X, formerly known as Twitter, is a cesspool, but those of us who are still hopelessly addicted to the app know it can sometimes provide much-needed levity with memes and mindless distractions.
Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, who reposts (re-X’s?) enough to be considered active but is not really a poster, found one such diversion in the form of a riddle: “Johnny’s father has five sons. 1. Zaze. 2. Zeze. 3. Zize. 4. Zoze. What is the name of the fifth son?”
“Johnny,” Jackson replied.
For the keen-eyed, such as the NFL’s current MVP front-runner, the answer is right there in the setup.
This post, shared by the X account @wiseconnector on Oct. 14, 2023, has some 12,000 replies. Jackson’s has been viewed 13.2 million times.
Why? The only way to explain it is that the quarterback’s one-word response has taken on a viral life of its own. There’s the Ravens season before “Johnny,” and then there is the Ravens season after “Johnny.” It is a mile marker bifurcating the Ravens’ remarkable 13-3 campaign, and a meme for the true believers of Jackson’s unique talents, even if the joke is that his run of elite play is somehow attributable to a single word posted on social media and then blasted out in countless other posts.
You see, this all happened a day before the Ravens, then 3-2 coming off a lousy loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, were set to take on the Tennessee Titans at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London.
The Ravens hadn’t really found their identity yet, Bollinger recalled, and fans were anxious about a stretch that included international travel, a quick return home to take on one of the NFC’s best teams in the Detroit Lions, and a final gauntlet ranked among the toughest in the NFL.
So the idea of the team’s star quarterback sitting in his hotel room — the post went up after 8 p.m. London time — scrolling on his phone and responding to a meme post billed as an IQ quiz provided its own sort of comfort.
“It was almost a calming moment,” Bollinger told The Banner. “‘Hey, Lamar’s got this. He’s not worried about it.’”
The 23-year-old Baltimore resident joked the Ravens would win by 90 points.
They did not. But the Ravens beat Tennessee 24-16, with Jackson passing for 223 yards and a touchdown and rushing for a team-high 62 yards.
Since then, Baltimore has won every game except one, clinching an AFC North title and the No. 1 seed in the conference. As Bollinger has faithfully chronicled, much of the success has come since Jackson posted “Johnny.”
Following the Ravens’ thumping of the Detroit Lions, 38-6, in Week 7, he crunched the numbers:
And again when Baltimore traveled to Arizona and outlasted the Cardinals:
Bollinger continued to document Jackson’s exploits in the post-”Johnny” world, and while the posts did well, he said the joke seemed to stay mostly inside the community of Ravens fans on X.
As it gained traction in those circles, Bollinger’s tributes bent to the arch language of the internet: “Johnny. That’s the tweet.” “You can run from it, you can hide from it but eventually it will find you and it will beat you… In the most controversial way possible: Johnny.” “And I cannot stress this enough… Johnny.”
“It’s been really cool to see the community take it on and make it part of who we are this year,” Bollinger said.
Then, on Christmas night, as the Ravens handled the San Francisco 49ers and established themselves as the best team in football, the NFL’s official account shared an image of Jackson on the sidelines looking flabbergasted with a one-word message: “Johnny.”
The Instagram page for ESPN’s “SportsCenter” seized on it the following day, adding a screenshot of Bollinger’s most recent computation of Jackson’s stats since the post.
TSN, Canada’s equivalent of ESPN, and a handful of sports betting sites glommed on. Many of the posts included screengrabs of Bollinger’s tweets, sending his profile picture with his face to various corners of the internet, all to broadcast what is clearly an inside joke. Understandably, Bollinger said the spread of “Johnny” has been “surreal” and unexpected. He said some people who have asked him for explanations of it have responded with some variation of, “That’s it?”
Whether everyone enjoys the bit or not, Bollinger sees the “Johnny” meme as a positive contribution to the good vibes surrounding this year’s Ravens team, similar to how “Big Truzz” became a slogan for the 2019 squad that went 14-2 behind an MVP performance from Jackson. He also thinks the stats he includes, even if they’re delivered with a wink, make clear Jackson should earn the award a second time.
“The star of the show still is and always will be Lamar Jackson,” he said.
The narrative arc of this year for Jackson and the Ravens has gone like this: the offseason drama over a contract extension, learning a new offense, the self-inflicted wounds during the 3-2 start, a loss to the Cleveland Browns followed by a devastating injury to the always-reliable tight end Mark Andrews in a win over the Bengals, and a brilliant five wins over the Chargers, Rams, Jaguars, 49ers and Dolphins to secure home-field advantage throughout playoffs.
All the while, the unrelenting debate about Jackson’s abilities at the quarterback position has marched on, as it has since before he entered the NFL. Heck, even after 252 yards and two touchdown passes against an elite San Francisco defense, a sports talk personality made the case Jackson shouldn’t be MVP by saying he isn’t “quarterbacky” enough. (Jackson proceeded to throw five touchdown passes against the Dolphins and the commentator was thoroughly roasted by the likes of Ray Lewis and LeBron James.)
Ravens fans know better.
“The best way I can put it is: I’m just thankful I’ve had the opportunity to help the story of Lamar Jackson’s incredible year, after the offseason he’s had, and he’s always had all these doubters,” Bollinger said.
The whole phenomenon has gotten weirder in the last 36 hours.
X user @TheBmoreBeak on Tuesday resurfaced an old team-produced video from 2016. The setup is similar to the recurring “Celebrities Read Mean Tweets” segment on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” and has Ravens players reading letters addressed to them, some with not-so-flattering words.
Enter quarterback Joe Flacco. A quick aside, if you haven’t heard: The former Super Bowl MVP who spent 11 years in purple and black has experienced a career renaissance since signing late in the season with the Cleveland Browns, helping the AFC North foe clinch a playoff spot.
Baltimore traded Flacco away in February 2019, turning the reins of the franchise over to Jackson, whom they drafted at the end of the first round in 2018.
“Dear Joe Flacco, good luck this season. I hope you do well,” 2016 Flacco reads. “In like six years, I’m going to be the guy who takes your position.”
And who wrote such a letter? Flacco reveals it was signed, “From Johnny, the next great QB.”
The legend of “Johnny” was foretold. Who cares if the math doesn’t add up?
Responding to this sign from the fates, Kevin Oestreicher, host of the “Locked On Ravens” podcast, pulled out a hilarious meme nodding to one of the most famous line-deliveries in movie history. It must be seen and played in your mind to be appreciated:
“Man said ‘you have to go through me.’”
We’ll have an idea by Sunday’s end if the legend of “Johnny” and the legacy of “January Joe” will become intertwined. A trip to the Super Bowl could be on the line.