The hit on December 4 that has since kept Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson sidelined for five straight weeks looked innocuous. As he was sacked from behind while scrambling away from pressure against the Denver Broncos, Jackson’s left knee banged into the M&T Bank Stadium turf the same way it has dozens upon dozens of times before.
Only a few moments later, when the NFL’s blue collapsible medical tent on the Ravens sideline popped up so Jackson could step inside, did anyone take much notice. A few moments later, Jackson walked gingerly from the field, down a staircase and then up a few more steps to the Ravens locker room.
That day, backup quarterback Tyler Huntley led an improbable 16-play, 91-yard, game-winning fourth-quarter drive as the Ravens got a one-point win, improved to 8-4, and maintained their AFC North lead. And afterward, the official report about Jackson’s knee made it appear that he and the team had avoided the worst case-scenario.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh said it wasn’t a season-ending injury and that Jackson could possibly even play in the Ravens’ next game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, though he was due for more tests to better determine how much time he might miss.
The NFL Network reported that Jackson’s injury was a sprained PCL, and that he was expected to miss one to three weeks. That’s the typical recovery time for a mild sprain of that ligament. A more severe sprain often keeps players out longer, up to six weeks. And here we are, now a little more than five weeks since the star QB was hurt, on the eve of the playoffs, and Jackson’s status for the Ravens’ first postseason game against the division champion Bengals Sunday night remains in doubt.
In the meantime, scrutiny and interest around Jackson’s injury and speculation about what him missing so much time might mean (from his ability to play and the impact on his long-term contract odds) has reached near obsessive levels. For your indulgence, here’s what Harbaugh and other Ravens have said about Jackson’s injury, between when it happened and now, starting in the locker room after the Broncos game.
December 4: Ravens 10, Denver Broncos 9
After Huntley’s late-game heroics, the mood in the Ravens locker room is upbeat, though Jackson was not seen. Huntley suggested his close friend was already at home. “I haven’t seen him. I don’t really know anything,” says rookie center Tyler Linderbaum, the guy who snaps the ball to Jackson every play. Usually.
On the specific injury to Jackson, Harbaugh delivers what sounds like good news for the Ravens, relatively speaking, in the post-game press conference.
“He has a knee [injury]. But it’s not a season ending type of knee. We’ll get more tests tomorrow and let you know tomorrow how long it’s gonna be. We’ll see. Hopefully I’ll have something for you tomorrow afternoon. Certainly by Wednesday, [it’ll] be more definitive. It’s gonna be a number of days or weeks, we’ll see. We’ll see if he can go back this week. If not, it’ll be sometime after that shortly.”— John Harbaugh
The next day at the Ravens’ practice facility in Owings Mills, Harbaugh addressed reporters and the first question asked was about Jackson. The prognosis sounds a bit worse than the night before, but still not bad.
“He’s been through the MRIs, and I would say it’s kind of week-to-week. It’s going to be a weekly thing, so as the week goes on, we’ll see for this week. It’s probably less likely for this week, but it’s not impossible. Then after that, it will become more and more likely.”— John Harbaugh
Harbaugh declines to answer when asked if Jackson’s injury is indeed a sprain, as had been reported.
“I just don’t think I’m going to get into any detailed diagnoses on all that,” Harbaugh says. “We’ll kind of let it play out.”
A little later, the NFL’s mandated daily injury report is published and it shows Jackson did not practice at all with a knee injury. It’s the first of 15 straight practices he will miss.
December 9: Ravens 16, Pittsburgh Steelers 14
After Jackson didn’t practice all week, Harbaugh says Huntley will likely start against the Steelers in Pittsburgh. They win the game, 16-14, even after Huntley leaves with a possible concussion and third-stringer Anthony Brown is called into action. J.K. Dobbins leads the Ravens rushing attack with 120 yards and Gus Edwards adds 66.
With Huntley still in the concussion protocol (which he would later clear), Harbaugh is asked if there’s a chance Jackson could play.
“I just don’t know. You make some kind of a statement and it turns out to be … You just don’t have enough information to make it yet. That’s how these injuries work.”— John Harbaugh
December 17: Cleveland Browns 13, Ravens 3
Jackson doesn’t travel with the team to Cleveland and Huntley starts in an ugly 13-3 loss filled with miscues, which spoils nearly 200 yards on the ground. The Ravens fall out of a tie for first in the division behind the Bengals. “Fire Greg Roman” papers, calling for the offensive coordinator’s removal, appear outside the team facility in the hours after the loss. During the game broadcast, NFL Network reports that the Ravens are hopeful to have Jackson back for their next game and he didn’t travel as a precautionary measure to limit swelling in his knee.
ESPN’s Jamison Hensley again asks if Harbaugh expects Jackson back, this time for a Christmas Eve game at home against Atlanta.
“I knew you were going to ask that, or somebody was. I think I’m going to climb behind the barricade of it’s probably not the time to put a lot of information out there on our injuries, just for competitive purposes. So, we’re just going to let that develop and see where we go with it and not try to walk the tightrope of what we say.”— John Harbaugh
Jackson misses another practice. Harbaugh has no update.
“I’m not commenting on any of that stuff right now this time of year,” he says.
Two days later, Harbaugh says it looks like Huntley will start at quarterback against the Falcons.
December 24: Ravens 17, Atlanta Falcons 9
In the coldest home game in Ravens history, they beat Atlanta and get some help with other teams losing to clinch a playoff berth with two weeks left in the regular season. During the game, Harbaugh spots Jackson standing on the sideline behind him.
The coach asks if he’s been on the sideline in the frigid temperatures all game, and says of the cold “it’s like icing your knee.”
“No, it’s not,” Jackson says. They hug, then Harbaugh suggests Jackson give Huntley a hug, and he agrees.
In the postgame press conference, a reporter asks Harbaugh if clinching a playoff berth will have any impact on if Jackson returns to play before the postseason.
“Players play when they’re healthy and ready to go, that’s really all we do. When the player and the docs come back and say, ‘Hey, it’s time,’ then [as] coaches, we build him into the gameplan. That’s really how [it works]. To think about it beyond that is just kind of a waste of energy and time. ... Lamar is working very hard to get back. The trainers are working very hard to get him back.”— John Harbaugh
Will Lamar practice this week?
“We’ll just have to see,” Harbaugh says.
Is he optimistic Jackson will come back at some point this year? The coach is similarly coy.
“Sure,” he says, “Of course.”
Does Jackson has a PCL sprain or strain?
“I’m not really ... [It’s] not for me to say,” Harbaugh says. “We’re just coaching the guys out here right now.”
Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman sheds some light on how Jackson is doing.
“He’s working hard, getting his rehab done,” Roman says. “The way we feel, the sooner we can get him back, the better. Especially heading into the playoffs, [we’d] love to get some work in before then, but you can’t rush Mother Nature. We have to make sure he’s right at the same time.”
Huntley is in line to make another start and says Lamar has been helpful through the stretch of games he’s played.
“When I come to the sideline, he’s telling me what he sees out there, and he’s just being that supportive friend,” Huntley says. “I appreciate him, and I can’t wait until he gets back healthy.”
“It kills him,” to not be playing, Huntley says. “He wants to be playing, but at the same time, too, he’s just accepting the process and just focusing on getting himself healthy so he can be ready to play when it most matters.”
January 1: Steelers 16, Ravens 13
The rival Steelers beat the Ravens on the first night of 2023, winning 16-13 on a late-game, 80-yard drive authored by Pittsburgh rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett. In the final moments, Jackson can be seen on the sideline, standing up and walking gingerly. He does the same in the locker room after the game, and he and Huntley leave together.
A tilt with the Bengals is on tap for Sunday, with a potential AFC North title on the line if the Ravens win and the Buffalo Bills beat the Bengals on Monday Night Football.
Does Harbaugh expect Jackson to practice this week?
“I don’t know,” he says. “I don’t have an expectation until I hear more today.”
Is he getting concerned Jackson might not have enough “ramp-up time” for the playoffs?
“I just can’t think about that,” Harbaugh says. “I’m just going to listen to the doctors and to Lamar.”
Does he want to see Jackson have at least one week of practice before the postseason?
“Of course,” Harbaugh says. “Absolutely.”
If he doesn’t practice this week, would he not play in the playoffs?
“I wouldn’t make any commitment along those lines,” Harbaugh says.
With the Bills-Bengals game on Monday night suspended because of Damar Hamlin’s cardiac arrest on the field, it doesn’t look like the Ravens will know if they’ll have a shot at the division title if or when they face the Bengals on Sunday.
It’s Wednesday. Jackson still isn’t practicing, and the coach doesn’t speak about his status.
“I’m just probably going to leave all that stuff alone. I’m going to focus on the game and just get ready to coach our guys and have our guys get ready to play the game.”— John Harbaugh
To add more questions to the quarterback situation, Huntley is now dealing with a wrist injury in addition to shoulder tendonitis that has bothered him for the past few weeks.
Roman says that if Jackson doesn’t practice until next week, he could still be ready for the playoffs.
“He’s a special guy,” Roman says of Jackson. “I think if somebody’s got a chance to do it, he does. ... You don’t really know until you get out there, but I would say I would bet on him. I would definitely bet on him. It’s not an ideal situation obviously, but it’s a great opportunity when he does come back for us to get him back in the lineup and get moving.”
Harbaugh proactively addresses Jackson’s status and the “injury thing” in the opening statement of his media availability.
“Just wanted to share this with you, kind of really about Lamar’s injury, because I know you guys ask every week, and everybody wants to know,” Harbaugh says. “I understand that — completely understand that. I want to know every week.
“Every day you kind of ask and see where we’re at, but there really are no updates on that. That’s the biggest thing. I know that maybe people — fans, and media and everybody — might get a little frustrated about, but it’s just kind of the nature of it.
“When we have an update, definitely, you’ll have it, but injuries are so hard to predict. That’s why when I get up here sometimes and I’ll refrain from saying how long it will be. You might think it’s going to be some number of weeks, or some number of days, or whatever, but you really don’t know because [players] all respond differently. Then later, I feel bad because it didn’t turn out to be the number that we originally thought it was going to be. So, then I try to say, ‘Well, I’m really not going to talk about that,’ and kind of sometimes people think, ‘Well, he’s hiding something,’ or whatever. It’s really not. I might be hiding something sometimes, but not in this case.
“The truth is we just really don’t know. I know everybody’s working as hard as they can. Lamar’s working as hard as he can, the trainers are working as hard as they can and I can’t wait for him to get back, obviously, just like everybody else. So, that’s where we’re at with that. He won’t be playing in this game, and we’ll be hopeful for next week. We’ll just see where we’re at then, OK?”— John Harbaugh
January 8: Cincinnati Bengals 27, Ravens 16
A special NFL owners vote gives the Ravens a shot at home playoff game should they beat the Bengals again, and the teams are slated to play each other in a wild-card game. A coin flip would decide who hosts the game. The Ravens appear content to rest key offensive players who have dealt with injuries this year, though, and take their chances in the playoffs, be it in Cincinnati or not. Third-string QB Anthony Brown starts in the 27-16 loss and throws two interceptions and loses a fumble that the Bengals pounce on for a touchdown.
Soon after the game, it’s confirmed that the sixth-seeded Ravens (10-7) will play the third-seeded Bengals (12-4) during the first round of the playoffs.
“Of course, Lamar, if he’s able to go, that gives us the best chance to win,” veteran defensive lineman Calais Campbell says in the visiting locker room after the game. Says defensive back Marlon Humphrey: “Lamar Jackson is one of one, so if we could have him back, that would be great. If not, we’ll go with who we have.”
That night, it’s announced the Ravens-Bengals game will air during NBC’s Sunday Night Football slot. When the matchup is promoted with graphics on NBC, tight end Mark Andrews’ likeness is used to represent the Ravens across from Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow. The next afternoon, Harbaugh is questioned about Jackson again.
“Like I’ve been saying, I don’t really have an update right now to share with you. We’ll have our injury report out on Wednesday because I won’t have a chance to talk to you between now and then. That’s kind of where we’re at.”— John Harbaugh
Jackson misses practice again. Backups Huntley, Brown and Brett Hundley participate, pointing to one of them starting the playoff game against the Bengals.
Asked for an update on Jackson’s status, Harbaugh says, “I don’t have anything to add on that. No updates at this time.”
Would he be comfortable with Jackson playing at less than 100% on Sunday?
“Of course,” Harbaugh says. “As long as he’s safe and healthy and can play. That’s for any player. … [if they’re not] going to do any damage to the injury.”
That leaves just enough room open for the star quarterback to take the field Sunday, though it looks unlikely.
Corey McLaughlin is a veteran writer and editor who has covered sports in Baltimore for a decade, including for Baltimore magazine, USA Lacrosse Magazine and several other publications.