Confirming rumors that had been swirling for the past couple of weeks, Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees met with the team Jan. 1 and announced his retirement, drawing an emotional response from Ravens players and leaving the organization with a major void as it tries to move on after a stunningly abrupt end to the 2017 season.
The Ravens (9-7) were knocked out of playoff contention in the final minute of the season by the Cincinnati Bengals when the Bengals scored on a 49-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-12 for a 31-27 win New Year's Eve.
As players returned to the team's Owings Mills, Md., facility for final team meetings and to clean out their lockers the next morning, Pees, 68, informed them of his decision to step away from the game that has been his career since he first began working as a high school coach at Elmwood High School in Ohio in 1973.
"I told them that after 45 years of football, 680 games, over 6,000 practices, that I've decided to retire from coaching," Pees said as he met with the media. "It's been a great, great run."
Pees has been with the Ravens since 2010, when he was hired as linebackers coach. He was promoted to defensive coordinator in 2012, the year the Ravens won their second Super Bowl title.
Before his stint in Baltimore, Pees spent six seasons with the New England Patriots after stops at seven colleges. That included a job as Navy's secondary coach from 1987-89. In 1983, Pees was the defensive coordinator at Miami of Ohio, where one of his defensive backs was Ravens head coach John Harbaugh.
"We love Dean. I love Dean. Great person, great coach," Harbaugh said in a statement released by the team after Pees' retirement announcement. "Innovative, thorough, mentor, teacher and friend. How fortunate for us to have him with the Ravens. Look at his record. It is historically good. Dean coached me as a senior in college, and he has influenced me ever since."
Pees said he has been considering retirement during the past year, and one thing that influenced his decision was the death of former Ravens assistant coach Clarence Brooks, who died at age 65 in 2016 after a year-long battle with cancer.
"You just never know when you're time's gonna come," Pees said, adding that Brooks' death "hit me hard. I started thinking about the rest of my life, and how many more years do any of us have?"
He stressed that while still mobile and healthy he wanted to spend more time with his wife, Melody, and their six children and grandchildren.
Known for disguising his defenses and for innovative schemes, Pees led a Ravens defense that ranked in the top 10 overall from 2014-2016. This year, the Ravens' defense finished 12th overall. But after the Ravens invested heavily in both free agency and the draft on the defensive side of the ball, expectations were high for this group, and the results were uneven.
The Ravens led the league in interceptions (22) and posted three shutouts, one shy of the franchise record. But they also allowed 231 yards rushing by the Chicago Bears, the most ever by a Ravens opponent, and Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger torched them for 506 yards during a 39-38 Week 14 Steelers win.
The way Baltimore's season finale concluded -- with the highly touted defense surrendering a last-minute touchdown pass to cap a 90-yard drive by the Bengals -- was a stunning end for the Ravens and for Pees.
Still, as players cleared out their lockers the morning after that loss, many veterans reflected on the impact Pees had on their careers.
"That's an emotional one," cornerback Lardarius Webb said. "I spent eight years with Dean Pees. He's always been there. Everything I know is because of Dean Pees. He's a great one. He's the one I think should have a statue. He's an amazing guy. ... We're gonna miss him. The NFL is gonna miss him."
"The passion he's given myself, and obviously the players of this organization over his time here has been utmost," safety Eric Weddle said. "I hold him in a high regard. ... He never, ever threw a player under the bus, and as players, when you have a coach like that you'll do whatever it takes, you'll run through a wall for him."
"He's gonna be missed, man," Weddle said. "He's a guy that we all look up to."
Historically, the Ravens have promoted from within when filling a defensive coordinator vacancy. Pees got the job after Chuck Pagano left, and he, too, had been promoted from within to that role. So too had Greg Mattison before him, and Rex Ryan before that.
If that tradition holds, linebackers coach Don "Wink" Martindale could be in line for a promotion. He has been instrumental in the development of Pro Bowl linebacker C.J. Mosley, as well as former Ravens linebacker Zach Orr and others. As he cleared out his locker, Mosley said he'd like to see Martindale get the job.
External candidates could include Pagano, who was fired as the Indianapolis Colts head coach Dec. 31, and Jack Del Rio, who was the linebackers coach with the Ravens during their first Super Bowl run.
As for Pees, he said next year on football Sundays he plans to "root for the Ravens." But, he said, "I am not gonna second-guess anything. I've had enough of that in my lifetime."