Eight snaps in the second game of the preseason.
It doesn’t sound like a momentous experience for a 14-year NFL veteran.
“It was huge,” said a beaming Watson, who played for the first time in almost a year last week against the Miami Dolphins. “To get back out there after the road of recovery and rehab was a great satisfaction.”
Watson has spent the past 12 months rebuilding the strength in his legs after he tore his Achilles tendon in the third preseason game last year. He still jokingly refers to the “baby calf” on his left leg, because he hasn’t regained full muscle mass. He sometimes feels tentative on moves that used to be second nature.
But he traded blows with another team on an NFL field, and for now, that’s plenty.
His wife, Vaughn, even texted him at halftime to tell him their five children were going nuts at home, seeing daddy back in uniform on television.
“It was a victory for all of us,” Watson said.
Now that he’s put that milestone past him, Watson will turn his attention to the more familiar business of leading the Ravens tight end corps, the mission he thought he signed up for before last season.
“He’s the OG in the room,” said the team’s newest tight end, Larry Donnell. “But he still plays like he’s a young guy. So it’s been awesome to be around him.”
Even six months ago, it wasn’t clear what role the veteran might play for the 2017 Ravens. Dennis Pitta was coming off an encouraging comeback year. Crockett Gillmore, Nick Boyle and Maxx Williams were all angling for more playing time. Converted wide receiver Darren Waller tantalized coaches with his combination of size and mobility.
But with the regular season two weeks away, Pitta is gone with a likely career-ending hip injury, Gillmore is out for the season because of a knee injury, and Waller is suspended at least a year for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.
Given all that attrition, an able-bodied Watson is no longer a luxury for a team desperate to improve its offense.
“If we could just get somebody to be healthy for four weeks in a row, we’ll be happy,” he joked about the battered tight end group.
But Ravens coaches have been encouraged by Watson’s progress throughout the preseason and expect it to continue Saturday night, when the Ravens host the Buffalo Bills.
“Really, the last ballgame was big,” offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said. “In fact, we talked about it in the offensive meeting. That was big for ‘Big Ben.’ I mean, he hasn’t played in a long time. Then he went out [and] I believe he had ... eight plays and did some pretty good things within those eight plays. This week? It won’t be significantly more, but it will be more.”
Watching Watson go about his business, you’d have no idea the 36-year-old suffered a catastrophic injury this time last year. And that normalcy is perhaps the most encouraging sign of all.
“Ben looks good,” coach John Harbaugh said this week. “He and I had a conversation today, and it was basically along the lines of, ‘Hey, how are you feeling?’ and he goes, ‘Like I’m supposed to feel halfway through camp. I feel like a football player.’ That’s about as perfectly said as you can say it. He’s having a good camp, doing very well.”
Watson, who’s accumulated 434 career receptions for three teams, said he feels sharper, both physically and mentally, than he did at the beginning of camp.
“Being able to see things quickly and have your body react, a lot of football is reactionary,” he said. “Being able to read a coverage and read it on the fly, to have your body do what your mind wants it to do, that always takes a little time to get back into that. Much less the physical aspect of actually going against somebody who’s bigger than you or stronger than you. So I definitely feel much better than four weeks ago, but as I watch film, I’ve still got a ways to go.”
He also acknowledged that it might take a little time to get in sync with starting quarterback Joe Flacco, who has yet to practice this preseason because of a back injury.
“But that’s professional football,” Watson said. “The windows for adjustment are very small in this league. You get a day or two to get your stuff together when you haven’t been out there.”
Watson has been through this before. He missed all but one game of his rookie season because of a knee injury after the New England Patriots picked him 32nd overall in the 2004 draft.
“That was devastating for me,” he said. “ A lot of my identity was tied up in football and my performance, as it should be as a professional. But I was all over the place emotionally. I was a jerk to be around when I was hurt. I felt like I was worthless because I couldn’t do anything. And now having that perspective 14 years later, I have a better perspective on my value being not so tied up in football and my performance.”
Understanding the inevitability of injury is essential to becoming a long-term pro, Watson said. And he feels it’s important to share his experiences with younger teammates.
“Even in the locker room, there are guys who get hurt and you can have certain conversations with them,” he said. “Because it’s tough. When guys get hurt playing pro football or pro whatever, and you can’t go out there to practice ... as much as we hate going to practice, when you look out the window and see everybody else practicing, it is a terrible feeling. Nobody wants to be in that training room when you’re stuck in there and you can’t go out. So it’s important for guys like myself, who’ve been through those types of things, to offer an encouraging word.”