Dennis Pitta wasn't pleased that he dropped a pass, and the pace of the practice was going to take some getting used to as well. But having already been through two long recoveries from a fractured and dislocated right hip, the Ravens' veteran tight end certainly has learned to appreciate his time on a football field.
Pitta's future in the NFL remains uncertain and he still has decisions to make, doctors to talk to, and physical and mental hurdles to overcome. However, his return Wednesday to an in-season NFL practice — his first since last September — was another important step in a potential comeback for Pitta, and an uplifting development for a team that badly needed it.
"The odds have been stacked against me pretty good twice now," Pitta said as he stood in front of his locker surrounded by reporters Wednesday. "I didn't anticipate feeling this good at this point. So, I'm certainly pleased by that. I'm happy to be out here playing football again. To be honest, it felt really good."
Pitta, who is on the physically unable to perform list, has been a constant presence around the team since the summer — watching practice from the sideline, running routes after practice for backup quarterback Matt Schaub, attending meetings and working out on the field before games.
But on Wednesday, the 30-year-old caught footballs from his best friend, Joe Flacco, and participated in passing and blocking drills with the other tight ends.
"Obviously, it's good for me to be back out there — emotionally, mentally — and I felt pretty good physically," said Pitta, who fractured and dislocated his right hip for the second time in as many years on Sept. 21, 2014, during a victory over the Cleveland Browns. "It's just a start, and it's Day One. But I haven't been playing much football over the past year, so hopefully I can get more comfortable over the next few practices and try to get back where I want to be."
With his return to practice, the Ravens and Pitta now have a 21-day window to evaluate him before they'll have to make a decision on whether to activate him to the 53-man roster. Otherwise, he'll stay on the PUP list for the rest of the season.
"I think it's Dennis' decision. I know it's Dennis' decision, along with his family," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "He's going to see how it feels out here and how he responds. He's been working really hard to get himself in position along with our trainers and our strength and conditioning staff to prepare for this, so we'll see how it goes. I wouldn't make too much of it especially for this week. Don't get carried away. Probably the bigger thing is [not] how he feels today, but how he feels tomorrow, the next day, the day after that after practicing."
Pitta also cautioned that just because he returned to practice doesn't mean that he'll definitely return to game action. He acknowledged that he'll still need clearance from doctors before playing in a game, and everything will be a "joint decision" going forward.
"This is obviously a period where we're just trying to get a feel for where I'm at and where I can potentially help the team if it comes to that," he said. "I'm encouraged by how I felt today and all that, but obviously, I have to shake a little bit of the rust off. I still dropped a pass today, which in my mind is unacceptable. The game is a little bit fast for me still right now."
Pitta, a fourth-round draft pick in 2010, emerged as one of the Ravens' top targets during the team's run to a Super Bowl XLVII victory. He had 75 catches and 10 touchdown receptions during the 2012 campaign, including the playoffs. However, he fractured and dislocated his right hip for the first time during training camp the following year.
He returned late in the 2013 season and caught 20 passes and one touchdown in four games, doing enough for the Ravens to give him a five-year, $32.5 million contract following the campaign. However, he hurt the hip again in a non-contact injury in Week 3 last year against the Browns.
At the time, the popular belief was that Pitta's career was over. He acknowledged Wednesday that there are still plenty of people that have advised him to retire and not put himself at risk again.
"I've had people on both ends of the spectrum — certainly, people that have discouraged me against it and people that have encouraged me to get back out there," he said. "I weigh both opinions heavily. Really, I feel good physically and am just excited to kind of continue this process and see where I can get to.
"There's definitely concern of getting injured, but I think that's the nature of football. I could go out and blow out my ACL just as easily. That's part of the inherent risk in playing football. That's something that I understand, and I've talked extensively with our doctors and understand those risks quite well."
Pitta acknowledged that his wife, Mataya, is "not really excited" about him potentially returning and was nervous Tuesday night knowing that he was returning to practice. His presence, however, seemed to lift the Ravens, who are 1-5 heading into Monday night's matchup against the Arizona Cardinals (4-2).
"It's exciting," Flacco said. "I was just talking to him and seeing how he felt, and he said that everything is still going a million miles an hour. I got to throw some routes to him, and it felt good, and he looks good."
Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith said that he got a "tingly" feeling watching Pitta back at practice.
"He's a big playmaker. He's been since I've been here," Smith said. "He's been out for a little while, but we know what type of player he is and what he can do for our offense. To see him back out there, just running out there a little bit, you're like, 'Is he all right?' But at the same time, it's a great thing because it's an added playmaker."
The Ravens know that there are no promises. Pitta needs to prove to both himself and his team that he can both mentally and physically handle a return. The next three weeks might be his final chance to do that.
"I would like to think that if I can't make it back this year, then what's going to change next year?" Pitta said. "For me, in my mind, it's kind of [like], I'm working to get back this year, and if I can't, then that might be it. But that's certainly undecided."