Let’s start here: For a fleeting few moments Monday morning, Lamar Jackson made the Baltimore Ravens sweat. Jackson hit send on a four-tweet thread in which he announced that he’d asked the Ravens for a trade at the exact time the Baltimore head coach, John Harbaugh, was scheduled to sit down with reporters at the NFL’s annual meetings in Arizona. It didn’t seem coincidental that the timing of Jackson’s tweets lined up with Harbaugh’s longest scheduled media session of the year, and members of the team’s leadership who had joined Harbaugh in Scottsdale were caught off guard. A few reporters and PR aides who’d been lingering outside the conference room at this Scottsdale hotel picked up their pace to get inside. Whispered gossip made its way around the room—Jackson didn’t write those tweets himself. Someone’s orchestrating the timing. The room buzzed, and everyone scrolled on their phones.
“I haven’t seen the tweet,” Harbaugh said after sitting down at a round banquet table and answering the first of many questions about his unhappy quarterback. “It’s an ongoing process.”
But it didn’t take long for Harbaugh to start to smile and relax. If Harbaugh was spooked by what was in essence Jackson’s goodbye letter to Baltimore, the coach wasn’t going to show it here. “I love Lamar,” Harbaugh said. “When we’re all playing football next year and Lamar Jackson is the quarterback, we’re all going to be happy.”
It should tell you something about who has the leverage in these contract negotiations that when a young franchise quarterback publicly tells the world he doesn’t want to play on his team anymore, his coach absorbs the news as if it’s merely a speed bump. For the 30 or so minutes Harbaugh talked to reporters, he answered questions that were almost exclusively about Jackson’s trade request and the quarterback’s future in a tone that was almost over-the-top chipper, full of confidence that Jackson would remain with the team and that everything would be just fine.
The offense Harbaugh’s planning under new coordinator Todd Monken? Built specifically for Jackson, Harbaugh said.
When would he need to know for sure who his quarterback is? “Well, you certainly need to know before the first game at 11:30, when they need inactives.”
Is he taking it personally that Jackson wants to be traded out of Baltimore? “We’re talking about finances. Just talking about numbers, and numbers can be figured out.”
Will anything change due to Jackson making the trade request public and attracting additional media coverage? “Part of the fun of sports, right?”
Has the relationship deteriorated beyond repair? “To me, this is part of the way it works,” Harbaugh said. “Whatever happens, it’s going to be good.”
Well, all right, then! See you in September! Everything’s hunky-dory in Baltimore!
Harbaugh’s optimism seemed totally sincere. And while it’s possible he could be making a play for the moral high ground in an increasingly contentious public negotiation, it really didn’t feel that way. Harbaugh appears to have a firm grasp on something that is both true and remarkable: Jackson, a 26-year-old former NFL MVP, one of the most exciting and talented quarterbacks in the game, has about enough leverage to fluster Ravens brass for a minute or two on a Monday morning in March, but that’s all.
Jackson might have reclaimed the headlines, but the Ravens maintain the power. Jackson said he made his trade demand on March 2—five days before the Ravens assigned him the nonexclusive franchise tag. Since March 15, Jackson has been allowed to seek out a contract offer from another team, but nearly two weeks later, no such offers have materialized.
“A trade request to me is insignificant. If or when a team wants you, they can come get you, but the Ravens still have the ability to match. It doesn’t change anything,” a personnel director for a QB-needy team told me later Monday morning when they were asked about Jackson’s Twitter thread.
On one level, a quarterback of Jackson’s caliber holding so little power and garnering such little interest for him to use to bargain his side with Baltimore should be shocking. Finding a franchise quarterback is the hardest task in professional football, and the opportunity to swing a trade for one who is just entering the prime years of his career is incredibly rare. Jackson is the only quarterback in NFL history to pass for 3,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards in a single season. Nearly any team that acquired Jackson would look like an immediate playoff threat. If an NFC team were to make a deal to trade for him, it would instantly employ arguably the best quarterback in its conference. Owners, coaches, and general managers talk all the time about their relentless pursuit of a championship, but that goal has clearly been back-burnered by several QB-needy teams in this case. That’s notable.
On another level, though, it follows NFL precedent that Jackson is having trouble leveraging his immense talents into actual leverage. The reason for this is simple: He’s not a free agent. Even Tom Brady needed to negotiate his way to free agency before truly being able to pick his team when he left the Patriots in 2020. Free agency is the only time players really hold the cards, and since Jackson isn’t there because of the franchise tag, he’s stuck hoping some NFL owner will wake up one morning feeling particularly spunky and ready to negotiate, and that the Ravens would even agree to deal him. About the only power move Jackson has left is the nuclear option, one that would leave no winners: He could, in theory, refuse to sign the franchise tag and sit out the 2023 season, forfeiting a $32.4 million salary during his age-26 season and ensuring more contract drama in 2024, when the Ravens could simply tag him again.
That potential outcome should underscore why Baltimore easily weathered Jackson’s Twitter dump and why it feels like Jackson is akin to David fighting Goliath with a hand tied behind his back. Not only is Jackson seemingly trying to get a market-shifting deal, but he’s also doing so without any leverage beyond his unhappiness. I say “seemingly” here in regard to his contract demands because while it has been reported that Jackson has asked for a fully guaranteed long-term contract similar to what Deshaun Watson received from the Browns last year, his exact salary wishes are unclear. Earlier this month, Jackson suggested, on his Twitter account, of course, that the Ravens had offered him $133 million guaranteed over three years, and it seems right that he wouldn’t jump at a deal that would pay him less annually than Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, and Kyler Murray, each of whom signed an extension in 2022. On Monday, Jackson wrote that the Ravens have “not been interested in meeting my value” but did not provide specifics.
133/3years fully guaranteed but I need a agent? ♂️— Lamar Jackson (@Lj_era8) March 14, 2023
Whether it’s in the type of contract he’s seeking or the fact that he’s chosen to represent himself in this process, with the help of his mother and advisers, Jackson isn’t conforming to the NFL’s typical way of doing things. In many ways, it’s admirable that Jackson has chosen to eschew NFL convention. But in a league that thrives on conformity and control, it’s also a long-shot play.
It’s especially easy to root for Jackson; his intense self-belief is interwoven with his story as a player. Harbaugh agreed that Jackson’s sense of conviction likely informs how the quarterback views these negotiations and his value, and Harbaugh traced that back to how Jackson became quarterback in the first place.
“One of the things that makes Lamar so good is his determination,” Harbaugh said. “He’s been told—not by us, because we said, ‘Hey, that’s our guy’—but he’s been told since he was a little kid that he needed to play another position. Take it all the way back to that. He’s been firm and stubborn, if you want to use that term, in the fact that ‘I’m a quarterback, and I’m going to stick to that.’ That has gotten him to where he’s at as a football player.”
That determination has helped Jackson thrive in the NFL, but it may be hurting him now. Eyebrows were raised by the swiftness of reports that teams like the Falcons, Dolphins, Panthers, and Commanders were not interested in Jackson after the Ravens placed the nonexclusive tag on him earlier this month, and NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith even dropped the c-word—collude—in a column published on the union’s website last week. “The NFL Draft and the franchise tag system exist because owners have colluded in the past to both depress and restrict markets. This time, they are criminally gaming the game itself,” Smith wrote. It’s not an outlandish accusation, and, as Smith indicated, it would not be the first time this has happened. Another possibility, one that’s less incriminating but in some ways more sinister, is that there need be no coordinated plot to snuff out the dreams of any player determined to fight for control and do things his own way; it’s just instinct. For proof, look no further than the 26-year-old MVP languishing while in search of a new home.