When a player turns 30 years old and has endured more than six or seven years in the NFL, there is always talk of retirement before the start of training camp.
It’s no different for Calais Campbell, 34, who will enter his 14th season in the league and second with the Ravens when camp opens in late July. But once you watch Campbell go through some individual drills or work the lateral movement ladder, it’s hard to believe he is at that stage.
He still has some sweet feet.
“Yes, that’s something that I’m still figuring out, I guess,” Campbell said about retirement. “I kind of take it one year at a time, and I know that I’ve got this year in me, for sure. I’m going to give everything I have this year, and then we’ll reevaluate once the season ends. But it’s definitely something you think about.
“I used to always say when I was younger that I wanted to play 15 [seasons]. I didn’t realize how hard 15 was going to be; I think I was a little young.”
The guess is that Campbell will retire if the Ravens win the Super Bowl this year, and if not, play through the end of the 2022 season. That’s when quarterback Lamar Jackson’s contract, as it stands now, will be over and the Ravens will likely do some housecleaning of veterans if there is no title.
Until then, Campbell is one of the team’s leaders. A year ago, the secondary was regarded as the Ravens’ top unit, but the defensive line isn’t far behind. The Ravens have a good blend of experience with starters Campbell, fellow defensive end Derek Wolfe, 31, and nose tackle Brandon Williams, 32, and an influx of youth with second-year tackles Justin Madubuike and Broderick Washington Jr. and undrafted rookie Jovan Swann.
The future looks bright for Campbell and the Ravens, even though he might still be struggling to recover from last season when he missed two games with a calf injury and one because of COVID-19. A lot of veterans break down physically near the end of their careers because their bodies can no longer handle the physical stress, but Campbell said the virus took its toll, too.
COVID-19 can play its own head game.
“Sometimes, I feel like it kind of comes and goes in a sense, so I guess I really can’t be sure until we get into the thick of things,” Campbell said. “But I’ve been really good for the last couple months. I haven’t had any real issues, but it definitely lingered for a while. I still don’t wish that on anybody. It’s just such a tough thing to go through, just because you don’t really feel like yourself.
“Even when you are past the symptoms that everybody has, getting back into being a professional athlete, there’s a certain level of feeling you have when you’re just ready, and COVID-19 kind of made it a little harder to get to that good feeling. But I definitely feel a lot better now. I feel like I’m ready to go — go out there and dominate and have some fun — and I hope I stay that way.”
Campbell never found his rhythm in 2020. He was on the verge at times and did play his best at the end of the season when his body was closer to 100%. The 6-foot-8, 300-pound Campbell finished with 28 tackles and four sacks and was named to his sixth Pro Bowl, but that was far from his peak years in Jacksonville when he had 14 1/2 sacks in 2017 and 10 1/2 in 2018.
The drive, though, is still there. On the field, it’s either Campbell, Williams or cornerback Marlon Humphrey keeping all the other defensive players informed and enthused. When most veterans are traded to other teams, it usually takes them a year to fit in. Not Campbell. He became an instant leader.
Campbell can bring the hype, suggesting that the Ravens have a lot of talented outside rushers. Where? But if he says it enough, some of them might start believing it. In Jacksonville, the community was saddened by his departure because he was so involved and so giving, winning the 2019 Walter Payton Man of the Year award for his work off the field. Ravens fans have started feeling the same way about Campbell in less than a year.
A Super Bowl trophy would put an exclamation point on a career that has included 92 sacks, 724 tackles, 54 knocked down passes, 14 forced fumbles and 11 fumble recoveries. Regardless of the new 17-game schedule, Campbell says the Ravens are prepared to meet the challenge.
“Usually, you say to yourself you have to win 10 games. Ten games is kind of the floor to get into a position to get to the playoffs,” Campbell said. “I guess this year, you have to say at least — minimum — 11 [games]. And even then, there are years when [teams] won 10 games and didn’t get in, but that was kind of like the number you wanted to get to. So, the pace you go at during the season and just how every game matters, I feel like there are going to be a lot of changes when it comes to having that extra game there.
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“There’s only one happy team at the end of the year, and obviously, we want to be that happy team. And last year, we felt like we had a good chance, but we didn’t get it done. We know what we have as a team, as far as talent and as far as scheme, and we know that we can be very, very good — quite special, really. And so, the mentality really is just be the best we can be. It’s a new year — 17 games. This year is going to be a little different than years past, and somebody has to set the standard for that, and so, we said, ‘Why not us?’”