Nothing in the NFL is ever as simple as cause-and-effect, but for a moment Monday, the past, present and future of Ravens linebackers converged unexpectedly, a circle of life revealing itself on the league’s transaction wire.
Early in the Ravens’ Week 2 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, three-time Pro Bowl linebacker C.J. Mosley suffered a bone bruise that could keep him out of Sunday’s game against the Denver Broncos. Rookie Kenny Young, a promising inside linebacker, stepped in and performed as expected: some good plays, a few bad reads, very much a 23-year-old in a grown-up game.
On Wednesday, Young drew a crowd of reporters to his locker inside the team’s headquarters. He talked about what he’d learned, about playing free and smart, about the challenges of the position in the modern NFL. Then he was asked about what it meant to have Albert McClellan back.
McClellan had signed with the Ravens just two days earlier, a return to Baltimore long awaited by coaches and players and expedited by Mosley’s injury. McClellan and Young had spent just one offseason together before McClellan was released on the NFL’s cut-down day earlier this month. Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs calls McClellan a “demigod,” and Young spoke of the 32-year-old with reverence, as if he wouldn’t have played as he had without the linebacker who, for two weeks, played for no one.
“Honestly, I'll just say this: Bert was a big part of my growing-up phase the first few weeks here, because I didn't know anything,” Young said. “The only thing I knew was to be on time for meetings and to have my notebook out. But him breaking things down slowed the game down for me so much, and I think some of the things that he taught me on the field, I could go to him with open arms about things off the field and he'd give me advice. Things that all rookies go through, all young players go through, especially in this league.
“So it's a blessing to have Bert back, honestly.”
Ever since McClellan’s Sept. 1 release, it seemed to be a question of when he would come back, not whether he would. At his first news conference after the Ravens’ 53-man roster was finalized, coach John Harbaugh said parting with McClellan was a tough decision — “We’ve been through a lot together” — but that they could reunite in as soon as a couple of days.
It ended up being a couple of weeks, enough time for McClellan to try out for the Philadelphia Eagles. But he never left Baltimore, he said. He expected a call to come at some point this year. So he waited, passing the time with training sessions and broadcasts of the Ravens’ first pair of games.
“Being around here, you build certain bonds and certain relationships that kind of stick with you a little bit,” he said Thursday, his first interview with reporters since his signing. “So I kind of had that feeling of wanting to come back here.”
As he spoke, passersby in the team’s locker room punctuated his answers with shouts of “Hey, Bert!” and “Talk to ’em, Bert!” Even though McClellan missed all of last year with a torn ACL, he needed no reintroduction in Owings Mills.
There are probably other linebackers who, like him, have filled in for a Hall of Famer (in his case, Ray Lewis) and developed from an undrafted rookie into a special teams captain, but how many have also played nose tackle in their career?
How many many on-the-bubble veterans would willingly dispense their hard-earned wisdom to younger players who, empowered by that knowledge, might ultimately cost the older guy a paycheck?
“Albert coaches those guys up, but then Albert gets let go in favor of those guys. Crazy,” Harbuagh said Wednesday. “There’s a bond. There’s a brotherhood. And even if it’s going to cost a player a spot, he still wants to do everything he can to help the young guy grow as a player.”
Special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg has said McClellan’s release was like seeing a child off to college. When the two reunited this week, Rosburg’s homecoming message was less sentimental. “I said, ‘Where ya been?’ ” he jokingly recalled Thursday.
McClellan’s return was such an inevitability, teammates welcomed him back to the facility by noting their appreciation but teasing him that it was old news. Over his two-game span on the free-agent market, it was as if he’d never left. He’d called his once-and-future teammates to offer pointers and encouragement, letting them know, as he put it, “I'm still over your shoulder.”
“He didn't lose anything in his time away because when we got back to the meeting room, he started coaching everybody right away,” Rosburg said. “He knows what to do. We didn’t have to spend a lot of time getting him back up to speed.”
About the only thing McClellan seemed surprised by Thursday was the size of the media contingent swarming his locker. He said he knows why he’d been cut. He knows the onus of replacing Mosley fell not just on him but on Young, Patrick Onwuasor, Chris Board and too many others to name. Though he didn’t say it, he also likely knows his time in Baltimore is not guaranteed long term.
Still, McClellan was happy to be back, not just for the sake of his Ravens family, but his actual family as well.
“My daughter was more excited,” he said. “She was like, 'I don't want to switch schools,' once we heard I got cut. So once I told her, it was ... ‘Hey, hooray. We're here. We're home. I get to stay home.’ And that was my same feeling. This is where I want to be. This is my home. Glad that I can stay here and defend my home.”