OWINGS MILLS, Md. — No matter what lies ahead for the Ravens in the final four weeks of the regular season, 2014 has been a year to forget.
Thursday brought the latest reminder with the news of five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata being suspended four games for testing positive for Adderall.
The black cloud from the Ray Rice saga that continues to linger nearly three months after his release, four other offseason player arrests, the season-ending injuries to Dennis Pitta and Jimmy Smith, and one of their longest-tenured players and a team leader being busted for violating the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy just days before the biggest game of the season in Miami.
“It does feel like it’s always something, but, shoot, that’s life,” wide receiver Torrey Smith said. “Stuff pops up all the time. It’s all about how you deal with it. If Haloti’s back, we’ll be looking back at it like, ‘Alright, that’s something we already brushed off.’ Again, we’ll be in the playoffs [then].”
The loss of Ngata for the rest of the regular season hurts, but it doesn’t necessarily doom the Ravens’ chances of making the playoffs as they’ll now turn to a deep group of defensive linemen led by rookie second-round pick Timmy Jernigan. The league’s fourth-ranked run defense certainly takes a hit, but it’s not unreasonable to expect younger options to step in and do a respectable job in Ngata’s place.
News of the suspension was surprising as it was such a lapse in judgment from a nine-year veteran who has served as one of the Ravens’ most prominent leaders and has earned a positive reputation in the locker room and in the local community. In addition to the stigma of being linked to performance-enhancing drugs — even if it is Adderall — tainting Ngata’s impeccable career, failing a drug test in his ninth year reeks of foolishness more than anything else.
“We know the rules and we have to abide by them,” rookie linebacker C.J. Mosley said. “It is what it is. We have to move on. We just wish the best for him and hope we make it to the playoffs so we can have him back.”
After enduring the loss of Jimmy Smith in late October, the Ravens have now suffered a major blow to the defense up front where they have been robust enough to help account for arguably the worst secondary in franchise history en route to a 7-5 record. From a mental standpoint, the Ravens must handle Ngata’s absence in the same way they would an injury, but his self-inflicted blow certainly can’t sit well with his teammates.
Whether we see the big defensive tackle again this season now falls on the shoulders of a roster that’s endured more than its share of off-field turmoil.
“It was definitely difficult to hear,” Torrey Smith said. “He’s expressed how disappointed he is. I know he’s hurt for it, and we’re going to be hurt by it. We have a lot of guys who have the ability and they’ve got to step up. That’s the philosophy around here.”
To their credit, the Ravens have held true to that mindset as they responded to Rice’s release with a convincing Thursday night win over Pittsburgh in Week 2. The organization continues to come under scrutiny from top to bottom for its handling of the Rice situation, but you’ve never gotten the sense that it’s impacted the play on the field, especially with such a surprising season from veteran Justin Forsett.
The Ravens lost Pitta for a second straight year and then Smith — their most important defensive player — and have still remained within striking distance of the playoffs as they enter the final quarter of the season.
Regardless of what happens the rest of the way, head coach John Harbaugh and his players deserve credit for navigating through such rough waters in 2014.
But at some point, it’s human nature to throw your hands up and wonder if it’s just not your year.
“We’ve dealt with adversity throughout the course of the season in one form or another,” defensive end Chris Canty said. “We’ll step up and meet the challenge. We’ll try to put ourselves in the best position we can to be successful.”
You wonder when enough will be enough.