Lamar Jackson's extended absence creates more contract issues with Ravens, and both sides brought this on

Four months ago, when Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens failed to reach a long-term extension by the quarterback’s season-opening deadline, the contract distortion field was set. From that moment on, every momentum shift would be focused through the prism of negotiation.

His hot September? The Ravens should have given him the bag.

Jackson’s middling start in October? He should have taken the deal on the table.

The late playoff push? Both sides need to get something done.

Back and forth the narrative went. Up and down. Left and right. And finally, headlong into a scenario that neither side wanted injected into this dragging contract impasse: A knee injury for Jackson that has caused an extended void (16 practice absences, five missed games … and counting), followed by a steady diet of lingering questions.

The new narrative? It’s something along the lines of: What exactly is going on in Baltimore?

This is the pressing query as Jackson continues to miss practices, long after the initial assessments of his PCL sprain pegging a return somewhere inside a mid-to-late December window. Now we’re approaching mid-January and a first-round playoff game against the Cincinnati Bengals, and the theories have wandered into territory that seemed inevitable given the ongoing contract distortion field.

Did Jackson suffer a setback? Why is his return taking longer than anticipated? Is this about the lack of a long-term contract? And if he doesn’t suit up this weekend and the Ravens lose to the Bengals, what does all of this mean about the offseason between the two sides?

There are a lot of questions and essentially zero answers this week.

Asked about Jackson’s continued missed practices Wednesday and whether he could rule the quarterback out against the Bengals, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh told reporters, “I don’t have anything to add on that. No updates at this time.”

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Baltimore Ravens QB Lamar Jackson has missed the last five games with a knee injury and may miss Sunday's playoff matchup agains the Cincinnati Bengals. (AP Photo/Gary McCullough)
Baltimore Ravens QB Lamar Jackson has missed the past five games with a knee injury and may miss Sunday's playoff matchup against the Cincinnati Bengals. (AP Photo/Gary McCullough)

It’s a statement that could be correctly applied to basically everything involving Jackson and the Ravens right now, from the quarterback’s injury to his contract status to what impact any of this is going to have on another round of negotiations. And that’s unfortunate because it’s a scenario that has largely been created by both sides. From leaks suggesting Jackson reportedly turned down a $250 million contract, to Jackson sparring with fans on social media, to the continued lack of an agent conduit in between player and team — opening the door for chaos, frustration and a lack of consistent information.

It’s a situation that is starting to feel botched by both sides. Likely because it has been.

The fallout has led to a pair of questions that many across the NFL are wondering right now: Have there been complications with Jackson’s sprained PCL, or is this a previously unthinkable “hold-in” situation where Baltimore’s franchise quarterback is preserving his health for the next contract negotiation? Only the Ravens and Jackson can answer those questions, but at this stage there’s a solid chance that neither side is entirely believable.

When this all started, it was hard to believe the Ravens would leak contract figures because that would be one of the quickest ways to poison the fan base against their quarterback. On the flip side, it was impossible to believe Jackson would ever hold back from a return to the field — largely because anyone who knows him as a football player will tell you that’s not how he’s built. Now it all feels plausible, if only because history has shown us what contract issues look like when they break bad. And the longer this one goes, the worse it looks.

That’s what the offseason’s failed contract talks and this uneven season have created. In hindsight, it’s starting to feel like we were always going to end up in this spot. After all, nothing about the rationale of this tug of war has been well defined. From the start of the negotiation, there has been a dearth of information about where precisely Jackson and the Ravens were breaking down.

Early in the offseason, league sources suggested it was an issue with the term of the contract, with Jackson wanting four years under contract and the Ravens wanting at least five. Then came Deshaun Watson’s five-year, $230 million fully guaranteed deal with the Cleveland Browns, and the chasm between the Ravens and Jackson was suddenly described as massive. Now it wasn’t a matter of years, but more a function of getting a deal that had every dollar guaranteed.

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But even those pieces of information were coming from a negotiation that was uncommonly nebulous, largely because there wasn’t the typical structure of team officials jockeying with an agent behind the scenes. Instead, it was the Ravens trying hard to say all the right things publicly without saying much at all, and Jackson saying almost nothing beyond some social media exchanges that necessitated deciphering. And now it’s all being processed through an injury that may or may not be lingering longer than anyone expected.

Somewhere inside all of this, linebacker Roquan Smith got a bar-setting contract done with the Ravens without an agent. It was a negotiation that, on the other side of it, featured Smith complimenting how the team and general manager Eric DeCosta handled the process.

All of which shows that this process can work. For some reason, it isn’t working for Lamar Jackson and the Ravens. Now it’s hard to process anything else that’s happening without wondering why, let alone what happens if Baltimore finishes the season without its starting quarterback on the field.