The Charm City is abuzz over the Ravens’ preseason finale with the Atlanta Falcons on Thursday night.
With a victory in the Georgia Dome, the Ravens would complete a perfect 4-0 preseason and immediately stamp their ticket for Miami in early February. After all, the 2000 Baltimore Ravens went 4-0 in the preseason and eventually raised the Lombardi Trophy at Super Bowl XXXV in Tampa. The stars are already aligning in the Ravens’ favor, right?
Alright, you caught me. I can already hear the groans and see the collective rolling of eyes.
Yes, the Detroit Lions finished a 4-0 preseason a year ago and went on to complete a perfect—or imperfect—0-16 season.
And, on the surface, watching the fourth—and final—preseason game sounds about as appealing as attending an Orioles-Yankees game at Camden Yards in early September.
No one will remember the winner or the final score beyond the weekend, but if you look deeper and from a different perspective, you’ll find an otherwise hollow exhibition filled with consequence and meaning for both the Baltimore Ravens and a number of individuals struggling to secure a job in one of the most cutthroat businesses in the entire world.
For those focused solely on the team and its chances to improve upon a successful 2008 campaign that ended just minutes shy of the Super Bowl, Thursday night marks the last chance to evaluate potential contributors to the 2009 roster.
It will be the final exam for the kicking battle between Steve Hauschka and rookie Graham Gano. Though Hauschka owns the clear advantage, both kickers have wilted at different points in the preseason, causing fans to daydream—and some to even pray—about the potential return of Matt Stover.
For these two—and special teams coach Jerry Rosburg—Thursday is a high-stakes playoff game. And as much as we quip over the labeling of a kicker as a “true” football player, his leg can make or break an entire season.
Just ask Al Del Greco or Scott Norwood.
Others may not be engaged in a marquee battle, but the competition is just as intense.
Many players fighting for few precious spots may seem relatively anonymous now, but the strong likelihood of at least one or two of these unknowns becoming the center of attention—good or bad—at some point during the season cannot be overlooked.
It was only last year that Jameel McClain was an undrafted rookie linebacker from Syracuse clawing for a job on the 53-man roster going into the final preseason game. And after a couple of safeties and key special teams contributions as a rookie, he is now only an injury away from starting at inside linebacker for one of the best defenses in the NFL.
And who can honestly say they knew who Anthony Mitchell was before he snatched a blocked field goal attempt out of the air and galloped 90 yards for the game-winning touchdown against Tennessee in January 2001? Mitchell spent almost two full seasons in anonymity before his shining moment.
In all likelihood, one of these fringe players flying beneath the radar will swing the momentum in the Ravens’ favor (Mitchell) or crush a golden opportunity (Daren Stone in Pittsburgh, anyone?) at some point this season. Who will it be?
And shifting the focus away from the actual football team and the lucrative money involved in professional football, we have a group of young men trying to fulfill a lifelong dream. Sure, they’ve made a little money in the month of August, but it’s a far cry from the signing bonus inked by Pro Bowl linebacker Terrell Suggs in July.
For many of these players, Thursday night is the final opportunity to wear a Ravens uniform and to show enough skill to remain in Baltimore or garner the attention of one of the other 31 NFL teams.
Some will catch on elsewhere, whether in the NFL, UFL, or Canada. But for others, Thursday will mark the end of a boyhood dream, and it will be time to move on to the next phase of their lives—away from the football field.
Whether you’re an average laborer or a world-class athlete, it stings to hear that you’re not good enough or that your services are no longer needed. And that’s the exact message coach John Harbaugh will have to deliver to many players over the weekend.
As much as we try to remove the human element from the multimillion-dollar business of professional sports and sometimes treat athletes like emotionless machines, these guys have dreams that will ultimately fall short. And in that sense, Thursday night will bring some sadness.
So if you’re grasping for any reason to stay tuned to a meaningless preseason finale on a work night, root for these fringe players—and yes, they ARE Ravens, even if not for much longer—fighting for their football lives and trying to hold onto a dream very similar to the one you or I may have had as a kid. Most of them are good guys, humble and hard workers who are just starving for the chance to play in the NFL.
A few will fulfill that dream Thursday night while others will have to wonder what comes next in their lives.
A meaningless game?
Only on the surface.