Ravens coach John Harbaugh once again stood in a familiar position, facing the media arranged in a semicircle near the back entrance of the team’s training facility in Owings Mills.
“I appreciate you being here,” Harbaugh said, which he always said before COVID, but he noted took on a new meaning with everyone back in person.
About 1,000 fans (also back for the first time since 2019) had just watched the Ravens first training camp practice of 2021. It lasted two hours in near 90-degree temperatures, it didn’t look like anybody got hurt, and Harbaugh said he was mostly pleased—partly just to be there.
“We had a tough year,” he said. “It’s so awesome to be through that to a pretty good degree. Not completely.”
No, not completely. A few moments later, Harbaugh addressed the elephant on the field, so to speak. When a loud horn sounded at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, signaling the start of practice, there was one very notable absence. Star quarterback Lamar Jackson was nowhere to be found.
Jackson, along with Ravens running back Gus Edwards, recently tested positive for COVID, the coach said, and would need to go through NFL protocols (likely at least 10 days away from the team). Jackson received a positive from a Tuesday test, meaning he could be out of practice until next Friday. It’s the second time he’s had COVID in the last year, also contracting it amid the Ravens’ massive outbreak last season.
“We just pray that he’s all right,” safety Chuck Clark said, “and that he gets healthy.”
It’s not exactly the best practical start to the new football year, and a stunner for most everyone involved (Jackson was scheduled to speak with the media after practice as of this morning). Not to mention fuel for conversation and debate likely to be spawned from the news.
Harbaugh said Jackson had tested negative since the middle of last week, up until yesterday. Connecting the dots to NFL rules (which state that players who aren’t fully vaccinated must be tested for COVID every day, while fully vaccinated players do not), that would indicate that the quarterback hasn’t been fully vaccinated, or at least not yet.
In a similar treatment, vaccinated and asymptomatic players can return to practice and games as soon as they show proof of two negative tests 24 hours apart. Unvaccinated players must stay out 10 days regardless.
During Ravens minicamp practices last month, Jackson, the 24-year-old who many fans have adored for his genuine approach to life at seemingly every turn, was asked if he was vaccinated and didn’t answer one way or another.
“Just like everyone in society, it’s their decision,” he said, “but I feel we do a great job here of taking the vaccine and staying away from COVID-19…and we’ve just got to keep it going.”
On the first day of full practices of 2021, that obviously hasn’t happened. As the nation has seen an uptick in COVID cases via the more contagious Delta variant, the Ravens are once again caught up in the story—even with a 90 percent vaccination rate among players, according to Harbaugh, and 100 percent rate among staff, as team president Dick Cass told us last week.
“I think it’s a personal choice for everybody,” said cornerback Marlon Humphrey, who has gotten vaccinated. “If you don’t want it, you don’t have to, you just have to know there’s certain things that might hold you back. But different guys have religion things, and health things, different guys just don’t feel comfortable…I just didn’t want anything to hold me back. I wanted to be part of that group that got it.”
In Jackson’s absence, backup quarterbacks Trace McSorley, Tyler Huntley, and someone wearing jersey No. 3—who we’d later learn was former Calvert Hall quarterback Kenji Bahar (signed to the 90-man roster on Wednesday)— went through passing drills with quarterbacks coach James Urban, and led the offense in full-field drills later on. They looked sharp, but it wasn’t exactly the same as having the 2019 NFL MVP calling plays.
“Of course we wanted him out here,” wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown said of Jackson, his closest friend on the team, “but everyone was excited, the atmosphere was good. We were having fun.”
At first, the thought crossed our mind that Jackson’s absence could be something contract-related, perhaps a holdout as part of negotiations. (Not uncommon around pro football this time of year, though it would be unlikely.) Jackson had just said a few days ago—on a very entertaining episode of the Ravens’ “The Lounge” podcast—that he doesn’t “hold out for nothing. I love football too much to hold out.” He was excited to start a season in front of fans and be with his teammates more in person again.
“I think I’m more ready than my rookie season,” Jackson said. “I’m fired up. I couldn’t wait to get back. I’m happy to see my guys, everybody coming back into town. It’s go time.”
Which makes today’s news all the more confounding. Jackson will probably have to wait at least 10 days to join his teammates. That means everyone else will have to wait to see him on the field, too, including the dozens of kids and adults wearing his No. 8 jersey at practice, hoping to see him toss passes and show off his blazing speed.
“When hiccups like this happen,” Brown said, “all we can do is rally around that guy, send our prayers, send our support, and hopefully he’ll be back very soon.”
Until then, people will talk. As Harbaugh spoke after practice, we spotted Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti leaning against a stairway that overlooks the area where interviews are conducted, listening in to what his coach was saying.
“Generally, we’re doing really well in terms of vaccinations and positive tests… even Lamar tested negative up until [yesterday],” Harbaugh said. “It’s just part of the deal. It’s just the way the world is right now.”