Jackson, Harbaugh earn NFL honors, but lasting word on 2019 still unwritten

February 01, 2020 | Luke Jones

The Ravens stole the show in Miami on Saturday night.

After weeks of using the words “expected,” “anticipated,” “favorite,” or “lock,” we could officially call second-year quarterback Lamar Jackson the 2019 AP NFL Most Valuable Player. The 2016 Heisman Trophy winner became the second-youngest MVP in league history — only Jim Brown was younger in 1957 — and only the second unanimous choice, joining Tom Brady in 2010. He’s the first Raven and fourth Baltimore player to be named AP NFL MVP, joining old Colts quarterbacks Johnny Unitas (1959, 1964, 1967), Earl Morrall (1968), and Bert Jones (1976).

His electrifying efficiency was unlike anything we’ve ever seen as Jackson shattered the single-season rushing record for a quarterback, led the league in touchdown passes, and set a slew of other records ahead of his 23rd birthday last month. His otherworldly highlights and unparalleled dual-threat ability made the Ravens the toast of the football world in the regular season, rare territory for a team historically viewed as an underdog despite its overall success.

Beginning with a record-setting five-touchdown performance and perfect passer rating 30 miles from his native Pompano Beach, Fla. in the season opener and never looking back, Jackson returned to Miami to accept the MVP award that had been all but a foregone conclusion since the last of the Thanksgiving leftovers were being polished off. In a city with no shortage of Hall of Famers and former MVPs, few have captivated Baltimore quite like Jackson after the most remarkable individual season in the Ravens’ 24-year history.

His arrival comes at a time when the city needs as much inspiration as it can get, but his impact extends beyond Charm City, evident by the reaction to Saturday’s announcement.

We’re watching someone special.

Of course, Jackson wasn’t alone as John Harbaugh won AP Coach of the Year for the first time in his career and offensive coordinator Greg Roman was voted AP Assistant Coach of the Year. Though not the same overwhelming favorite as Jackson, Harbaugh leading the Ravens to a franchise-best 14-2 record, a team-record 12 straight wins, and their first No. 1 seed made him an appropriate choice before even considering the coaching staff’s offseason reconstruction of the offense or his ahead-of-the-curve use of analytics.

The honor only adds to an impressive body of work over 12 seasons as Harbaugh already owns a Super Bowl championship, four AFC North division titles, 10 playoff wins, and eight postseason appearances. The first Ravens head coach to earn the NFL award, Harbaugh joins Weeb Ewbank (1958), Don Shula (1964, 1967, 1968), and Ted Marchibroda (1975) as Baltimore head men to win NFL Coach of the Year. Having now coached the Ravens for half of their existence, Harbaugh is building a resume that will leave him in very exclusive company if he remains on a similar track.

But Saturday wasn’t the culmination Jackson, Harbaugh, and the Ravens envisioned a month ago if we’re being reflective on the eve of the Super Bowl. After one of the best regular seasons of the 21st century, Baltimore fell short of expectations in January, the kind of pain those accolades only do so much to dull right now. Both referred to their individual honors as team awards, but the Ravens wanted to be preparing to play for the ultimate team prize the following night instead of being dressed to the nines on the red carpet.

Jackson and Harbaugh became just the 12th MVP-Coach of the Year combination for the same team, but all but two of the first 11 at least made it to the Super Bowl or NFL championship game, a reminder of a great opportunity missed. That doesn’t dismiss a regular season that was as special as it gets, but the final word on the Ravens’ 2019 legacy has yet to be written and will be shaped by the context of next season and beyond.

If Baltimore wins the Super Bowl a year from now, we’ll remember the end of this season more as the precursor to better things to come, regardless of whether Jackson repeats as MVP, Harbaugh is again voted top coach, or the Ravens are able to match a 14-2 mark. The agonizing memory of Lee Evans, Billy Cundiff, and the 2011 AFC Championship loss didn’t feel so bad after Joe Flacco and the Ravens raised the Vince Lombardi Trophy a year later. But we also know next season will be a clean slate with new challenges and no guarantees along the way.

Perhaps the most comforting perspective is knowing one of the teams sporting both the MVP and Coach of the Year that didn’t make it to the Super Bowl was the 2010 New England Patriots, who also went 14-2 before being bounced at home in the divisional round. If it could happen to Brady and Bill Belichick, it can happen to anyone, right? The Patriots would claim three more Super Bowl championships over the next decade, leaving 2010 as little more than a blip over two decades of dominance.

Last month’s playoff loss to Tennessee was an abrupt reminder of the late-season dynasty chatter being way too premature, but the Ravens will have their shot at redemption and Jackson and Harbaugh their opportunity to fortify their legacies as soon as 12 months from now. Beyond the question of longevity that any young player faces, Jackson now needs only a Super Bowl championship to stake his claim as a generational quarterback with strong Hall of Fame aspirations. If that sounds overly bold, count the number of quarterbacks who failed to be enshrined despite winning a league MVP and Super Bowl title over the course of their careers.

Another Super Bowl championship for Harbaugh — with a different starting quarterback this time — would make him all but a lock for Canton one day.

Make no mistake, the Ravens owning the spotlight the night before the Super Bowl is deserving of some celebration after the hangover of these last few weeks.

But Jackson and Harbaugh winning the Lombardi Trophy in Tampa next February will make the lasting memory of 2019 — even its bitterly disappointing ending — that much better.