When you take a step back and think about it, this football season has been one of the most bizarre in Derrick Mason's 13-year career. Watching it has been like watching someone fling a yo-yo while hopped up on caffeine.
It began in July, when Mason announced, out of the blue, that he was "retiring." Even though he swore he was sincere, no one believed it. People speculated it was either a contract ploy or had something to do with good friend Steve McNair's death in the off-season. Even the organization didn't seem to take it seriously.
Then Mason returned, looked good in camp and promptly got into a feud with ESPN analyst Keyshawn Johnson when Johnson called the Ravens' receivers "bums." Mason responded with superb games against the Cleveland Browns, New England Patriots and Minnesota Vikings and suddenly looked like he was closer to 25 than 35.
Then he didn't catch a single football in a loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.
He scored an easy touchdown when the Denver Broncos tried to shut him down with single coverage, laughed about it several days later, and then warned the rest of the league that no team should think it could shut him down with just one cornerback covering him.
Mason followed with what he would later call the "worst performance of my career" in a loss to the Bengals. Joe Flacco's throws were bouncing off his hands and off his face mask, and it looked as if he was sleep-walking through 60 minutes of football.
"I don't care who you are, if you're a pro, you're going to through a rut where things just don't seem right," Mason said. "But you have to find the mental and physical discipline to stick to what you know. Don't change things. I found myself changing some things, and I really just needed to go back to basics and trust what got me here."
Two games later, Mason caught nine passes for 142 yards against the Indianapolis Colts, his highest single-game total for receiving yards since 2003.
"I think he played really well," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said of Mason. "He probably didn't play as well as he wanted to. I think he probably said that about the last couple games. But that's the kind of guy he is. Guys bounce back and play better."
In some ways, Mason's erratic year feels like a microcosm for the Ravens' entire season. Some weeks, he has been outstanding; other weeks, he has struggled mightily. But it's clear he's still the most effective offensive weapon the team has except for Ray Rice, and he's the one receiver Flacco either trusts to get open or locks in on each time he drops back.
And for the Ravens, that has been both a blessing and a curse as they try to groom their second-year quarterback. In the past three games, just 11 of Flacco's last 75 passes have gone to someone other than Mason or Rice.
"Well, I think [Flacco] has a comfort level with [other] guys," Harbaugh said. "If you look throughout the season, he's hit those guys on a lot of plays. Todd [Heap] has been hitting some big plays, obviously, Kelley [Washington]. Mark Clayton earlier in the year. Different plays, different guys are open, and in different situations they're not open. Every play stands on its own, and we've studied those with Joe. So, we're going to try to get the ball to everybody."
On his weekly radio show Monday, Mason told several callers who were critical of Flacco that they were wrong to blame the quarterback for the Ravens' recent offensive woes.
"One route in particular, instead of going four steps like I was supposed to, I went three," Mason said. "That threw the timing off. So you can't blame everything on the quarterback. Some things are out of his control. Everything doesn't fall on Joe. It seems that way, but if you know the game and understand the game, the majority of the time he's doing what he's supposed to do."
Always candid and thoughtful, Mason has been upfront about discussing the mental slog this season has - at least at times - been for him. It's easy to forget he might be entering the final six-game stretch of his career. Mason's contract with the Ravens is up after this season, when he'll be 36 in January.
"If you play in this league long enough, every game is not going to be too easy. You're not going to be too into it every game," Mason said. "But if you're a true competitor, you're going to find a way to get yourself out of those mental ruts."
Mason said he doesn't buy into the idea that it has anything to do with his age.
"It has nothing to do with it," he said. "A guy 25 can go through the same thing a guy 35 can go through mentally. What you have to do is, when you get yourself into one of those situations, you have to fight through it. And the guys around you have to trust that your track record shows you're going to get out of it. After 13 years, I believe my track record is good. I'll find a way to get out of whatever funk I'm in."
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