Eleven days ago, Ravens coach John Harbaugh vowed to do “whatever it takes” to turn around a season headed in the wrong direction.
As Ravens’ players reported to the team facility Wednesday and learned of the release of defensive end Marcus Spears and free safety Michael Huff, two veterans signed this past offseason as part of the organization’s defensive makeover, they had officially been put on notice.
“It shows that everybody is going to be held accountable whether it's a rookie guy or a veteran guy,” fullback Vonta Leach said. “That sends a message that everybody's job is in jeopardy here.”
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Harbaugh insisted the moves, which included the promotion of young safeties Omar Brown and Brynden Trawick from the practice squad to the active roster, weren’t designed to send a message to the Ravens’ players even if the jettisoning of two popular and well-paid veterans had that effect.
The Ravens wanted to upgrade their punt and kick coverage teams heading into Sunday’s game against the Cleveland Browns and they feel that Trawick and Brown help them do that. They were also getting very little production from both Huff, who lost his starting job to rookie first-round pick Matt Elam after Week 1, and Spears, who had battled a knee injury earlier in the season.
“What we’ll always try to do is have the strongest roster we possibly can to be as good [of] a team as we possibly can be on Sunday,” said Harbaugh, who informed the two players of their release Tuesday night. He didn’t rule out bringing either player back later this season. “We feel like these moves move us in that direction. We feel like these are necessary moves that we need to make to be the best team we can be [in] all three phases. Any message behind that is just … I think guys already understand those things.”
Huff, 30, a 2006 first-round pick by the Oakland Raiders, signed a three-year, $6 million deal with the Ravens in late March, and was viewed as the replacement for Ed Reed. In seven games including one start, he had four tackles and no passes defended. He was victimized for several big plays by the Denver Broncos in the season opener and he had been playing almost exclusively on special teams in recent weeks.
Huff’s failure to keep containment along the sideline late in the fourth quarter contributed to Emmanuel Sanders’ 44-yard kickoff return, which set up the game-winning field goal as time expired in a 19-16 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
After signing a two-year, $2.75 million deal with the Ravens on March 18, Spears had 11 tackles and no sacks in five games, including one start. He figured to lose more playing time in the coming weeks with the return of Terrence Cody from a knee injury and the continued growth of rookie Brandon Williams and second-year defensive lineman DeAngelo Tyson.
Huff wasn’t available for comment while Spears thanked the organization and its fans on his Twitter account. Both players will now go through waivers before they become free agents.
Meanwhile, the teammates that they left behind offered mixed and muted reactions to the roster moves. For some, it was a wake-up call. For others, it was a reminder of the unforgiving nature of the NFL.
“It's tough to see them go, but that's the nature of the beast,” right guard Marshal Yanda said. “They're going to make the moves that they feel help us win and that's their goal and we're behind them. No matter what, sooner or later, it's going to get all of us. You're not going to be able to play this game forever. Some of the young guys were like, 'Holy cow,' but that's the nature of this business.”
Rush linebacker Terrell Suggs said the release of Spears and Huff “just [stinks], but it’s part of the business, and we’ve got to continue on with our season.” Defensive end Chris Canty, who arrived with Huff, Spears, strong-side linebacker Elvis Dumervil and middle linebacker Daryl Smith as part of the offseason defensive overhaul, called the moves “shocking.”
“The message is ‘Win,’ plan and simple,” said Canty, who was also a teammate of Spears with the Dallas Cowboys. “If you don’t get your job done, they’re going to find somebody else that can get it done. And in the case of Michael and Marcus, they felt like it was in the best interest of the team to move forward. Whether you agree or disagree with it doesn’t really matter. It’s their decisions to make and you have to move forward with that and go about the business of getting our job done on the field, which is winning football games.”
Perhaps, the moves shouldn’t have come as a great surprise. A day after the Ravens’ loss to the Steelers, Harbaugh vowed to explore all avenues during the bye week to improve his team, which had lost three of its past four games to fall 2 1/2 games back of the first-place Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC North.
“We'll do whatever it takes,” said Harbaugh, who was also critical of his coverage teams, saying that he needed to find some players that wanted to play special teams. “We'll trade guys, we'll cut guys, we'll sign guys, we'll coach guys, we'll change schemes. It doesn't matter. We have to find a way to get better. That's the business we're in. We've got the men for the job. I like our guys but that's what we've got to continue to work on.”
With Huff and Spears no longer part of the group and Brown and Trawick on the 53-man roster, Harbaugh vowed to move forward.
“I have really high hopes for this team, and I’ve told the players that,” Harbaugh said. “I really believe this team is going to catch fire.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Aaron Wilson contributed to this article.