The week before Thanksgiving, John Harbaugh saw Calais Campbell sitting down for an end-of-day meal in the Ravens’ cafeteria.
Harbaugh does not spend a lot of time thinking about Campbell. Why would he? In a world framed by worry and uncertainty, Campbell is the weathered oak tree at the heart of the Ravens defense — tall, strong and true no matter what swirls around him.
After 14 years leading an NFL team, Harbaugh knows what a blessing it is to have a great player who grounds the entire operation. On this occasion, he felt compelled to tell Campbell so. “Hey man,” he said to the smiling giant with the raspy voice, “I really appreciate you.”
Campbell has played as long as Harbaugh has coached, and he does not take such moments of acknowledgment for granted. When he was a young defender for the Arizona Cardinals, he observed the seriousness of Pro Bowl safety Adrian Wilson, intent on maximizing every day he had left in the NFL. He spent time after practice with defensive end Bertrand “B-train” Berry, learning to time his first step to the quarterback’s cadence. Dwight Freeney taught him how to build tandem pass-rush plans and care for his body outside the team facility. There were so many wise men.
Even then, Campbell aspired to become a role model and teacher for the next generation. He wanted 15 years in the NFL, a mark he would reach if he decides to play next season.
“I did always want to be a player who left my mark on the game,” he said. Harbaugh’s thanks spoke to Campbell’s quest, now much closer to its end than to its beginning.
There’s not a speck of phoniness in the respect teammates and coaches express for him. The veterans feel a little sturdier standing beside No. 93. The young guys hope to have careers like his, even if they know that is exceedingly unlikely.
“Calais, he’s the ultimate man,” rookie linebacker Odafe Oweh said. “He just carries himself with so much respect and so much … his presence. He has a presence with the type of person he is. He’s just so respectable. He has so much knowledge for the game and outside the game, how to handle yourself as a pro and everything.”
Campbell did not exactly have a disappointing first season in Baltimore in 2020. He made his sixth Pro Bowl in seven years and peaked in the playoffs, when the Ravens held a pair of explosive offenses to 30 points combined. But a strained calf and a bout with COVID-19 cost him four games after he had not missed any since 2014, and he did not get his paws on quarterbacks as consistently as he had in peak seasons.
He came back for his encore offering no guarantees that he would play past his current contract, which will run out at the end of this year. But he was the team’s most dominant defensive lineman from the first snap of training camp, and he has remained exactly that through the first 11 games of the season, playing at least 70% of defensive snaps in all but two (he missed the team’s win over the Cleveland Browns because he was in concussion protocol).
The team’s other veteran interior defenders, Campbell’s fellow “Monstars,” have faltered. Nose tackle Brandon Williams has missed four games and has not played with his usual force when active. Defensive end Derek Wolfe won’t play at all this year because of an ailing back.
Campbell, the oldest of the three at 35, has graded as the fourth-best defensive lineman in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus. Few analysts mention him in the same breath as Aaron Donald or Myles Garrett. They see the half a sack and move on.
But you watch the Ravens on tape and almost every time they stuff a play at the line of scrimmage, Campbell is in the middle of the action. Teammates talk about his unselfishness, the way he occupies two or three blockers so they can make the sack or the tackle for loss.
“I just think it’s a blessing to even be on the field with a guy like that. He’s sacrificed so much,” fellow veteran Justin Houston said. “He doesn’t get enough credit for the way he plays, and if you watch him, even in pass-rush situations, he’s got three guys on him. So, it’s easy for us to be free and for other guys to run through the gap because he’s taking up three people at a time.”
The Ravens have needed Campbell more than ever this season, and he has answered the call. He misses Wolfe, whom he trusted to make the right reads and hold the line of scrimmage. “It just allowed me to relax a bit,” he said.
But he knows injuries to valued teammates are as inevitable as achy legs on a Sunday night, so he simply redoubles his urgency.
“He’s playing great. He’s a leader. He’s out here every day,” Harbaugh said. “He’s in the weight room every day. He mentors the young guys every day. That’s the kind of guy [he is], and I think that’ll be his legacy.”
Defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale said he’d like to celebrate Campbell with another award equivalent to his 2019 Walter Payton Man of the Year for all-around contributions to the sport.
You get the sense that players such as Oweh will be passing on lessons learned from Campbell when they’re the graybeards in the room.
“Even in games, like when we run our stunts in games, he’ll just tell me the right way to run it,” Oweh said. “. ... He’s just smart. I lean on him for a lot of things, and I’m happy I have him.”
Such words mean the world to Campbell. “If I have any legacy,” he said, “I hope it’s that I tried to keep the game strong and pass on all the knowledge I’ve built to the youth.”
He did not become the oak tree by accident. Reliability is his football creed. “I put a lot of effort into being a consistent player,” he said.
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Like past Ravens (and University of Miami) greats Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, he is studious by nature. He spends an estimated $200,000 a year on specialists who help him get his body ready for combat each Sunday. That might sound like a lot of money, he tells young players, but if it adds years to your career, it’s a prudent investment.
Right after a game, his legs feel so heavy that he does not want to walk. He revives them step by step over the course of the week, moving from dry needling to massage to the cold tub to stretching.
He is a creature of habit, and that’s part of the reason he talks about last year with a note of frustration. “With COVID, not being able to do my regular routine I’ve had throughout my career, you could see — I still played fairly well, but it was not to the same level,” he said. “My body just didn’t respond.”
He doesn’t believe in the word satisfied, but he’s closer to meeting his own expectations this year, and he believes the Ravens have the makeup of a potential champion.
Does that mean Campbell will consider playing in 2022, whether for the Ravens or another contender? The appeal for Harbaugh and general manager Eric DeCosta would be obvious. The Ravens will likely rebuild their defensive line after this season, and Campbell would be the soundest possible bridge to a new era.
Will he want to go through another year of physical, mental and family sacrifices? Or will he decide enough is enough and retire on top, as Marshal Yanda did after the 2019 season? Campbell said he has not talked to the Ravens about the possibility and that his future, reaching a 15th season, is far from his mind.
“There’s nothing to talk about right now,” he said. “I’m trying to empty the tank. I don’t have the luxury of worrying about next year, because this could be it.”