In a zone of comfort

The Baltimore Sun

There's a strange feeling coursing through Ravens tight end Todd Heap's body these days. His shoulders don't ache when he reaches up to catch a pass or extends his arms to throw a block. The stabbing jolts he felt in his right ankle are gone, too.

For the first time in more than two years, Heap is pain-free.

"I was able to train like I normally train; I didn't have to train to compensate to rehab for something," Heap said. "One-hundred percent is relative. As soon as you get through that first game, there's not too many guys that are 100 percent."

The injuries that required surgery after the 2004 season, during which Heap missed 10 games because of a badly sprained ankle and also had a torn labrum, have finally healed. Even the scar tissue that caused enough discomfort last season to make the 6-foot-5, 252-pound Heap a question mark going into each game has disappeared.

Not that anyone outside the Ravens locker room noticed that Heap was hurt the past two seasons.

Heap didn't miss a game in 2005 and had career highs in receptions (75), receiving yards (855) and touchdowns (a team-high seven). He didn't miss a game last season, either, and while his numbers dipped a little for catches (team-high 73) and touchdowns (team-high six), as well as receiving yards (765), his value to the Ravens didn't.

"He's so solid, it's difficult to know when he is hurt," Ravens quarterback Steve McNair said. "He's a guy who's going to be there, he's a guy who's going to make big plays for you. He's not just your average tight end. He's a tight end-receiver-running back."

Said first-year offensive coordinator Rick Neuheisel, "It doesn't necessarily show up in stats, but everyone benefits from having Todd Heap on the playing field."

The injuries were an annoyance to Heap, not an obstacle.

"It's similar to when you're sick, and you're playing and not feeling your best; when you think your mind is going to start thinking about your ankle or your shoulder, you've got to make sure you really focus," Heap, 27, said this week at the Ravens' training camp at McDaniel College.

Though his numbers have been steady throughout his first six seasons in Baltimore - an average of nearly 70 receptions in the four years he played every game - Heap has often been overshadowed by other tight ends: Kansas City's Tony Gonzalez throughout their careers and more recently the San Diego Chargers' Antonio Gates and Jeremy Shockey of the New York Giants.

It isn't something that bothers Heap, who made the Pro Bowl in 2002 and 2003.

"I obviously don't worry about the recognition; of course, all that stuff will come when you play good and when your team does well," Heap said. "You really can't control that. The people who are outside and don't see what goes on at meetings, you really don't know exactly what's going on."

McNair believes that Heap's lack of renown has to do with the Ravens' offense.

"We're not the offense that's going to explode and throw the football," McNair said. "You've got to have that balance. That's why he's not getting the recognition. But we know how good he is and we know how much he's contributed to this football team."

With Ravens coach Brian Billick promising a more explosive passing game this season, Heap's ability to get downfield could be put to use. He didn't do it much last year, but he has displayed that big-play ability in the past when Kyle Boller was the team's quarterback.

"That's what I'm hoping for [from McNair], because I love getting down the field," Heap said. "That's what I like doing, hitting those big plays. But we've got some big-play receivers too. When we have a lot of guys making plays, that's kind of the basis of our offense."

Said Neuheisel: "It means more explosiveness, bigger plays, more chances for points. But Todd Heap's value to us won't change whether it means getting him the ball down the field. It might for the fantasy football owners out there, but in terms of what he brings to the table for us, I don't know if you can get any more value than what we already get from Todd."

Like the rest of the Ravens, Heap agonizes over the team's season-ending 15-6 loss to the eventual Super Bowl-champion Indianapolis Colts in their second-round playoff game in January. Heap had three catches for 28 yards, but his only fumble of the season led to one of Adam Vinatieri's five field goals.

"To go from where we were really getting on a roll offensively to not scoring a touchdown and not have any really big plays, it was really frustrating," Heap said.

Heap would like a little retribution this season, not just in the form of a win over the Colts at M&T; Bank Stadium on Dec. 9, but in a longer run in the playoffs. If winning a Super Bowl is Heap's top priority, staying healthy is a close second.

"Your health will take care of itself, that's obviously a goal, to stay healthy through the season. Sometimes you can't control those things," Heap said. "My main goal is just to win ballgames. My rookie year, I saw a [Ravens] team coming back from winning the Super Bowl. I haven't really gone deep in the playoffs. We know what we're capable of; our expectations are a lot higher."

Heap's Hurts

2001 -- High ankle sprain in second game, missed four games.

2002 -- Played all 16 games, named to first Pro Bowl.

2003 -- Played all 16 games, named to second Pro Bowl.

2004 -- Sprained ankle in second game, missed nine straight games as well as final game because of ankle and shoulder injuries that required offseason surgery.

2005 -- Played all 16 games.

2006 -- Played all 16 games but was listed as questionable nearly every week. Once saw ankle swell on a Friday night after stretching, but played on Sunday against Cleveland.

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