On Tuesday, the Ravens stuck to a theme. At a post-practice news conference, first-year running backs coach Willie Taggart met with local reporters for the first time. After him came Gus Edwards, then Justice Hill, then Melvin Gordon III, 75% of the Ravens’ projected Week 1 depth chart. Among the team’s notable running backs, only J.K. Dobbins was missing.
Questions about Dobbins, though, were not. Taggart was asked about building a relationship with the erstwhile Dobbins, who started training camp on the physically-unable-to-perform list and has hinted that his prolonged absence is a contract-related hold-in. “Well, I think it’s important to develop a relationship with all the guys. Not just J.K., but all of them.”
Edwards was asked for his perspective on Dobbins’ contract situation. “I mean, I see him every day. He’s in there. He’s still working hard. I know he’s going to be ready, because that’s the type of guy he is.”
Hill was asked whether he notices any outside curiosity in Dobbins’ absence. “Not really at all. I mean, we just come in and work.”
And Gordon was asked how the Ravens could keep Dobbins’ story from becoming a distraction. “We just have to go out there and do what we have to do, man. At the end of the day, we just have to go out here and help the team. At the end of the day, that’s what it’s about. Like I said, when he comes back, whenever that may be, we’re going to embrace him.”
Two weeks into camp, and nearly two months since Dobbins sat out mandatory minicamp, the Ravens are not hiding from the headlines. They have, in some respects, embraced the awkwardness of the situation, meeting Dobbins’ isolation not with alienation but with something approaching transparency.
It is a fine line to walk. Coach John Harbaugh, asked regularly about Dobbins’ absence, has stressed how often they communicate, how eager Dobbins is to return, how much the team appreciates his talent. He has also all but acknowledged that Dobbins’ comeback hinges less on how his surgically repaired knee feels and more about how he feels about, well, everything else.
“The ball is in J.K.’s court,” Harbaugh said Tuesday of Dobbins, who’s entering the final year of his rookie contract. “We have talked. We talked again yesterday. We had a great conversation. I do expect him back very soon, but I don’t have anything to say about it. It’s up to J.K., so hopefully that will happen soon.”
Dobbins has appeared infrequently at training camp practices, often standing on the sidelines next to teammates and team officials in sweats. He hasn’t commented publicly on his situation since a series of since-deleted tweets in June expressing a desire to remain in Baltimore until “the end of my career.”
If his absence has irked teammates or coaches, the Ravens have kept the disharmony behind closed doors. Gordon, a newcomer to Baltimore, said there’s “no bitter feelings towards anything” and that “the guys love him in the locker room.” Dobbins, who has made pointed remarks about the Ravens’ rehabilitation plan after a catastrophic 2021 knee injury as well as his lack of touches in the team’s season-ending playoff loss last season, “has a lot of respect around the locker room,” Gordon added.
Respect alone won’t get Dobbins a new contract. But could the Ravens’ charm offensive, calculated or not, get him back onto the practice field?
Said offensive coordinator Todd Monken: “We’d love to have J.K. out there, there’s no question about it. We look forward to when he does get out there. I don’t control that. What I control is what we do each day on the practice field, and we’ll be excited when he gets back.”
And Harbaugh: “You miss J.K., the player. You want him out there, he’s a great player, and it’s just one less great player we have out there.”
And Hill: “We’re all excited to get J.K. back out here. He’s a playmaker.”
And Gordon: “When he’s out here, it’s going to be open arms.”
After a string of solid practices by Ravens running backs, Harbaugh said Tuesday that he feels “very good” about the position’s play. But Dobbins ended last season looking better than very good. When he was on the field, the Ravens’ Lamar Jackson-less attack was, somehow, highly capable. When he wasn’t on the field, the offense all but fell apart.
Every day Dobbins misses, though, the 2022 season gets a little bit further away, and the 2023 season gets a little bit closer. If the Ravens are unwilling to reward his three years in Baltimore — 1,325 rushing yards, 5.9 yards per carry, 12 total touchdowns, just 23 games played — then Dobbins’ best recourse is to prepare for a showcase fourth year. And the only pathway to playing is practicing.
“Generally speaking, to be a great player, you know you need to put in the time and the effort and just get with the team and get right,” Harbaugh said. “He wants to do that in his case, and that’s why I kind of expect him back here pretty soon.”
Until he does, the Ravens will continue to wish him well.