By Aaron Wilson
The Baltimore Sun
9:48 PM EST, December 27, 2012
Holding court inside the Ravens' locker room Thursday, veteran free safety Ed Reed was in no hurry to head toward the exit door.
Reed is following a similar unrushed, stress-free approach toward addressing his uncertain future with the team after 11 seasons.
With his six-year, $44.4 million contract expiring at the end of this season and Reed scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent for the first time, the former NFL Defensive Player of the Year is acting like a man who's savoring every moment of his time with the Ravens.
In a wide-ranging interview, infrequent for Reed during the middle of a week, he appeared unconcerned about his immediate plans beyond preparation for Sunday's regular-season finale against the Cincinnati Bengals and the ensuing playoffs.
"I'm not thinking about that right now," Reed said when asked if this could be the end of his tenure with the AFC North champions. "My focus is finishing the season off right now and prepare for the playoffs and go from there as far as my future. It's all about the near future. It's not about the offseason or anything like that."
It's been an uneven year for Reed, marked by flashes of the impactful, big-play skills he's displayed since he was drafted by the Ravens in the first round in 2002. The 34-year-old has intercepted four passes this season and was named to his ninth Pro Bowl on Wednesday, though his selection was ripped by some critics who felt San Diego Chargers safety Eric Weddle was more deserving.
Reed has also dealt with a few embarrassing lapses, like his slow reaction to Denver Broncos wide receiver Eric Decker's double-move stutter-step pattern for a touchdown two weeks ago. He was literally hurdled by Philadelphia Eagles tight end Brent Celek and Broncos running back Knowshon Moreno and roughly stiff-armed by Dallas Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray and wide receiver Dez Bryant.
Reed acknowledged that he doesn't have the same mobility as he did when he entered the NFL out of Miami, laughing and smiling when asked about his range.
"It's definitely not what it used to be when I was 24 versus 34 right now," Reed said. "That's where the mental part comes into it. You slow down physically, but mentally you get a lot stronger and you understand the game more, which allows me to play the game a certain way and put myself in different situations."
'Ed's lost a step'
Reed has dealt with durability issues in recent seasons. He's been hampered by a painful nerve impingement in his neck and shoulder and played through the discomfort of a torn shoulder labrum this year.
But he hasn't missed a game this season.
Reed contends with the usual travails of an older player: the loss of speed with the natural advancement of age.
"Ed's lost a step," said NFL Network analyst Charley Casserly, a former Washington Redskins and Houston Texans general manager. "They all do, but you make up for that with instincts. I don't see the big, game-changing plays you used to see from him. It may be a little tougher for him to take some of his gambles that he did in the past."
Although Reed has 58 tackles, 15 pass deflections and three fumble recoveries, he has no sacks this season and hasn't forced a fumble for the first time in five seasons.
"At some point, you wear down," said former Ravens coach Brian Billick, now a FOX television analyst. "I think the physicality of the game for Ed has gotten to the point where there are lingering effects, but he's certainly still an impact player.
"He's respected so much around the league with his ability to disrupt the passing game. Normally, it's hard to have that kind of impact at free safety. He's transcended that. He's going to be a Hall of Fame player."
In the third game of the season, Reed delivered a punishing hit to New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman in the end zone to break up a potential touchdown pass. He was also flagged for an illegal hit in that game for his crushing helmet-to-helmet tackle on wide receiver Deion Branch, earning him a fine.
Since that game, Reed hasn't tackled nearly as crisply, and he's had trouble bringing down runners in the open field.
"I don't think he's tackled very well," former NFL safety Matt Bowen said. "Was Ed Reed ever the best tackler? No, he's a playmaker. He can be beat and still recover and make the play. He has such great instincts to go get the ball. He takes great angles. Ed Reed finishes plays and he's still feared by quarterbacks."
Reed avidly studies game tape, spending countless hours in darkened rooms watching opponents to glean tips and derive detailed scouting reports.
At this stage of his career, the Louisiana native is relying on all of his knowledge to get the job done.
"Unfortunately, that happens to all of us," said former Jacksonville Jaguars All-Pro offensive tackle Tony Boselli, who's called Ravens games for Dial Global Sports radio. "The mind is trying to tell the body what to do, but the body doesn't listen. That's part of getting older, but Ed's still an outstanding player who has great value in the secondary. He just can't do the things he once did."
Peyton Manning was the quarterback who lobbed the football past Reed and cornerback Cary Williams to hit Decker in stride for a touchdown during a Dec. 16 game at M&T Bank Stadium.
And Manning remains assured that Reed is still on top of his game.
"He is the best safety in the league, and has been really for this past decade," Manning said. "Shoot, you can kind of go on and on: unbelievable ball skills, unbelievable range, great hands. You can tell what kind of athlete he is because of what he's done once he's got the ball in his hands, returning them for touchdowns. Smart player, the list goes on and on."
Although Reed has piled up 661 career tackles, 61 interceptions, six sacks, a dozen forced fumbles and 10 fumble recoveries with a total of 14 touchdowns, he insists he still has unfinished business ahead of him.
Reed indicated that he isn't thinking about walking away from the game.
"Not even thinking about that right now, not even talking about that right now," Reed said. "That's not my concern. I know physically I feel like I can play, but also physically I have concerns for my life after football."
According to two sources, Reed was fined $55,000 on Thursday for an illegal hit on wide receiver Victor Cruz during the Ravens' 33-14 win over the New York Giants. Reed led with his shoulder and made glancing contact with Cruz's facemask, but he was punished for unnecessary roughness for striking a defenseless player in the helmet and neck area.
Reed was initially suspended by the league for one game without pay earlier this season for his illegal hit on Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders. One day later, the suspension was overturned and replaced with a $50,000 fine.
"It's an interesting situation," Reed said Thursday prior to learning of the fine. "I just play the game. I let them make those decisions."
Besides having to adjust to changes to the NFL rulebook with the league's renewed emphasis on player safety, Reed is having to work harder every offseason to do preventative maintenance on his battle-scarred body.
That's what he credits for his longevity, along with the guidance of Ravens inside linebacker Ray Lewis.
"My work ethic has been probably the biggest thing I can attribute that to," Reed said. "Growing up watching Michael Jordan, knowing what he had to go through, knowing who I idol myself after, having friends like Ray when I came into this game, to have the older guys take you under their wing and talk professionalism with you. It's been just a blessing to come this far. ...
"The ailments I have to deal with as a player, for me to play all 16 games, I'm doing what I was supposed to do with my doctor in the offseason and maintaining myself. I'm doing the right things physically. It's something I take pride in. I'm glad my body is holding up and bouncing back with the ailments I have right now."
The Ravens will have several important decisions to make after the season, among them is what to do about Reed.
The Ravens broached the idea of a contract extension for Reed last year, but talks went nowhere because Reed doesn't have an agent after firing his last representative. Talks are still nonexistent as Reed waits to hire an agent at some point after the season.
If the Ravens sign quarterback Joe Flacco to a long-term deal and don't have to use a $14.6 million franchise tag to hold onto him, they could retain Reed by making him their franchise player at a cost of $6.798 million.
It's unclear how Reed would react to being franchised, but it's unlikely he would be happy about that development.
"Ed's meant a lot to that team," Casserly said. "Whether he comes back next year will depend on what he wants for money. Most of the time it's not an advantage talking to the player without an agent. It can be too delicate to discuss the player's performance. Sometimes, that can be tough."
Reed — regarded as a lock to be named to the Hall of Fame one day — was adamant that he's not thinking about his contract or his legacy.
"I try not to think about that because that's down the line," Reed said. "It's nothing when you're on the field like there's a bubble over your head that says, 'He's a Hall of Famer, don't throw his way,' even though it's kind of there. There's nothing you can take to the football field at any given moment that gives you that respect that guys won't come your way or jump over you."
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