They’ve thought about it. Of course they’ve thought about it. Sunday could be last call for Calais Campbell, for Jimmy Smith, for about two dozen Ravens approaching possibly their last game in Baltimore. The mind wanders, even during Steelers week.
Campbell, asked Wednesday about a future he can’t predict, shrugged his shoulders and tilted his head. “You know what …” he began to say. He chuckled, as if he didn’t know whether a Week 18 game against Pittsburgh, after 14 years in the NFL, after 138 games and 120 starts, would be his last.
“I guess you’ve got to kind of appreciate the possibility of the finality of it, you know?” he said. “There’s just so much unknown. You’ve got to take it for what it is at the moment. And whatever it may be, I think I’ve got to go out there and just lay it on the line, leave it all out there and just see how it goes. But I feel pretty good right now. So who knows? I might be going to do it again. You’ve just got to see how it goes.”
Campbell said he loved the game of football. He said he’d never beaten the Steelers over his two years in Baltimore. He seemed to realize that if this is it for his career, if the Ravens (8-8) don’t get the minor miracle they need this weekend to advance to the playoffs, there are worse final chapters than a win over Pittsburgh (8-7-1) and Ben Roethlisberger.
As the football world turns its focus to M&T Bank Stadium for what will likely be the venerable 39-year-old quarterback’s last hurrah, Ravens officials are girding for an offseason of departures that could be just as significant in scope. If the team’s season ends Sunday, general manager Eric DeCosta will confront a smorgasbord of personnel possibilities — retirements, extensions, trades — far sooner than he could’ve expected to even a month ago.
So much of the Ravens’ future is shrouded in uncertainty, almost held captive by the franchise’s most important question: Just how much do they value quarterback Lamar Jackson? But even a megadeal extension wouldn’t neatly set up the team’s offseason dominos, not with a volatile free-agent market, developing 2022 draft class and the uncertain future of some aging Ravens.
The 33-year-old Smith, who like the 35-year-old Campbell is not signed beyond this season, said Wednesday that he’s joked every year since he arrived in Baltimore that he was considering retirement. “But to actually really think about it, it’s too surreal, to be honest,” he said. The 2011 first-round pick has played in just nine games this season, sidelined for stretches by injuries — a bugaboo throughout his 11 years — and the coronavirus.
But he played every defensive snap in an essentially must-win game Sunday against the Los Angeles Rams, allowing just one catch on two targets for 6 yards. “When the time comes,” coach John Harbaugh said Wednesday, “he always shows up and plays good football.” The Ravens’ 20-19 loss left Smith feeling even more conflicted about his future. “I don’t know, man,” he recalled thinking to himself. “I can probably still play.”
Smith is a father to a growing family now, and his children wonder aloud why he’s going to work again. His answer has been that this is all he’s ever done.
“It’s tough because I’m a football player,” he said. “I love it. Like, this is my life, and sometimes just even thinking about not playing it, I’m like, ‘Ugh, I don’t want to do anything else.’ But it is a grind, and it’s something you have to mentally prepare yourself [for], the older you get. …
“I don’t know what it’s like to be free. So part of it is a little bit like, I kind of want to go to the other side and be able to spend that time with my family and do those things and kind of just all the other stuff that I worked hard for. To get to this spot, I want to go enjoy that. But the other part of me is like, bruh, you know dang well, you’re a football player. You want to be on that field. So I can talk about it, but if the Ravens come to me and be like, ‘Hey, we’ve been thinking about this. What do you think?’ I’m definitely all ears.”
Campbell said he hasn’t even considered whether he’d play for another team. When he joined the Ravens in 2020, he said the grind of the offseason was eased by the prospect of playing for a Super Bowl champion. But the Ravens won just one playoff game last year and now, amid a five-game losing streak, are a long shot to advance to the postseason this year.
Campbell’s also dealt with minor injuries and the coronavirus, both relatively novel problems in a career defined as much by his production (six Pro Bowl appearances) as his availability (no missed games from 2015 to 2019).
“This place is definitely special, and I’ve got a lot of guys in this locker room who I respect, and who I’d want in my foxhole any day of the week,” he said. “And I know there’s some guys in here who believe that if circumstances were a little different, and if we had all of our guys together, that we’d be a tough team to beat, and I think that being a part of something like that would be fun. But it’s just … I have no idea.”
Added Campbell, the Ravens’ second-highest-rated player, according to Pro Football Focus: “I’m not even sure I’m going to have somebody that wants me to play football next year.”
The Ravens’ front office considers versions of that question every offseason. This year, though, their determinations could be especially critical to the team’s short-term championship aspirations.
As always, Ravens officials will have to consider whom they can afford to keep. On offense, Pro Bowl fullback Patrick Ricard, center Bradley Bozeman, wide receiver Sammy Watkins, and running backs Devonta Freeman and Latavius Murray headline the team’s pending unrestricted free agents.
On defense, the potential free-agent exodus is far more significant: defensive linemen Brandon Williams, Justin Ellis and Campbell; outside linebackers Justin Houston and Pernell McPhee; inside linebacker Josh Bynes; cornerbacks Anthony Averett and Smith; and safeties DeShon Elliott and Anthony Levine Sr.
Other players could be released in cost-cutting measures. Left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, who has a $9.3 million salary cap hit in 2022, turns 34 in September and could face an uphill battle to reclaim his starting job next season. Tight end Nick Boyle, who counts $7 million against the cap in 2022 and $8 million against it in 2023, and cornerback Tavon Young ($9.2 million cap hit next year) have both dealt with significant knee injuries in recent years.
Then there are the small-bore matters — decisions on restricted free agents like cornerback Chris Westry, exclusive-rights free agents like quarterback Tyler Huntley and returning veterans who might be amenable to a restructured contract.
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There is a lot of time for the Ravens to figure everything out. There just might not be a lot of time left in their season. When Campbell and Smith leave the field Sunday, their careers could be ending. Or maybe, improbably, their postseason hopes could be rising.
“Our focus … it’s on winning the game,” Harbaugh said. “The stuff that we can’t control, we can’t control. What you certainly don’t want to do is have those things fall in place and then not do your part. So you have to do your part if anything is going to happen. There’s no guarantees.”
Sunday, 1 p.m.
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Line: Ravens by 5 ½