Terrell Davis remembers the feeling after tight end Shannon Sharpe left the Denver Broncos and joined the Ravens before the 2000 season. He vividly recalls the uncomfortable silence in the huddle and on the sideline, the blank looks exchanged between teammates, the lack of smiles and laughs that had been so commonplace even during trying times.
"I'm telling you, it stripped our offense and basically our team of a personality and an identity when he left," said Davis, who rushed for 7,607 yards and scored 65touchdowns in seven seasons with the Broncos. "It was amazing. I had never experienced that before. You're looking around in our team meetings, and it's quiet, and it's the same way walking into the huddle. John Elway left, too, but even when John left, we still had a personality and an identity with our offense, and Shannon was that guy. When Shannon left, it was night and day. It just didn't feel right."
Davis, now an analyst for NFL Network, likes the additions the Ravens have made since last season, but there is one factor that gives him pause. It's not the absence of Ray Lewis, the middle linebacker. It's the absence of Ray Lewis, the vocal and emotional team leader.
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"I don't think it's overblown at all because I've experienced it," Davis said. "Ray's name was bigger than his play the last couple of years, but when you take him out of that defense, the intangibles that he brings, the accountability that he holds players to, that's a wild card to me."
The Ravens officially will start the post-Lewis and -Ed Reed era on Thursday night against the Denver Broncos in the NFL regular-season opener. By now, the shock of not having Lewis and Reed has worn off; the current Ravens feel they have plenty of veteran leadership to fill the void left by the two franchise stalwarts.
However, to some outside the organization, there remains a lingering question about how the Ravens will react on the field when things inevitably go wrong, when momentum shifts away and motivation is needed. That's where Lewis and Reed did some of their best work over the years.
"I don't think it's a concern, but I think it is a question," said former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher, now an "NFL on CBS" analyst. "Until you face a little adversity, until you get into October and November and you play in the big games, you just don't know who is going to step forward. Every year, your team takes on a new identity, and part of that identity are the people that step up and take ownership of their team. They did lose some players that people looked to step up and say something in the huddle, on the practice field, in the locker room. A lot of those bodies are gone."
End of an era
The unprecedented offseason roster exodus for a Super Bowl champion included center Matt Birk (retired), wide receiver Anquan Boldin (traded) and safety Bernard Pollard (released). All were members of the leadership council that met regularly with coach John Harbaugh last season. All were willing to challenge coaches or chastise teammates if necessary.
But Lewis and Reed were different. They were the faces of the franchise for more than a decade, synonymous with the team's defensive excellence. Their personalities loomed over everything.
"It's going to be a huge vacuum without Ray there. The chemistry in the locker room without Ray, without Ed Reed, people are going to have to fill those roles," said Phil Savage, an executive with the Ravens from 1996 to 2004. "That's going to be the bigger question. Who are going to be those [three-] to seven-year veterans who can be leaned on to take ownership of that team?"
Though his dancing, chest thumping and Bible quoting earned him some outside criticism, Lewis was deeply admired by his teammates for his passion and preparation during his 17-year career. Teammates believed nobody worked harder or cared more. And he was a sounding board not just for Ravens, but also for opponents.
The mercurial Reed, now a Houston Texan after 11 seasons in Baltimore, was every bit as respected and revered as Lewis for his study habits, athletic gifts and willingness to help young players.
"I believe the guys they have on defense can definitely step up and do it, but you're talking about legends, guys who are both Hall of Famers and among the best to ever play the game," said former Ravens outside linebacker Peter Boulware, who played eight seasons with Lewis and three with Reed. "What you do on the field is half of it. How you carry yourself, what you do in the locker room is another part of it. One of the reasons they have been good year after year is they've had great leadership."
Not everybody agrees that it should be a concern. Former NFL defensive lineman Trevor Pryce, who played with the Ravens for parts of five seasons from 2006 to 2010, called the leadership questions "completely overblown."
"The leader of the team is John Harbaugh, and he has no problem telling you that. He's the guy in charge," Pryce said. "Fans are going to miss their leadership. The players are just going to miss them as people. That's how it is. Ray doesn't set the practice schedule. Ray doesn't say who gets paid and who doesn't. They'll be fine. Trust me. The defense is not young. Haloti [Ngata] is almost is in his 30s. Terrell [Suggs] is in his 30s. These are not kids we are talking about."
"I think there was motivation for them to prove that it wasn't just Bill Walsh," Billick said. "I'm sure everyone in that organization loves, respects and admires Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. But it can become a subtle motivator for everybody to latch onto. Guys say, 'You know, we're pretty good, too.'"
While acknowledging that they miss all the veterans from last year's team, players and coaches insist that it's been business as usual. Questions about leadership have been shrugged aside almost as quickly as a training camp interception or blown assignment. Players point to Flacco, Ray Rice, Vonta Leach, Torrey Smith, Marshal Yanda and Michael Oher as leaders on offense and Suggs, Ngata, Lardarius Webb and Corey Graham as go-to guys on defense. Acquisitions Chris Canty, Elvis Dumervil, Daryl Smith and Michael Huff also have brought a veteran presence.