The words voluntary and veterans do not cross paths very often in the NFL.
Just take a look at the voluntary OTAs (Organized Team Activities) around the league, and you’ll find a plethora of veterans exercising the choice to skip passing camps. After all, these camps are really designed with rookies and young players in mind, players trying to make a strong early impression with the coaching staff. In reality, you don’t expect to see Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, or Trevor Pryce at these voluntary camps.
You wouldn’t know it by taking a look at the Ravens’ attendance this week.
With the only notable absences being Haloti Ngata (taking college classes) and Terrell Suggs—who has yet to sign his franchise tender and is technically not under contract—the Ravens appear hungry to build upon a surprising 2008 season in which they were only a late touchdown drive away in Pittsburgh from going to the Super Bowl.
It would be easy to rest on their laurels. After all, the future looks bright with an apparent franchise quarterback finally in place and a returning core of dominant players on both sides of the ball.
Perhaps it’s a fear of repeating what happened in 2007 that’s causing the high attendance. After an outstanding 13-3 season with quarterback Steve McNair at the helm in 2006, the injuries mounted as the Ravens fell to 5-11, costing Brian Billick his job in the process.
One of the biggest criticisms facing an otherwise stellar organization has been its inability to win in successive years. The Ravens have not posted back-to-back winning seasons since 2003 (10-6) and 2004 (9-7).
Whether it was complacency, injuries, bad luck, or a combination of the three causing this past inconsistency, the veterans’ attendance at this week’s voluntary camp shows a commitment to sustaining and building on the success of John Harbaugh’s first season in Baltimore. The honeymoon period of a coach’s first season typically brings high attendance, but this year’s turnout indicates the veterans have really bought into Harbaugh’s program.
Lewis is the perfect example. The future Hall of Famer said all the right things in Harbaugh’s first year but was also seeking a new contract at the end of the season. It’s easy to be the team player and the coach’s top advocate when you’re trying to secure a big payday. In fact, doing anything else would be foolish.
Fast forward to this year. Lewis has received the new contract—though not nearly as lucrative as he had hoped—but was still out there running around with the starting defense this week. The veteran linebacker could have easily elected to skip camp, something he has done in past seasons.
Lewis’ attendance not only sends the message that he believes in the head coach and new defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, but it also shows the rookies and young players how important it is to be there for OTAs. Not surprisingly, these young men pay attention to what a 10-time Pro Bowl linebacker says and does. It sets a precedent that will carry into next year and beyond.
OTAs allow the new players to become acquainted with one another. In this modern age of free agency, roster turnover is high, so any opportunity for players to start building relationships prior to the regular season will only benefit when the team is fighting injuries and adversity later in the season.
Does the good attendance guarantee the Ravens will make the playoffs again in 2009? Of course not. In the long run, these practices are little more than a blip on the map of a team’s long journey to the Super Bowl.
But this voluntary commitment is a good indication of how serious this team is about building on last season’s success.