AFTER PRACTICE each day, Ravens defensive end Michael McCrary goes home and puts ice on his knees for three to four hours. His frustration level is up, and his statistics are down.
Pro Bowl players are supposed to make plays, not watch them. After two games, McCrary has only six tackles (two solos, four assists) and no sacks. Rookie defensive end Tony Weaver has more tackles than McCrary, and so does cornerback Alvin "I Get Beat Frequently" Porter.
Outside linebacker Peter Boulware has two sacks to lead the team, which is expected, but even Marques "NFL Europe" Douglas has one more sack than McCrary.
Thus far, McCrary has been in only 38 percent of the defensive snaps. He expected his role this season to be reduced, but not to a microscopic level.
Those injured knees are taking a little longer to heal than expected.
"Hell no, I don't like this," said McCrary, 32. "I'm used to going out there putting pressure on the quarterback, making plays, forcing teams out of their regular offense. I want to help my team."
Currently, though, McCrary doesn't have a lot to offer. Because of two knee surgeries within the past two years, the Ravens held him out of training camp as a precautionary measure. But once the 2002 regular season began and McCrary became more active, the knees started to swell.
Last year, the Ravens would drain one of McCrary's knees of fluid before each game until he could no longer play after the 10th game. They don't want to travel that route again.
The approach is more deliberate now. The problem is that McCrary is still not close to being in game shape. Take a close look at him during games, and he is sucking in more air between plays than a vacuum cleaner.
This is not the McCrary we're accustomed to seeing, the one whose relentless pursuit can only be matched by his big heart. McCrary is known as one of the league's top pass rushers, but he also has been one of the Ravens' top four or five tacklers almost every year since joining the team in 1997.
He never gives up. He runs down ball carriers from the backside. He'll crawl to get a sack. The man has always been an endless amount of energy. He wears down the Energizer Bunny.
But right now, McCrary needs a recharge. It's probably a good thing for him, because, at 250 pounds, he would struggle physically at end in the Ravens' 3-4 defense. (Hint: Go back to the 4-3 next season for McCrary's and Ray Lewis' sake.)
"I'm still not in game condition," said McCrary, who earned Pro Bowl berths in 1998 and 1999. "I can go out and get on the exercise bike all I want, I can get on a treadmill, but the only way to get into game shape is to play. And right now, I can't go out and run around the way I need to because my knees will swell. Whenever there is a lot of physical activity, I'm still getting swelling."
McCrary's condition makes you wonder why the team re-signed him to a six-year, $24 million contract during the offseason. But that's what happens when you go to cap jail. The team needed $850,000 in cap room to sign all 10 of its draft picks.
So they did a deal with McCrary, a loyal warrior, but one with two bad knees. Of course, the Ravens saw this coming because it was all part of their vision and plan for the future (no snickering, please).
But team officials aren't looking back.
"He has averaged about 20 to 25 snaps per game, and I've already seen a lot of improvement from the first week to the second," said Ozzie Newsome, senior vice president of football operations. "But here is a guy who hasn't played football in nearly a year. To get back to where he was, he has to get back on the field, push and get pushed around, shoot gaps and get that football mentality and conditioning back.
"What did we have him for last year, like nine weeks?" Newsome said. "It's beneficial for us to have him over the long run, and he'll be helpful to us down the stretch."
McCrary feels the same way.
There is not much left for him to accomplish. He was an undersized, overachieving end coming out of Wake Forest. But he has won a Super Bowl ring with the Ravens and gone to the Pro Bowl twice. He is well-respected throughout the league.
But there are never enough challenges, it seems. You admire McCrary for his toughness and willingness to play again, but he seems destined to become a man who will need an elevator in his home one day because he can't climb steps to the second floor.
"Right now, my job is to come in on third down and put pressure on the quarterback," McCrary said. "Or if somebody needs a blow, then I go in to relieve them. The goal is not for me to stay out there to get in shape, but to put the best player out there who can help us win some games. But when I do go out there, I'm going to have to die, to push myself, where I can't go anymore.
"I've been in this situation before, but the last time it was just one knee; this time it's two," McCrary added. "This is like a scab that has been torn off; it just takes time to heal. But if I didn't think I could come back, I wouldn't be playing. It's not about the money. I'm not going to sit on the bench and steal. There is no doubt that I can return and play up to my potential, to play close to the level of last year before I got hurt. I can still help this team."