The back-and-forth wore on both parties.
Five proposals into his quest to sign star quarterback Lamar Jackson to the largest contract in Baltimore sports history, Ravens General Manager Eric DeCosta tried to maintain optimism but wondered if a resolution would ever come. He asked himself, could he have done something different to accelerate the process or make it happier for everyone?
On the other side, Jackson, an ebullient presence over his first three seasons in Baltimore, seemed to fall out of love with the franchise he had promised to lead to a Super Bowl. He snapped at a Twitter critic after a loss in November and felt the need to go outside team channels to explain the severity of his season-ending knee injury. In late March, he told his 1.1 million Twitter followers that he had asked the Ravens to trade him because they had “not been interested in meeting my value.”
DeCosta was watching his beloved Boston Celtics squander a lead to the Atlanta Hawks on Tuesday night when his phone pinged with a text that abruptly lifted his mood. It was Jackson, who represented himself throughout, saying the words DeCosta had waited almost two years to hear: “I think we can get a deal done.”
Two days later, hours before the NFL draft began Thursday night, Jackson signed a five-year deal worth a reported $260 million with $185 million guaranteed. It makes him the highest-paid player in NFL history in terms of annual salary.
The world might never know exactly when the tide turned. Jackson openly celebrated the Ravens’ signing of wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. on Easter Sunday. When Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts signed a $255 million extension April 17, he gave Jackson and the Ravens a new target to negotiate around.
But DeCosta attributed the resolution to simple patience.
“Sometimes, you just need time,” he said. “These things can happen in two weeks, and sometimes it takes two years. This was on that scale. I know that our appreciation and love for Lamar has really never wavered, but it was business, as well.
“Sometimes with family, things can get tough. We all feel that sometimes when you’re in a fight with your parents or a sibling or you’re trying to figure something out. It’s like the emotion of it, and there was definitely some emotion. But in the end, we’ve been blessed to have Lamar as part of this organization for a long time.”
Jackson has yet to lay out his thoughts for reporters, but he alluded to the many months of “he-said, she-said” and “nail-biting” in a video posted Thursday afternoon by the Ravens.
He left no doubt where his mind is now: “Can’t wait to get there. Can’t wait to be there.”
Later in the evening, he celebrated the Ravens’ addition of yet another speedy wide receiver for him to target, first-round pick Zay Flowers, tweeting a Sponge Bob GIF about “more good news dropping.”
With Jackson back in the fold, executing plays from new offensive coordinator Todd Monken and surrounded by highlight-reel talents such as Beckham, Flowers, 2021 first-round pick Rashod Bateman and running back J.K. Dobbins, the Ravens suddenly feel like a threat to any team in the brutally competitive AFC. Their odds to win the Super Bowl improved from 30-to-1 to 22-to-1, according to online sportsbook BetMGM.
A pervasive gloom had settled over Baltimore football fans in the months after a season-ending playoff loss in Cincinnati, where the Ravens appeared on the verge of upsetting the Bengals until Jackson’s stand-in, Tyler Huntley, fumbled at the goal line.
Jackson’s contract imbroglio was the chief source of dread, but the Ravens suffered an embarrassment when a survey released by the NFL Players Association awarded a grade of F-minus to the team’s strength and conditioning staff under recently departed coach Steve Saunders. That same week, Bateman lashed out at DeCosta in a since-deleted tweet, saying: “How bout you play to your player’s strength and & stop pointing the finger at us and #8 [Jackson].”
The sea was stormy, to say the least, for a franchise that has always prided itself on stability. When Jackson made his March 2 trade request public, fans prepared to break up with an athlete they had once feted as the next candidate to enter the Baltimore sports pantheon populated by the likes of Ray Lewis, Cal Ripken Jr., Brooks and Frank Robinson, and Johnny Unitas.
Thursday turned into an impromptu holiday for those same Ravens loyalists who’d questioned whether they would ever pull on their No. 8 jerseys and cheer for Jackson again.
Brooks Sandler, a 30-year-old Baltimore native who works in the University of Pittsburgh athletic department, was running on a treadmill when he saw a Ravens alert pop up on a nearby television. He leaped off the machine, grabbed his glasses and raced to get a closer look.
“I just started screaming,” he said.
He called his best friend, an attorney back in Baltimore, and continued screaming into the phone: “They got it done! He’s back!” His pal did the same, bellowing in his empty home office.
Sandler, the son of late WBAL-AM traffic reporter “Detour” Dave Sandler, gushed Friday about DeCosta’s work in setting the Ravens up for 2023 and beyond.
“How EDC threaded the needle on all of this is a master class and he should be revered for his work,” he said.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh, who took a plunge four years ago and re-imagined his team around Jackson’s unique running and passing gifts, also wondered at times if a good thing — the Ravens are 45-16 when Jackson starts — was coming to an end.
“I didn’t know if it was going to work out with Lamar being there for sure; you just never know,” Harbaugh reflected when it was all done Thursday night. “You can’t know that, but I believed it would.”
He had said all along he wanted Jackson to remain the team’s centerpiece for years to come, reiterating his personal affection for the quarterback at every opportunity. Even though the result was in doubt, he said he never doubted the goodwill of both sides.
“That’s what I felt good about the whole way,” Harbaugh said. “I just felt like we were doing things the right way, and treating Lamar the right way and that it would work out one way or another.”
The standoff made perfect sense in many respects.
Jackson, an uncommon player who chose an uncommon approach by declining to hire an agent, wanted to secure generational wealth for his family.
The Ravens wanted to reward the 2019 NFL Most Valuable Player for his achievements, but without matching the outlier deal — five years, $230 million fully guaranteed — signed by quarterback Deshaun Watson with the Cleveland Browns before the 2022 season.
The proud quarterback and the proudly disciplined franchise could not find middle ground as Jackson approached the end of his five-year rookie contract.
Negotiations could have been derailed by the emotions DeCosta referenced, said longtime NFL agent Leigh Steinberg, who has represented elite quarterbacks such as Troy Aikman, Steve Young and Patrick Mahomes.
“All parties have to be careful what they say and not personalize it,” Steinberg said. “In a situation where you have no agent, there’s no buffer, and things can easily explode.”
In that light, he praised Harbaugh for “always reaffirming his belief in Lamar.”
“The Ravens played all this perfectly,” Steinberg said. “Even though Lamar said in a tweet he wanted to be traded, this was too logical a marriage made in heaven to break down over the details of a contract.”
He does not expect Jackson’s experience (and successful negotiations by other players such as Ravens linebacker Roquan Smith) to embolden a wave of star players to represent themselves: “I don’t think another player will look at that [negotiation] as being smooth and harmonious. As brave as players are on the field, most are conflict-averse in the rest of their lives.”
DeCosta acknowledged that he felt a great weight lift when he received Jackson’s text and the end of their standoff was in sight.
“Hopefully — honestly, I have to say — I hope I never have to be a part of that type of negotiation again,” he said as the clock pushed past midnight on his day of jubilee, “because of the time, because of the emotional aspect, because Lamar is such a special player and what that means to our club and to this city.”