cover in contract negotiations with quarterback Lamar Jackson and a shrinking window of time to work with.
Six weeks later, the talks remain stuck in a quagmire of ambiguity, while the environment among the Ravens keeps getting more tense.
The latest turn came this week, when general manager Eric DeCosta somewhat stunningly shaded his wide receivers while meeting with the media at the NFL scouting combine, framing Baltimore’s struggles in evaluating the position with a line that was bound to catch the attention of his locker room:
“I would say a lot of people would say the same thing; it’s a challenging position to evaluate in different ways. If I had an answer, that means I would probably have some better receivers, I guess. We keep trying.”
The response from one of DeCosta’s wideouts — 2021 first-round pick Rashod Bateman — was predictably frigid. The less predictable aspect was that Bateman responded publicly on social media, while also including a defense of Jackson.
In a tweet that was deleted minutes later, Bateman responded directly to DeCosta’s remarks:
“[H]ow bout you play to your player’s strength and & stop pointing the finger at us and #8,” Bateman wrote, referring to Jackson. “[B]lame the one you let do this…. we take heat 24/7. & keep us healthy … care about US & see what happen..ain’t no promises tho … tired of y’all lyin and capn on players for no reason.”
After taking the message down, Bateman tweeted out “my apologies” with a hugging emoji.
What can’t be erased or replaced is the simplicity of the message: Bateman appeared frustrated enough to go at his general manager publicly (in a manner that you could argue was fair game, given DeCosta’s remarks), and he chose to include Jackson in his message despite the quarterback not being part of DeCosta’s quote.
The line “blame the one you let do this” also appeared to be a not-so-veiled reference to former offensive coordinator Greg Roman, who “stepped down” in January and was replaced by Georgia Bulldogs offensive coordinator Todd Monken last month, a hire that was reportedly made without Jackson being a central part of the process. And if that wasn’t enough, Bateman’s inclusion of “keep us healthy” and “care about US” comes one day after the NFL Players Association released league-wide team report cards that eviscerated Baltimore’s strength coaches, ranking them dead last in the NFL with a grade of F-.
In that report card, which was the result of anonymous polling of more than 1,300 of the NFL’s 2,200-plus active players, the NFLPA remarked that Baltimore’s strength coaches “[W]ere even significantly below the second-worst team [in the NFL]. Players do not feel like the strength staff helps them be more successful. The team recently parted ways with Head Strength Coach Steve Saunders, so we will be interested to see if this area improves in his absence.”
That criticism of Saunders drew tweets from former Ravens players Carl Davis Jr. and Quincy Adeboyejo, who went straight at the former coach.
“I was def a victim of the strength coaches. Two Labrums and multiple pec strains,” Davis Jr. wrote, referencing past injuries.
“Definitely ruined my career,” Adeboyejo wrote. “3 year season ending injuries in a row after being healthy my entire career prior.”
On its own, that public flogging by the NFLPA and the ensuing conversation about injuries should concern the Ravens. But coupled with Bateman’s remarks directed at DeCosta, and mingled with the ongoing awkward contract dance with Jackson (who ended his season in a seemingly tense injury standoff), it adds another layer into an ongoing saga that is getting worse for Baltimore. And it focuses more attention on the pressing questions about how the Ravens and their star quarterback seem to be entering coin-flip territory between Jackson signing an extension or being traded this offseason.
DeCosta doesn’t appear to be having an easier time answering some of those questions, particularly after the past six weeks passing with effectively nothing to report this week at the combine. Not even so much as a customary “we’re making some progress” remark.
If anything, DeCosta’s comments about negotiations with Jackson sounded like they had been ripped from his season-ending news conference from six weeks prior, when the work was supposedly just starting.
“Yes, Lamar and I are talking,” DeCosta said. “We met recently. It’s an ongoing discussion. We both understand the urgency of the situation; it’s been a good dialogue, a good discussion. I’m optimistic, as I continue to be optimistic, and we’ll see where it goes.”
Pressed on the challenges of the negotiation, DeCosta subtly mentioned an aspect that continues to be an issue. Most elite quarterback negotiations involve some sharp-elbowed moments when a general manager openly airs his criticisms about a player to their agent, spurring the talks forward as the two sides seek to find common ground. Jackson doesn’t have an agent, which makes that kind of head-on negotiation tactic far more dicey. The GM knows he can say some blunt things to an agent that won’t leave scars on his relationship with the player. In this case, DeCosta would have to say those things directly to Jackson, and it could impact the future of Jackson's relationship with the front office and the coaching staff.
“I think when you deal with an agent, sometimes you’re able to speak very freely [and] position yourself a certain way,” DeCosta said. “You have different arguments that you can use that maybe you wouldn’t say to a player. So, I think that’s part of it. There’s a lot of respect — tremendous respect — because I’m with a player like Lamar, a player like Roquan Smith who also represented himself. Every day, you see the commitment, [and] you understand where they’re coming from. So, it’s definitely a different dynamic.”
Instead of approaching the franchise tag deadline on Tuesday with some kind of traction, it’s looking and sounding like the Ravens and Jackson are no closer to a long-term deal. Meanwhile, the two sides are exchanging leaks behind the scenes that are providing different narratives about the kind of deal Jackson is seeking.
All indications from league and union sources have been that Jackson is seeking a long-term fully guaranteed deal similar to the one signed by Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson last year. This despite a report from ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith that Jackson isn’t seeking a fully guaranteed deal, which continues to be shot down by multiple sources familiar with the negotiations between Jackson and the Ravens.
The next five days will reveal what all this means, with the ultimate answer likely to be provided in whatever form of franchise tag the team puts on Jackson, followed by his subsequent response to the move. Either he will accept the tag and move into the offseason with the team, or he will reject it and ask to be traded. What seems less likely to happen with each passing day is a last-ditch extension.
The period to make that happen is coming to a close. And about the only change that has taken place is that things around the Ravens have gotten worse rather than better.