In the Baltimore Ravens’ 20-17 victory in the rain on Sunday, Dec. 1, the most compelling moment for me wasn’t Justin Tucker’s 49-yard field goal at the last second but Lamar Jackson’s fumble in the third quarter.
Tucker, you expect such things.
Jackson, you don’t. This was the first fumble the Ravens’ wunderkind has lost all year. But his reaction to it impressed me more than anything.
He pounded his own chest, and then pounded it some more.
My bad, he was saying.
And then he did it again, later in the game, when he threw badly to an open receiver when the Ravens badly needed a first down.
Again, the chest thump. My bad.
And then, after the game, it was Jackson telling reporters it was “my fault” when he missed those open receivers, and never mind the soaking wet football he was trying to grip.
There are professional athletes who err and instinctively look for somebody to blame.
Can’t be my fault, must be somebody else’s.
These are proud men with money on the line. It’s comforting to find scapegoats.
But it’s better when the leader of the team takes the blame himself when he blows one. And make no mistake, this 22-year-old kid’s not only the leader of this team but the central focus of the entire football-watching nation at this point.
In fact, taking this kind of responsibility helps cement his leadership. His teammates know they’re dealing with the real article as they stretch their winning streak to eight in a row and their record to 10-2.
Some of us remember another quarterback around here named Unitas, who became a starter when the previous quarterback, George Shaw, was injured. Shaw had been seen as a centerpiece in the Baltimore Colts’ promising future. But now, he was sidelined for a couple of weeks while Unitas stepped in.
And there’s a classic story about one of the Colts approaching the great defensive end Gino Marchetti and remarking, “Shaw ought to be back soon.”
Marchetti leveled him with a stare. “Doesn’t matter,” Gino said. “Unitas is the quarterback of this team now.”
He’d been a starter for only a few weeks, but his teammates knew it right away — from Unitas’s ability, of course, but also from his qualities of leadership, his smarts and his selflessness.
In short, his ability to say the mistake was his when he made it, and in the process lighten the pressure for everyone around him. That’s the kind of leadership we’re seeing now when Lamar Jackson pounds his chest and says, This one’s on me.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” was reissued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.