Ravens at Work: Tackle Austin Howard isn't afraid to dwell on his performance

There are days, Austin Howard says, when an NFL player needs to dwell on the sting from a lousy performance.

Some of his Ravens teammates prefer to turn their attention to the next opponent as quickly as possible. But not the mammoth right tackle.

“You have to beat yourself up a little bit,” he said. “We have to get better as a team, and that starts with looking at the guy in the mirror. … If you had a few plays you wish you could have back, that’s one of the worst feelings ever. They always say, ‘Let’s move on, let’s move on.’ But for me, I have to know what happened on those plays that went poorly.”

One of the first postgame calls Howard makes, after he lets his wife and parents know he made it through in one piece, is to his older brother, Marcel. Marcel starred at Iowa State and signed with the Detroit Lions before he was derailed by wrist injuries. He can be counted on to deliver an unsparing critique of his baby brother’s play.

“I want to know,” Howard said. “I don’t listen to all people, but people I trust, I want their honest opinion of my performance.”

It’s usually Tuesday afternoon before he fully lets go of the previous game.

Living in the immediate past must feel exquisite this week. Howard just played one of his best games of the season in a vital win over the Oakland Raiders, the same team that ditched him and his surgically repaired left shoulder less than three months ago.

Last week was the opposite. The Ravens were coming off two consecutive losses in which they’d scored a total of 16 points, and plenty of people blamed the offensive line, which had allowed quarterback Joe Flacco to eat a procession of stiff shots.

Either way, the 30-year-old Iowan has learned to go through the same mental progression every seven days.

Howard is a thoughtful man with a smile as big as his 6-foot-7, 330-pound body.

His analytical bent emerges when you ask him to describe, for a lay person, what it’s like to play offensive line in the NFL. He immediately goes to the complexity of his work, which goes well beyond hitting the grunting behemoth in front of him.

“There are so many things that go into it,” he said. “The training in the offseason — people think you’re playing six months but then you get four or five months of vacation. But that’s typically not the case. You’re going elsewhere to train four, five, six hours a day. That means time away from our wives and kids. So much planning and work goes into this, both in season and during the offseason. So much that people don’t see.”

It’s not unusual for him to rise at 5 a.m. so he can fit in a good stretch before he knocks out one of his three or four weekly weight-lifting sessions. A lineman can’t afford to lose bulk and power during the grind of the season, even if a weight bench is the last place he wants to be on a given morning.

Interestingly, Howard points to Eric Weddle, a 200-pound safety, as inspiration.

“He’s in there five, maybe six days a week at 6 a.m., 5:30 a.m.,” Howard said. “If you can push yourself forward to be part of that routine he does, that’s super-helpful.”

That’s the physical side of what he does. The cerebral side is equally important.

Howard often remains at the team’s practice facility in Owings Mills into the evening, peering at footage of opposing pass rushers on his iPad. Or he might dig out one of the many notebooks he’s filled with scouting observations over eight years in the league.

What’s an opponent’s pet move? What does Howard do that might make him vulnerable to it?

“It gets pretty technical,” he said.

Howard just knew he’d end up as an offensive lineman, though he went to Northern Iowa as a tight end and even played forward for the Panthers basketball team. He’d watched his brothers grow out of other positions and become linemen before him.

Sure, he missed catching passes. And he suddenly had to wear braces on both knees, which made him feel clunky.

“But I don’t think you see many 300-pound tight ends,” he said. “It was an inevitable thing.”

Away from football, Howard is a widely curious guy who composes music on his computer, owns two Harley Davidson motorcycles and takes deep pride in the hefty sailfish he caught and mounted on his wall.

Nonetheless, he’s at a loss to say what he’d do if he couldn’t play in the NFL.

“That’s such a hard question to answer,” he said. “Because you put everything you have into this. It’s been your dream since you were a kid. You’ve prayed about it and had conversations with your parents about it — one day I’m going to make it. You’ve literally put every fiber of yourself into making a team. So I really don’t know what else I’d be doing.”

The night before a game, Howard eats a hearty meal, loaded with carbohydrates. He goes to bed early, feeling full, and then merely picks at his eggs and bacon during the Ravens’ pregame meal.

He clamps on headphones and listens to music in the locker room, not one particular song but usually something mellow. Action in the NFL trenches is chaotic enough. He wants to be the calm decision maker in the middle of all that madness.

“At game time, you can’t get overly emotional,” he said. “You can’t do more than you’re supposed to. Don’t go out there and be Superman. Just do your job.”

Perhaps that was more difficult than usual as he prepared to return to Oakland, where he’d been a starter for three years before the Raiders unceremoniously released him. That certainly wounded his pride. But consistency in the face of such emotion is essential to being a professional, Howard said.

Just before every game, he either calls his wife, Larissa, or spots her in the stands. They’ve been together since college, and she didn’t blink when he told her the family had to move from the Bay Area to Baltimore. She took care of all the logistics, though she was six months pregnant and chasing a 2-year-old around the house at the time.

“She impresses me so much,” he said.

So Howard finds his greatest source of stability and they murmur a prayer together. Then, he’s back to work.


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