Lombardi: Why the Colts should trade for Lamar Jackson

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Sometimes the easiest solution is the best solution—in business and the NFL.  Trust me, I am not the first person to make this observation. 

During the 14th century, a friar named William of Ockham developed a principle, which is today known as “Occam’s Razor.”  The principle states that if you have two competing ideas to explain the same phenomenon, you should prefer the simpler one.  Case in point, teams looking for their future franchise quarterback—specifically, the Colts.  The Colts have the fourth pick overall in the draft, and a huge need to find their franchise quarterback.  Indy fans have been spoiled. First, they watched Peyton Manning dominate; then when Manning gets injured, Andrew Luck is awaiting them at the top of the draft.  Since Luck retired, so has the Colts’ luck, no pun intended.  

The two competing ideas: Do the Colts trade for a proven commodity or take a chance on a rookie who may or may not be great?  With the Colts being in the unlucky position of picking 4th overall, there is less of a guarantee they select their future quarterback.  Signing Lamar Jackson to a long-term contract may not be simple, yet simpler than believing Will Levis of Kentucky or Anthony Richardson of Florida will carry a franchise.  Jackson is the costly simple solution. Trading up or selecting either quarterback requires substantial risk—it might appear simpler, but one decision is certain, and the other is completely unknown.   The Colts cannot afford to get this wrong. They need a sure thing, and the only sure thing is Jackson, and this includes Bryce Young or CJ Stroud. 

So, why wouldn’t the Colts front office and head coach Shane Steichen board Indy owner Jim Irsay’s private plane, fly to Florida and privately make their case as to why Jackson should become another legendary Colt quarterback from Johnny Unitas to Peyton Manning?  Steichen became the head coach of the Colts because of his development of Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts, molding the six-back offense to highlight Hurts’ skillset, which is also perfect for Jackson.  Steichen can show Jackson all the Eagles’ offensive game tape with Hurts doing what Jackson does well, only Jackson is better than Hurts. Not knocking Hurts, who has improved tremendously over the last three years, but Jackson is faster, quicker and can make every throw.  It seems too simple and makes too much sense for the Colts to not be “all in” on trading for Jackson. 

When the Ravens placed the non-exclusive tender on Jackson, they basically were proclaiming, “make us an offer.”   This is not to imply they don’t want Jackson, rather, they are frustrated with dealing with Jackson and his lack of representation thus making no progress on a long-term deal.  That frustration forced the Ravens to ponder their future, and with their owner, Steve Bisciotti, fully vested in these decisions, the impact of losing Jackson won’t cost anyone their jobs.  If Bisciotti was an absentee owner, judging wins and losses, then no one in the front office would ponder letting Jackson depart.  Jackson, when healthy and durable, provides consistency with a chance to compete for Super Bowls.  No Jackson means a rebuild, and unless the owner is on board, no personnel man or general manager wants to walk down that path.  Remember the immortal words of former Giants general manager George Young: “Always guard your desk.”

The major hurdle facing the Jackson camp and the Baltimore front office is the Ravens are reluctant to guarantee Jackson the money the Browns guaranteed Dashaun Watson.  It’s more on principle and precedent-setting than anything else.  Any evaluator of Jackson’s skill level would be correct to believe he will play at a high level for at least three more years.  Hell, he is younger than Stetson Bennett from Georgia who is entering the draft this season. At 26, he should have ten more good seasons. 

If the $144 million contract over three is accurate as reported by Jackson, then there is no doubt, he would earn all the money.  So why not guarantee the entire deal?  Because, the next player will want a fully guaranteed deal, and then another, and before long, it becomes a team-building problem.  This is the same logic the United States government used when deciding to enter the Vietnam War during the 1960s.  Believing we either stop communism from spreading 10,000 miles away or suffer the consequences.  We didn’t win the war, lost thousands of lives, and communism never spread and died. It was horrible logic causing bad decisions, then and now.    

If the Colts or the Ravens proclaim only a franchise quarterback can get a fully guaranteed contract, who would agree with the logic?   How many franchise quarterbacks are there?  Trust me, not many—maybe five.  Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Justin Herbert, Joe Burrow and who else?  Hurts has improved and can be, but not yet and others are above average with the right supporting cast.  (We can save this debate for another column.) Yes, player agents will scream they want a similar guarantee with false bravado, settling for less when the rubber meets the road.   Exceptions happen all the time, so why not make an exception for a player that solves a major problem? 

Besides the contract, the Colts would have to meet the demands of the Ravens, which on paper requires two number-one picks, which the Colts possess.  The Ravens might be demanding the two number ones, but would they consider less?  My guess is yes.  If Chris Ballard the general manager of the Colts called and offered their fourth pick overall—and nothing more—the Ravens’ first reaction would be “no f-ing way.”  As the draft moves closer and the likelihood of no other team entering the sweepstakes, forcing the Ravens to continue to carry the $32 million plus cap charge on a one-year deal without securing their future, they will certainly call back Ballard asking for a Russell Wilson, or Watson type trade deal.  When Ballard says no, he will pick at four, then the Ravens are forced to decide—with short- and long-term implications.  Ballard, by offering less than two ones, is playing chess, waiting for the Ravens’ next move, which isn’t hard to see based on the lack of interest in their player.  They either call Ballard back and plead for more or enter 2023 with the uncertainty for future years at the most critical position.  Like the Packers, I get the sense the Ravens are done with the back and forth and want to move on. They might publicly sing a different tune, but privately, they seem frustrated to the point of saying goodbye.   

One of the main reasons the teams are not involved in signing Jackson stems from the belief, it’s hard to build a team with a quarterback on a huge free-agent contract—just ask the Minnesota Vikings.  Teams prefer rookie deals to then allocate their cap money to other positions and strengthen the core of the team, before making a financial commitment to the quarterback. And this makes perfect sense and would be the preferred plan if you could find a young talented quarterback and leader.  We all know that is easier said than done. The Cowboys didn’t find Dak Prescott; they wanted Conner Cook from Michigan State and settled for Prescott.  The 49ers wanted Trey Lance to be their guy and now seem to be content with Brock Purdy, the last man standing in the 2022 draft, as their starter.  It takes luck and great evaluating skill to find a manageable solution at the most vital position in football. So why not take the simple path and sign a proven young commodity? 

What is the point of saving all the cap room when you cannot compete for a Super Bowl?  They have never given out a Salary Cap Trophy to teams, so what are the Colts waiting for?  Jackson would make every player on their team better. He would make the Colts hard to handle at home with all the crowd noise, and most of all, he would challenge Trevor Lawrence every year.  It makes too much sense. If friar William were still alive, he would agree.