Like Picasso staring at a canvas or Jimi Hendrix at an electric guitar, Ed Reed sees possibilities in a crowded football field that other players do not. He's fast and has great hands. He watches as much film on his own time as any Raven.
But there's more to Reed's game. He wouldn't put it this way, but it has become obvious that the Ravens have one of the greatest improvisational artists ever to play defensive football. And when his body of work is judged, the past seven games might be remembered as his masterpiece.
That's pretty remarkable when you consider that, five months ago, shoulder and neck injuries had Reed feeling gloomy and uncertain about the 2008 season.
"When you're a question mark going into Week 1 and pretty much every week after, to look at what he's done, that's an amazing story," fellow safety Jim Leonhard says.
How else to describe seven games in which Reed has intercepted 10 passes and scored three times from the defensive side of the ball? The Ravens needed to win virtually every week to stay in the playoff hunt, and Reed picked off two passes each in key victories over the Philadelphia Eagles, Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins. He did it again in the playoff opener at Miami.
Beyond numbers, he has created indelible moments.
There was the record 107-yard interception return to seal the win against the Eagles, the 22-yard score off a fumble that put the Redskins in an early hole and, finally, the winding, 64-yard interception return against the Dolphins.
The last play epitomized Reed's unique abilities.
First, he ran down a pass that appeared to be floating beyond anyone's grasp. Then, instead of feeling satisfied, he reversed his field and cut an S through the entire Dolphins offense on his way to a touchdown.
After the win, he said the play reminded him of pickup games during his childhood in Louisiana, when he and his friends would maneuver a 60-yard side street with mail boxes on either end. It was a fitting association because Reed, 30, is the rare player who can make other pros look like overmatched kids at recess.
"He looks like Willie Mays in center field," former San Francisco 49ers coach Steve Mariucci said on the NFL Network's highlights show.
A freak, linebacker Terrell Suggs calls him. Superman, Derrick Mason says of Reed.
Coach John Harbaugh, who played defensive back in college and has coached several All-Pros at safety and cornerback, says unabashedly that Reed is the best he has seen at the position.
After Sunday's virtuoso display, Harbaugh went further, saying Reed might be the best football player on the planet.
"At this point in my career, there's not a lot I haven't seen," Leonhard says. "But almost every game with Ed, I find myself saying, 'I've never seen that. I couldn't do that.' "
Reed builds the base for his theatrics with dogged film watching - hours every weeknight on top of official team sessions. But teammates say it's not so much the volume of tape he consumes as his efficiency at drawing conclusions from what he sees.
"If he doesn't watch more, he picks it up a lot faster," Leonhard says. "He'll watch it until it makes sense and he can say, 'In this situation, this is what they'll do.'
"I'm pretty good at watching film, I think. But then when I talk to him, I'll go, 'You know what, I missed that.' "
Safety is not one of the NFL's glamour positions. If a starter can provide solid tackling and fill gaps in the secondary, that's sufficient for many coaches. Reed is the rare safety who forces opposing coaches to build game plans around avoiding him.
"He is a guy who you always have to know where he is," says Tennessee Titans quarterback Kerry Collins, who will try to avoid being victimized by Reed today.
"You have to be on time, and you have to be selective because he'll see things and see formations and understand routes and completely vacate the post and jump a route and make a play," Titans coach Jeff Fisher says. "That's why he's so good and he's made so many plays."
Reed often seems to pop up where he should not or could not be, according to common football wisdom. These movements, the product of study and creativity, put him in the path of opposing passes as often as any player in the sport.
Critics have said Reed's studied gambling exposes unnecessary and dangerous gaps in the Baltimore secondary. But Ravens coaches and players wouldn't dare try to restrict his style. They figure that Reed's game-turning interceptions make up for any risk.
"You can't say he's out there guessing," Leonhard says, "because he's always right."
The Ravens ranked second in the league in pass defense and first in interceptions, so it's hard to argue Reed was exploited often in 2008.
His brilliance does not stop at improbable interceptions. Once he catches the ball, a switch seems to flip and he becomes a dazzling, elusive offensive performer. Asked how this happens, he shrugs and offers a nonchalant answer.
"It's just natural. It really is just natural at this point," he says. "You want to score. We talk about it on defense. We do it in practice."
Reed showed a flair on the field as early as middle school in Destrehan, about 25 miles southwest of New Orleans.
"I'm not surprised at all," Reed's mentor, Ben Parquet, says when asked about his NFL success. "I watched every game he played in high school, and this is just a continuation of what he's always done - making big plays."
Reed's particular genius for the spectacular continued to reveal itself at the University of Miami, where, as a senior, he intercepted nine passes, scored three touchdowns and was named first-team All-America as the Hurricanes swept to a national title.
Despite his remarkable production, his size (5 feet 11, 200 pounds) and speed failed to wow scouts. Three college teammates were picked ahead of him in the first round of the 2002 draft. But like Ray Lewis before him, Reed was exactly the sort of player Ravens executive Ozzie Newsome and the club wanted. His best work happened not in drills but in games, where he turned the tide with uncanny displays of instinct and creativity.
Reed quickly showed he could do the same remarkable things in the pros that he had at Miami. He intercepted five passes in his first season, made the Pro Bowl in his second and won Defensive Player of the Year (extremely rare for a safety) in his third. He added Pro Bowl appearances after the 2006 and 2007 seasons.
Yet some feared Reed had seen his best days when he showed up for his seventh training camp in August. A nerve impingement in his neck and shoulder left him unable to absorb contact. Reed sounded wary whenever he discussed a return date.
"It's a little bit more in-depth than you've been hearing about," he said a few weeks into camp. "I can't really explain it at this point because I'm still researching it myself, but I figure it might be all right."
He started the season opener and picked off a pass in a Week 2 win over the Cleveland Browns. But Reed was not the eye-popping playmaker of old in the first half of the season. Because of his injury, he blitzed and tackled less than he had in the past. He often looked sore on the field, and a hamstring injury added to his woes.
Reed says he never contemplated missing the season.
"My brother always talks to me when I'm hurt," he says. "He's like, 'If we walk, talk and run, we're going to play.' The Ravens know that. When Ozzie drafted me, he knew that."
As the stretch run dawned in mid-November, he gained enough confidence in his body that he returned to playing with his old abandon. His remarkable finish, which earned him third place in Defensive Player of the Year voting, followed.
But Reed says the pain and the daily toil of managing it have him thinking about his life after football. After a long ice bath after Tuesday's practice, he spoke wistfully of trying baseball (the former all-district pitcher figures he'd make a fine base stealer and ball hawk in the outfield) or coaching. He also wants to expand on the work he does with children at Baltimore's Booker T. Washington Middle School.
"Ain't much you can do about that right now," he says of his injuries. "It is what it is."
Many experts already rate Reed among the greatest impact players ever at his position.
"He and Ray Lewis I think are both once-in-a-lifetime players, and we're just lucky to have them at the same time," Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan says.
But Reed doesn't show much interest in talk of the Hall of Fame or of being the best ever at what he does.
Asked whether this has been his most satisfying season, he says, "Nah, not yet."
Asked whether it could be, he smiles mischievously and says, "Pending."
Baltimore Sun reporter Bill Ordine contributed to this article.
down the stretch
Ed Reed highlights of recent games
Nov. 23 vs. Philadelphia Eagles - Intercepted two passes and returned one for an NFL-record 107-yard touchdown, deflected four other passes in 36-7 win.
Dec. 7 vs. Washington Redskins - Intercepted two passes, returned a fumble 22 yards for a touchdown in 24-10 win.
Dec. 14 at Pittsburgh Steelers - Recorded season-high eight tackles and a sack in 13-9 loss.
Dec. 20 at Dallas Cowboys - Intercepted two passes and deflected two others in 33-24 win.
Dec. 27 vs. Jacksonville Jaguars - Intercepted two passes as Ravens clinched a playoff berth with 27-7 win.
Jan. 4 at Miami Dolphins - Intercepted two passes and returned one for a 64-yard touchdown as Ravens won playoff opener 27-9.