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Opinion: Lamar Jackson's COVID-induced absence could prompt more NFL players to receive vaccine

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OWINGS MILLS, Md. – As the Baltimore Ravens returned to team headquarters on Tuesday and prepared for their first practice of training camp Wednesday, many players said they felt a much-welcomed feeling of a return to normalcy after the COVID-19 pandemic forced widespread restrictions last season.

Relaxed NFL protocols for vaccinated players meant a removal of plexiglass dividers in locker rooms and the return of lunch-room tables and joint meals.

But just as prominent on Wednesday morning was the reminder that true normalcy remains elusive, and that vigilance remains necessary for the Ravens, NFL and the nation as a whole. As Baltimore’s players hit the practice field, they did so without the most important member of their team.

Quarterback Lamar Jackson – the engine of Baltimore’s offense, the 2019 NFL MVP and passing touchdowns leader and one of the most electrifying athletes in the world – had been placed in quarantine after testing positive for COVID-19 Tuesday morning, coach John Harbaugh announced.

The Ravens now must continue preparing for the 2021 season with uncertainty, as no one knows exactly when Jackson will return.

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Lamar Jackson of the Baltimore Ravens reacts after throwing an incomplete pass during the first half against the Tennessee Titans in the AFC Divisional Playoff game at M&T Bank Stadium on January 11, 2020 in Baltimore, Maryland.
Lamar Jackson of the Baltimore Ravens reacts after throwing an incomplete pass during the first half against the Tennessee Titans in the AFC Divisional Playoff game at M&T Bank Stadium on January 11, 2020 in Baltimore, Maryland.

If Jackson is vaccinated and still caught COVID-19, he can return to duty as soon as he is asymptomatic and has two negative tests within 24 hours of one another. However, if he is unvaccinated, then the quarterback must isolate for 10 days. Jackson then would be permitted to return once asymptomatic.

Harbaugh said he wasn’t at liberty to share Jackson’s vaccination status. However, he did say that Jackson – who previously had bristled when asked by reporters about his vaccination status – had tested negative for COVID-19 every day leading up to Tuesday's positive test. That suggests that the quarterback had not yet received the vaccine, because NFL protocol calls for the testing of vaccinated players once every 14 days while unvaccinated players must be tested daily.

Harbaugh expressed encouragement about the overall state of the team’s health.

“I can tell you that generally, we’re doing really well in terms of vaccinations and positive tests," Harbaugh said. "We have 90% vaccinated and I think we’re going to go above that really soon.”

In other words, the coach hopes his unvaccinated players will learn from the situations of Jackson and running back Gus Edwards (who also tested positive for COVID-19) and act accordingly.

The NFL has maintained that vaccinations are a personal choice among players. However, the league has strongly urged players to receive them to help minimize the risk of outbreaks among teams and help ensure that the season runs uninterrupted. By imposing rules that would force teams to forfeit games that can’t be made up in the 18-week window of the regular season – costing all players on both squads of a scrapped contest their game checks, and slapping the infected team with the bill for any financial losses sustained by its opponent – the league has hoped to further coax players toward getting vaccinated.

However, as training camps kicked off, the NFL’s player vaccination rate hovered around 86% league-wide. Eighteen teams had more than 90% of their players vaccinated. However, some were much lower as several players remain wary of receiving the vaccine. Washington had a league-low 60% vaccination rate at the start of camp, which prompted coach Ron Rivera to remark to reporters, “I’m truly frustrated. I’m beyond frustrated.”

Frustrations could increase league-wide if more teams experience outbreaks among prominent and unvaccinated players.

But it's possible at least for the Ravens that Jackson’s quarantine serves as a wake-up call for those previously on the fence about the vaccine.

Vaccinations do not guarantee immunity. Indianapolis Colts coach Frank Reich, who is vaccinated, tested positive and must miss the start of training camp until cleared by doctors.

But vaccinated people who have breakthrough infections are much less likely to get severely sick or die. As of July 12, of the more than 159 million fully vaccinated people in the U.S. about 5,500 were reported hospitalized or died from COVID-19.

In turn, pro-vaccine players view this as their best hope for avoiding placing their team at a competitive disadvantage.

“I didn’t want anything to hold me back or to risk missing a big game,” cornerback Marlon Humphrey, who missed time last season with COVID-19, said Wednesday. “It sucked watching my guys play the Colts last year because I was at the house, watching. I felt fine but couldn’t play. I just didn't want anything to hold me back.”

Humphrey and his teammates remain supportive of their teammates, regardless of vaccination choice.

Wide receiver Marquise Brown said, “I trust every man in the building to take care of one another. Hiccups like this happen. All we can do is rally around that guy, and send our prayers, send our support and hopefully he’ll be back very soon. Right now, for me, I’m trying to take every step that I can to be safe and come play football.”

It’s possible, however, that Jackson’s absence could translate into a slow start for the Ravens’ offense. Last season, the quarterback lamented the repetitions he and his teammates missed out on because COVID-19 forced the cancelation of offseason practices and preseason games while delaying the start of training camp.

But he, his coaches and his teammates can at least count themselves fortunate that Jackson’s absence comes at the start of training camp and not the start of the season. When a positive COVID-19 test forced Jackson to miss the Ravens' game against the Pittsburgh Steelers last November, Baltimore managed just 90 passing yards in a 19-14 loss.

Further looking for positives, Harbaugh focused on the fact that backup quarterbacks Trace McSorley and Tyler Huntley will get extra developmental repetitions that they normally would miss out on while practicing behind Jackson.

For now, that’s all the Ravens can do.

The coaches and players have no choice but to operate in accordance with the long-lasting next-man-up mantra while potentially using Jackson’s situation as a reminder of the vigilance that remains necessary amid the ongoing pandemic.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Lamar Jackson's COVID-19 case could sway vaccine-hesitant NFL players

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