By Matt Vensel, The Baltimore Sun
8:08 PM EDT, October 11, 2013
Stirred from slumber, Tandon Doss looked at his phone the morning of Sept. 6 and saw the familiar 410 area code.
The Ravens were calling, but Doss had turned the page on a return. Too much bad blood. Too many raw nerves.
"I thought I was done here," Doss said Friday.
Back home in Indiana after being cut by the Ravens, Doss had been waiting for another opportunity to prove himself in the NFL. He had watched his old team lose its season opener the night before. And he knew about the knee injury Jacoby Jones had suffered only because a Ravens staffer had sent him a text message when it happened.
But during that wake-up call from Ravens director of pro personnel Vince Newsome, Doss decided that the best place to start the next phase of his career was back in Baltimore, where he had not met the expectations that came with being a fourth-round draft pick in 2011.
Now, after injuries to Jones and others presented another opportunity to prove himself, Doss is making plays and building confidence. Doss still has a long way to go, but with timely receptions and impactful punt returns, he has taken strides over the past four weeks.
"I knew what I wanted to do when I got into the league, and it feels good making plays," Doss said. "But obviously I've got a lot more work to do."
Doss scored on an 82-yard punt return against the Houston Texans, caught a career-high four passes against the Buffalo Bills and made his first NFL start last weekend against the Miami Dolphins. He has as many catches in the past two games as he did in his first two seasons in the league.
"It's been a great story, hasn't it?" coach John Harbaugh said.
Looking back on his first two seasons, Doss laments not dedicating himself to football. He remembers watching Ray Lewis and Ed Reed put in extra work at the team facility and veteran receiver Anquan Boldin talking about the time he spent at home on his iPad, viewing game tape and mastering the playbook. But he never followed suit.
Doss, who turned 24 last month, concedes that he didn't treat football like a profession in his first two NFL seasons. He says he has changed his approach after re-signing with the Ravens in Week 2, now asking more questions and scribbling down more notes.
"I was young when I came into the league. I'm still young," Doss said. "I thought that was all I would have to do: come in here, go to practice, catch some balls and go home and call it a day. My mind just wasn't there. I don't know why. But it took me a while to understand that this is my job."
Asked to provide a list of college prospects he would like to play with, quarterback Joe Flacco handpicked Doss in 2011. "Joe drafted me," Doss said, grinning as usual. But unlike fellow wide receiver Torrey Smith (Maryland), drafted two rounds earlier, Doss had to wait to make an impact.
Doss, who starred at Indiana before leaving after his junior year, did not catch a pass as a rookie and had just seven catches for 123 yards and a touchdown in 2012.
In the wild-card win over the Indianapolis Colts last January, Doss dropped two passes in the end zone. "From then on, he didn't trust me," he said of Flacco. Doss did not catch a pass during the postseason.
After Boldin was traded in the offseason, Doss had the opportunity to earn an expanded role. He developed a rapport with Flacco during offseason workouts and training camp. But when it didn't translate to preseason games, Doss became the target of criticism.
As Ravens rookies Marlon Brown and Aaron Mellette started playing with the first-team offense late in the preseason, Doss realized that his roster spot was in jeopardy. It still stung when Harbaugh sat him down and told him he was cut.
A couple of days later, Doss was in Green Bay to work out for the Packers, whom the Ravens host Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium.
"It was a little weird to put on another uniform and go into a different locker room," Doss said. "You just don't think it's going to happen to you."
Doss left without a contract and returned home to Indiana. Without the structure of football for the first time since he was a teenager, Doss found comfort in his family and relaxed. When Newsome and the Ravens called, six days after he was cut, his mind was in a better place.
In four games this season, Doss has seven catches for 105 yards. Flacco has thrown to him 14 times the past two weeks; only Smith has been targeted more. And Doss leads the NFL with an average of 16.7 yards per punt return.
"It's tough for him, because he's been on the team a couple years and hasn't gotten to really get thrown in there kind of like Torrey did his rookie year," Flacco said. "I think the fact that he's been able to come out here and play for us has just been huge for that development mentally. He's got all the physical tools, and you can see that. And I'm excited that we were able to get him back, and that he's been able to progress and do all those things, because I knew he was a good receiver, and it was just a matter of getting him out there and getting him the reps."
But will the reps continue to be there?
Jones and Brown could be healthy enough to return against the Packers and the Ravens this week brought back Brandon Stokley, who had been splitting third-down snaps with Doss, making the wide receiver competition as crowded as it has been since training camp.
And once Jones is back in the lineup, he could take return to his role as the starting punt returner.
Doss knows that his role and his roster spot are still not guaranteed. But now that he has a new lease on his football life in his second stint with the Ravens, he vows he won't take a single meeting, practice rep or game snap for granted.
"I can't control who is going to play Sunday and what the rotation is going to be," Doss said. "I still have to come to work and work hard each and every day."
Copyright © 2013, The Baltimore Sun