WESTFIELD, IND. — The fight began, as most do, with an apparent misunderstanding.
On Saturday afternoon, midway through the second of the Ravens’ two joint practices with the host Indianapolis Colts, linebacker Albert McClellan lined up for a special teams drill. So did Colts linebacker Antonio Morrison.
The stakes were low. A “Monday Night Football” game was two days away. An hour separated the teams from the end of practice. On the play that defined a punchy practice, it seemed that other than the one-on-one matchups in the punt return drill, there was little to win or to lose.
Then McClellan and Morrison lost their cool. As the Ravens’ punt coverage team sprinted downfield on a kick by Sam Koch, the two could not, or would not, disengage. Morrison wanted to keep McClellan in front of him, by almost any means necessary. McClellan wanted to be left alone.
So he tossed Morrison to the ground. Morrison got up, his arms wrapped around McClellan. A single-leg takedown put Morrison on his behind again.
Then came the blows of a whistle and the blows of McClellan’s fists. With McClellan straddling the supine Morrison, he delivered a heavy right, seemingly oblivious to the fear of pain that might be inflicted on his own, now-helmetless head. McClellan appeared to throw another two punches before the teams converged in the middle of the field.
It took another 40 seconds for the Ravens and Colts to be separated, some of them more easily than others. Safety Tony Jefferson got into it with Indianapolis defensive end Chris McCain. Ravens cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste, one of the first to the fracas, threw a handful of punches.
It wouldn’t be the last confrontation of the day, and Colts coach Frank Reich opened his post-practice news conference by strongly condemning the fighting.
“I'm not happy about that,” he said. “I'm very disappointed in that. You know, we talk about — that's not what Colts fans need out of this team. We're football players. We're professional football players. We're not fighters. We're not in the MMA. We're not in the cage. We know it's unacceptable. We've got little kids up in the stands. That's not what role models — that's not what we're looking for. We want to find ways to execute football plays and win games.
“So I was very disappointed. That led to a sloppy practice, at least on offense, what I saw. So [I’m] disappointed in that. We have to learn from that. We have to learn from that and learn how to translate that aggression into good, competitive play.”
John Harbaugh and Reich stood shoulder to shoulder shortly after the first fight, and Reich said the Ravens coach felt as he did. But in his own news conference, Harbaugh downplayed the brawl. He didn’t comment on it until asked.
"It cracks me up,” he said. “Is this a healthy obsession that we all have with fights in training camp practices? It's really nothing, much ado about nothing. It got broken up pretty quickly, and we're moving on.”
Quarterback Joe Flacco, the only player the Ravens made available afterward, said he was 150 yards away, on the Colts’ other practice field, when the team’s hitherto civil preseason turned combative.
“For the [next] punt period, I came over and watched, just in case,” he said. “I wasn’t going to do anything, but it would be fun to watch.”
Trainers crowded McClellan on the sideline for a few minutes after the brou, but he returned to the field not long after. Twenty minutes after the initial incident on special teams, he and Morrison were back on the same field, being asked to do largely the same thing. This time, they competed without incident.
Until Saturday, that’s how it’d normally gone for the Ravens. They held off on participating in joint practices until 2014, when they welcomed the San Francisco 49ers, then coached by Harbaugh’s brother, Jim, to the Under Armour Performance Center. Those workouts were fight-free.
In 2015, a few Ravens tangled with the Eagles in Philadelphia — tackle De’Ondre Wesley threw a punch, safety Will Hill got into a scuffle, McClellan shoved an opponent — but never seriously enough to require a forensic analysis of who started what.
For the next two-plus years, when tempers flared during Ravens training camp, it was teammates taking on teammates. Last week, after the first day of the Los Angeles Rams’ joint practice Owings Mills, Harbaugh praised the teams for their cooperation, as if they were lawmakers coming together to pass a bill.
Then Saturday happened. Colts quarterback Andrew Luck told the Indianapolis Star he’d never partaken in such a chippy practice. Harbaugh would rather not get asked about it at all.
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"If there is a little shoving match out here, I’m quite sure that that’s what will be on these cameras, and it’ll be countrywide, and that’ll be everybody’s take on how it went, right?” he had said four years ago, before his Ravens and his brother’s 49ers met. “Because that’s how it is all the time. We’re going to look for the positive. You all can look for the negative, as usual.”