OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Trying to define Derrick Mason’s 15-year career in the NFL isn’t easy, let alone determining where he fits in the pantheon of great players in the history of the Baltimore Ravens.
His overall numbers suggest some level of consideration for the Hall of Fame — ranking 11th in receptions in NFL history — but Mason never stood out as one of the elite receivers in football at any point during his career despite two Pro Bowl appearances (2000 and 2003), an impression that will very likely leave him out of Canton. Mason will probably find himself included in the Ravens’ Ring of Honor at M&T Bank Stadium one day, but even that notion is debated by some.
His arrival in Baltimore was divided into two parts. His first three years included the best regular-season mark in franchise history (a 13-3 record in 2006), a reunion with former Tennessee Titans teammate Steve McNair, and two underachieving seasons for Baltimore in 2005 and 2007 that ultimately led to the dismissal of coach Brian Billick. Mason also set the Ravens’ single-season record with 103 receptions in 2007.
His final three years with the Ravens brought three straight playoff appearances under coach John Harbaugh and saw Mason become the franchise’s all-time leader in receptions and receiving yards.
But Mason’s true legacy sat in the back of the auditorium during the 38-year-old’s retirement press conference on Monday afternoon. Though entering his fifth season and a year removed from having his “safety net” as so many liked to label Mason, current franchise quarterback Joe Flacco wouldn’t have found instant success as a rookie without the 5-foot-10 veteran wideout reining in his passes.
“Over the 17 years that we have been here, we’ve signed a lot of free agents, a lot of them,” general manager Ozzie Newsome said. “But I don’t know if there was any one player over the span of their career that did more for this organization than Derrick Mason did.”
Of course, Harbaugh never planned for Flacco to start from Day One in 2008, but a shoulder injury to Kyle Boller and a tonsil infection to backup Troy Smith gave the Ravens no other choice but to send the quarterback of the future to the huddle immediately. Fortunately, a 34-year-old Mason was there to meet him as the Ravens embarked on one of the most surprising seasons in franchise history, finishing 11-5 and advancing to the AFC Championship game with a quarterback who was taking snaps at the University of Delaware a year earlier.
While no one is more responsible for his success than Flacco himself, having a bona fide go-to receiver at his disposal made the transition from an FCS school to the AFC North far easier in his rookie season. It was a luxury previous first-round quarterback and eventual bust Kyle Boller didn’t have in his rookie season five years earlier.
Mason accounted for 80 catches in Flacco’s rookie season, and the two perfected the sideline route as the passing game’s bread and butter.
“Derrick was a guy you could count on,” Harbaugh said. “I think Derrick was a guy who was going to be where he was supposed to be. He was going to run a great route. We’ve said it before, I’ve never seen a better route-runner. Cam [Cameron] has said it. And for a young quarterback to have trust that it was going to be the right depth, he was going to come out of his break quickly, he was going to be where Joe expected he was going to be and he was going to catch the ball, I would think that’s pretty good being a quarterback to understand that.
“Right out of the gates, it just seemed like those two guys had a chemistry, which is pretty amazing.”
Though many criticized Mason’s presence in his final season, insisting the training wheels needed to be removed for Flacco to take his game to the next level with the acquisition of new No. 1 receiver Anquan Boldin, Mason caught 61 passes for 802 yards and seven touchdowns in his final season in Baltimore. However, that year was marred by an ugly incident in Carolina where the quarterback and receiver got into an altercation on the sideline — an event that still leaves a bad taste in some fans’ mouths.
But the quarterback attending the press conference and Mason’s unprovoked words about his former teammate put any thought of lingering hard feelings to rest on Monday afternoon.