Chapter 17: The Last Ride of 52

July 02, 2018 | Nestor Aparicio

the season of his former pupils and boss John Harbaugh.

It was a playoff game. There was plenty of emotion and a rich, vivid storyline with all of the connections of Baltimore and Indianapolis, Harbaugh and Luck, Pagano and the Ravens. The Colts had also imported two coaches plus Cory Redding and Tom Zbikowski from the 2011 Ravens defense when Pagano took the job in Indy. This was a family affair with lots of relationships and tentacles.

Harbaugh’s mandate to get healthy during December, even as the Ravens endured a three-game losing streak while grooming younger players, seemed to have been a success. Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs were expected to line up next to each other for the first time since the AFC Championship Game. The Cincinnati game caused Vonta Leach to be nicked up, but Harbaugh expected to field his most complete team in weeks for the Colts with Jimmy Smith, Bryant McKinnie, and Haloti Ngata all getting healthier and stronger.

On Wednesday, the media reported to Owings Mills and with the playoffs narrowing the menu to just four NFL games during the first weekend of January, many national reporters flocked to Baltimore expecting to hear from Ray Lewis for the first time in more than two months. He had been mostly silent, spending most of November in Florida watching his son, who was a senior headed to The U like his dad to play football. Lewis joined the team for games on Sundays in November and supported the players via texts daily while he was rehabbing and returned fulltime to Baltimore in early December. Once he was back in Owings Mills, everyone could see he was using his right arm with ease. He was shaking hands with people, moving it around, not showing any signs of strain or pain. Newsome and Harbaugh had always hoped Ray would come back, but they didn’t necessarily believe he would. The team had played 10 games without him and eight without Suggs. Would it be simple, like riding a bike, with them back on the field together?

Pagano knew more than anyone what having Suggs and Lewis in the middle of the defense would mean for Baltimore. It essentially made useless any film study for Luck unless he was studying 2011 footage, which was Pagano’s defense anyway. The Ravens would play this game differently, and Dean Pees would call it differently with 52 and 55 running around.

“Sizzle and Ray, those are both guys that everybody in the league, all the 31 other teams would love to have on their defense,” Pagano said. “They’re great people, great players, great pros.”

Pagano remembers when he first came to the Ravens in 2008, watching Rex Ryan intimidate the college kids who would visit Owings Mills during pre-draft interviews with the towering expectations of playing next to Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata.

“We’d bring in 30 guys during March and April and we’d visit with them and Rex would show them the depth chart and look at those names,” Pagano said. “He’d tell them, ‘Here’s the expectations to be a Raven – work ethic, preparation, film study, practice, how we play the game.’ He’d say to these kids, ‘The bar here is sky high. And, hey, there’s 31 other teams that would love to have you. Being in Baltimore is not for everyone. Tell me now so we don’t make a mistake. Is this too big for you seeing Ray and Eddie, Haloti and Siz and J.J.? Every guy in that room is going to expect nothing less than this,’ ” Pagano said of Ryan, raising his right hand as far toward the sky as it could go.

Pagano laughs. “Rex would look them in the eyes and say it all sort of matter of factly. He’d say, ‘Just save us some anguish and a draft pick if you’re not going to make it here. And that’s, OK. You can go somewhere else and play. I’m sure some other team in the NFL will want you. But around here, that’s the standard.’ ”

After all, who wants to be the one who walks back the sideline and has to explain to Ray Lewis how he blew his assignment