Tue., July 28: Ravens' Overall Team Health Emphasized
By Joe Platania
Tuesday, July 28, 2009
WESTMINSTER -- In groups of two and three, Baltimore Ravens players walked out of the McDaniel College gymnasium and headed down towards the practice field to begin training camp.
But... what's this?
Not only were most of them not wearing jerseys, they weren't even walking towards the twin fields around which the usual group of fans had massed.
Plenty of curious heads turned as players and coaches walked behind the bleachers, down the hilly, fence-lined mulch path and onto the Momentum Turf field at Bair Stadium.
The Ravens' 14th annual training camp began with a sight never before seen by the public or media: a group of players taking some extra conditioning tests as part of the team physical.
It was a rather innocuous-looking session, with players in gray sweats separating into position groups and going through the same perfunctory stretching and agility drills seen in most minicamp or training-camp practices.
However, the objective behind this early-morning gathering, which will be repeated Thursday, was clear.
Following a season that saw the Ravens place a franchise-record 19 players on injured reserve and still get within one game of a Super Bowl, head coach John Harbaugh wants to ensure that his team is as healthy as possible.
Despite the fine performances of those who filled in for them, season-ending injuries to players such as Kelly Gregg, Demetrius Williams, Marshal Yanda and Chris McAlister could have very well made the difference between winning and losing the AFC North Division and, in turn, getting home field for the conference title game Baltimore eventually lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"We want to make sure that guys can practice. That's the bottom line," Harbaugh said. "So, we put them through a conditioning test that's part of the (team) physical. We'll continue to put these guys through a physical who had injuries in the past.
"We're going to make sure that certain situations react positively to the test before we put them into regular practice."
The test is also a likely part of the reason that even though most veterans were not required to be in camp until Wednesday night -- and won't practice until Friday morning -- plenty of experienced players could be seen on the field going through mostly seven-on-seven and skeleton drills with the rookie class.
Among the approximately 20 players who were not on the field at all included the usual and expected names: linebackers Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs, defensive linemen Trevor Pryce and Justin Bannan, safety Ed Reed, cornerback Samari Rolle, tight end Todd Heap, center Matt Birk and running backs Ray Rice and Le'Ron McClain.
Kicker Steven Hauschka, linebacker Jameel McClain, wideout Kelley Washington and first-round draft pick Michael Oher were also absent. Oher's contract is expected to be signed before the end of the week once those selected around him have their salaries slotted.
However, the focus of Tuesday morning's practice -- which ended shortly after 10 a.m., a full hour and a quarter earlier than expected -- was on the rookies and those who had been injured during an 11-5 season that saw the Ravens earn a wild-card playoff berth, the sixth AFC postseason seed and a place in the conference title game.
Apparently, the youngest Ravens have taken Harbaugh's hard-work ethic and conditioning ethos to heart.
Of the 11 players the team placed on the Physically Unable To Perform (PUP) list, only three are rookies: fifth-round draft pick and linebacker Jason Phillips, fifth-round tight end Davon Drew and undrafted free agent offensive lineman Lou Saucedo.
(Saucedo, a Montana State product, was waived later in the day along with Maryland wideout Isaiah Williams. The team signed Georgia Southern receiver Jayson Foster, a 5-foot-7, 185-pound speedster who spent time on practice rosters in Denver, Pittsburgh and Miami last year.)
"Most of (the rookies) look like they're in really good shape," Harbaugh said. "It was a good (practice), for the limited numbers we had, I thought it was good. It was crisp, but it'll be a lot sharper (when the veterans start) on Friday.
"The point is, we have to have a great training camp. We have to put a great practice on top of another great practice, on top of another great practice."
The veterans on the list, who are not expected to stay on it long, are Rolle, running back Willis McGahee, wideout/return specialist Yamon Figurs, guards Ben Grubbs and Marshal Yanda, tackles Joe Reitz and Adam Terry, and defensive lineman Lamar Divens.
Any player on the PUP list could miss the first six weeks of the regular season if he is not healthy by Week One.
The early end to the session could be taken as a sign that Harbaugh wants to guide his players a bit more carefully through the 3 1/2-week camp and not make it as tough on them.
However, the coach had announced during the spring that once the veterans arrive, they will be in pads the first day and hit hard in scrimmage-like conditions.
Health may be one thing, but winning is quite another.
"When we're done with (camp), we're going to be the best Ravens we can be," Harbaugh said. "And if we're the best Ravens we can be, people are going to have a tough time standing in front of us."
JOEY P'S TRIVIA TIME: While there may be no prizes in it for you, Trivia Time is just another way we at PressBox have fun whetting your appetite (and ours) for the season to come.
One of the many highlights Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco provided in his debut season was a long touchdown run down the sidelines in his first-ever NFL game before the home fans.
Going back in time a bit, who were the first two quarterbacks to record rushing touchdowns at the facility now known as M&T Bank Stadium during its 1998 debut season? What do the two players have in common?
The answer appears towards the end of this column.
PRACTICE REPORT: After the early-morning conditioning test, the full team -- minus the aforementioned absent veterans -- took to the main practice fields for an undermanned session that lasted barely an hour and a quarter.
Here are some highlights:
- The first official uniformed player on the field on the first day of camp was running back Matt Lawrence, a street free agent from the University of Massachusetts.
- Wideout Demetrius Williams is listed at 202 pounds, five more than last year. He moved well, showing no signs of the foot and Achilles injuries that have bothered him. However, cornerbacks Frank Walker and Chris Carr knocked passes away from him on consecutive 7-on-7 plays at one point.
- Free-agent tight end pickup LJ Smith false-started during a skeleton drill, but made up for it by making a leaping catch down the seam minutes later. Sixth-round running back Cedric Peerman also made a similar catch.
- While doing sideline work, McGahee took snaps in the "Suggs" formation, the Ravens' version of the "Wildcat." Troy Smith lined up wide on several plays in another "Suggs" variation, which saw John Beck run a quarterback draw.
- Beck's cadence forced rookie defensive lineman Will Johnson (Michigan) to jump offsides.
- Given the team's precarious wideout situation, the fans obviously want to see Mark Clayton succeed. Clayton made a backwards leaping catch of a deep Joe Flacco pass, to the crowd's delight.
- Carr and Walker each did a fine job covering receivers running end-zone routes from inside the opponents' 15-yard line.
- During the field-goal drills, backup long snapper Bryan Mattison uncorked a high snap that Clayton deftly fielded before holding the ball for the kick.
- Kicker Graham Gano missed two of four kicks, including one from 30 yards. Before practice began, the Florida State graduate traded good-natured barbs with a fan in a Florida Gators shirt.
REMEMBERING JIM: Harbaugh and the rest of the football world were saddened late Tuesday afternoon by the passing of former Philadelphia Eagles coordinator Jim Johnson, who succumbed to cancer at the age of 68.
Harbaugh joined the Eagles' staff in 1998 and Johnson, known for his aggressive, blitzing schemes, arrived in Philadelphia one year later. The two worked together until Harbaugh was named the Ravens' head coach in 2008.
Earlier this summer, Johnson was granted a leave of absence to deal with his illness.
“I loved Jim Johnson. This is a sad day for so many people who were touched by this great man," Harbaugh said in a statement. "(My wife) Ingrid and I, the Harbaugh family, and the Ravens have Jim’s wife, Vicky, and the Johnson family in our thoughts and prayers.
"Jim was a tremendous teacher of football and life. He had a special ability to bring out the best in people while getting you to see the best in yourself. He saw potential and developed it. He made me believe I could coach at this level. In football, he was a pioneering and brilliant strategist, changing the way defense is played in the NFL. For me, he was a father-type mentor, and above all, a cherished friend.
"He belongs in the Hall of Fame. I will miss him so much.”
CHIEF CONCERNS: Of course, everything the Ravens have done and will do in the offseason and training camp is focused on one objective: winning the Week One home opener against Kansas City.
The Ravens and Chiefs have met four times, with the road team winning every game. This will be the teams' fourth meeting in Baltimore.
The Chiefs have several players eligible for inclusion in our occasional "Alumni Report" feature.
Their first-round pick in 2008, tackle Branden Albert, is a Glen Burnie High graduate. Not only that, the roster also sports ex-Ravens receivers Devard Darling and Terrance Copper. Undrafted free-agent tackle Cameron Goldberg (Duke) grew up in Owings Mills.
The wide receivers coach is former NFL journeyman wideout Dedric Ward, who played in Baltimore in 2003.
Kansas City also boasts stud running back Larry Johnson, the last man to gain 100 rushing yards in a game against the Ravens. He did it in December, 2006, a staggering 35 regular-season games ago.
The Chiefs also have several players that used to dot the rosters of Baltimore's AFC North Division rivals, such as ex-Pittsburgh cornerback Ricardo Colclough, former Steelers punter Dustin Colquitt (son of ex-Pittsburgh punter Craig Colquitt) and former Cincinnati offensive linemen Eric Ghiaciuc and Mike Goff.
Kansas City and Baltimore also have something obscure in common: the teams have each taken the last player in a draft, known as "Mr. Irrelevant."
For the Ravens, it was tight end Cam Quayle in 1998. The Chiefs took South Carolina kicker Ryan Succop with the final draft pick this year.
PICKS ROUNDUP: Here's how the major preseason magazines see the upcoming season, with Super Bowl predictions and where they feel the Ravens will finish:
USA TODAY -- Pittsburgh over Philadelphia; Ravens as wild-card team
The Sporting News -- New York Giants over New England; Ravens as wild-card team
Lindy's -- San Diego over Philadelphia; Ravens as wild-card team
Athlon's -- New England over Philadelphia; Ravens to finish second and miss playoffs
Pro Football Weekly -- New England over New York Giants; Ravens to finish second and miss playoffs
Beckett -- Philadelphia over Pittsburgh; Ravens as wild-card team (NOTE: Beckett picks are consensus of several experts, one of which picked Ravens to win Super Bowl)
PressBox -- Coming in late August...
FOR THE BETTOR: The Las Vegas Sports Consultants recently adjusted their January odds for teams to make it to Super Bowl XLIV.
The adjustments, made in late June, include a downgrade of the Ravens' chances from 11-1 to 15-1. Remember, that doesn't even take into account the retirement announcements of Mason and Bennett.
LVSC felt even better about the New England Patriots' chances in the summer than they did in winter, moving them from 6-1 favorites to 4-1.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are the second favorites, moving from 7-1 to 15-2.
As far as other teams of local interest are concerned, the Washington Redskins held steady at 25-1, the Cincinnati Bengals remained at 75-1 and the Cleveland Browns actually saw their odds improve, from 60-1 to 50-1.
IN THE COMMUNITY: The Ravens' All-Community Team Foundation didn't rest in the offseason, doling out over $100,000 in grants to nearly two dozen non-profit organizations through its three-year-old Plan in Motion program.
Plan in Motion is a program that is attempting to encourage healthy activities for children and continuing their motivation to be physically fit.
Organizations that received the money include recreation and parks departments in Annapolis and Baltimore, the Maryland School for the Blind, the Kennedy-Krieger Institute and the Greater Baltimore Tennis Patrons.
QUOTE OF THE DAY: As he reported to the team hotel, quarterback Joe Flacco was understandably concerned about wide receiver Derrick Mason's status, since the two developed quite a rapport last season.
However, the sudden retirement of newly-signed Drew Bennett didn't faze the second-year signal-caller nearly as much. In fact, he got the news of Bennett's retirement not from a television or newspaper report, but from someone much more reliable.
"My mom told me about it," Flacco said with a smile. "So, I said, 'Oh, OK.'"
LET US KNOW: What do you think of the daily Ravens Report, or, for that matter, the Ravens material in the PressBox monthly print edition?
Is there stuff in there you like, don't like or would like to see more of?
Let us know what you think by either leaving a comment in the space provided below or e-mailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we'll occasionally list and answer the best and most compelling questions and comments right here.
TRIVIA TIME ANSWER: Both of them would eventually play for the Ravens, and that probably gives you a good idea which two signal-callers we're talking about.
The first was Kordell Stewart, who sneaked in from one yard out in the September 6, 1998, stadium opener that saw the Pittsburgh Steelers record a 20-13 win over the Ravens.
The next came four games later when Tennessee Titans quarterback Steve McNair weaved his way through the Ravens' defense for a 40-yard touchdown, a score that proved pivotal in the Titans' 12-8 win.
McNair wasn't totally flawless that day, however, as defensive end and current Ravens radio analyst Rob Burnett sacked him for a safety for the game's first points.
ABOUT JOE PLATANIA
Ravens beat writer Joe Platania, 45, is a Baltimore native and has been a multi-award-winning sports journalist for 30 years, covering many different sports at all levels with insight, humor, a near-photographic memory and a keen, prescient eye.
A longtime member of the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association and the Pro Football Writers Association of America, Platania (pluh-TAN-ee-uh) will in 2009 enter his 16th season covering pro football, having manned the CFL Stallions beat for The Avenue Newspaper Group of Essex and the Ravens beat for The Avenue as well as several other publications and radio stations.
He is one of only three Baltimore-based print reporters to have covered the Ravens during their entire history.
Platania is a four-time Maryland-Delaware-District of Columbia Press Association award winner and was named Maryland Sportscaster of the Year in 1998 for his work on WCBM-AM (680).