Ambrose Bierce, who was a Civil War-era journalist, union soldier and author of “The Devil’s Dictionary,” once called patience “a minor form of despair disguised as virtue.”
I have always liked that. It always felt applicable to every process requiring patience in the NFL — except for that whole minor part. Let’s be honest: Over the past few decades, patience in this league is usually treated or absorbed as a major practice in anguish. Players have to develop as quickly as possible. Five-year franchise plans shortened into three-year plans, and now seemingly every regime might as well consider itself on a year-to-year lease. And contracts — particularly young quarterback contracts — you better get ahead of the market as quickly as possible, or you’re engaging in malpractice when it comes to your salary cap.
That is, unless you’re willing to embrace a little despair, dress it up as something virtuous and then hope that time delivers a worthwhile result.
Two franchises that embraced the path of patience with their franchise quarterback deals for Lamar Jackson and Baker Mayfield — and two franchises that now have some very important and very different results in their hands to shape the coming months and 2022 offseason. Because as much as the two teams entered this season heading down the same avenue, the journey is diverging.
Let’s start with Jackson, who on Sunday became the youngest NFL quarterback to win 35 games. Jackson is 24 and unseated none other than iconic Hall of Famer Dan Marino, who reached his 35th win at the ripe age of 25. While this is a team accomplishment as much as an individual one, it’s notable that Jackson is getting there with a surrounding cast that is arguably less perfect than any he has had during his career.
This isn’t the offensive line of 2019. Nor is it the experienced and dependable set of skill position players. Not with three running backs pulled off a scrap heap, an All-Pro left tackle who will miss all but one game this season, and a set of receivers who are just now getting onto the same page. But that’s suddenly part of the upside of this equation for Baltimore. It’s seeing another step for Lamar Jackson when it matters most. He’s not only developing as a passer but he’s doing it when things aren’t all perfect.
It’s like what Sean McVay said back in the summer when I asked him about what elevates elite quarterbacks: “When it’s not right, they can make it right.”
This is what the Ravens are finding out about Jackson on the other side of patience at the negotiating table. He’s capable of individual growth at the same time he has to continue to aid the development around him. He can engineer some perfect moments in less-than-perfect circumstances. Now, we’re only six games in here, but that’s the kind of guy you happily sign to a record-setting contract extension.
Which brings us to the Browns and Baker Mayfield — a union that was really hoping for something along the lines of what Baltimore is experiencing. Not that Mayfield has been bad this season. And not that the roster around him has been perfect, either. But the patience in the process of measuring Mayfield’s contract and how he will continue to grow under this offensive staff is now incomplete.
His shoulder injury means the team has to grasp the reality that it’s probably not going to get the data it needed to do an extension. If anything, Cleveland now has to consider that this is the second time in three years that Mayfield’s health has come to weigh on the direction of his future. To the point that Cleveland is very much coming to terms with the possibility of taking its presumed franchise quarterback into the final year of his five-year contract before making a long-term commitment.
Recent history hasn’t been kind to those situations. Go ask the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Tennessee Titans what was on their minds when they took James Winston and Marcus Mariota into their fifth years without an extension. Let me clue you in. It was that whole despair thing that Ambrose Bierce was talking about.
A forced form of patience that can’t be masked as virtue. In a league where all the best things are on a schedule to arrive now, if not sooner.