John Harbaugh locked eyes with Jimmy Smith, and both men smiled broadly.
Nothing momentous happened to prompt this small moment during the Ravens’ first full practice of 2020. It was a simple beat of collegiality between two men who’ve toiled together for nine years, an acknowledgement of how good it felt to do normal work in a world that has not been normal for many months.
“Man, it’s great to be out here,” Harbaugh said, describing the meaning of the exchange with his veteran cornerback. “It’s great to be practicing football.”
Ravens head coach John Harbaugh talks about injuries and music during training camp.
For 90 minutes on Monday morning, the Ravens got to pretend all was right with their pandemic-altered lives. They strapped on their shoulder pads and clustered on the sideline with teammates, old and new. Coaches shouted expletives at rookies caught napping in pass coverage. Justin Tucker booted a 58-yard field goal to close the proceedings. The strangest thing was how not strange it all seemed.
“Man, it was just exciting to finally get out there and be able to play some real ball with the pads on,” right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. said. “To be able to physically grab and move guys and hold them. We were all super-excited to get back in the building … but it was a whole ’nother level of energy out there today.”
The players have been back at work for almost three weeks now, and inside the team’s practice facility, few routines feel the same as before. They can’t eat lunch together. They wear masks to meetings. Their lockers are separated by glass partitions.
The atmosphere around them also differs. There are no bleachers packed with fans, as there normally would be at training camp. Ravens logos dot the path around the facility at six-foot intervals, reminding visitors to maintain social distancing. Reporters conduct post-practice interviews over laptops, hastily opened in the front seats of their parked cars.
The players know that even with all these precautions — the daily COVID-19 tests, the promises to avoid risky situations away from the team facility, the prospect of empty stands at NFL stadiums — there are no guarantees their season will proceed uninterrupted. They’ve witnessed the chaos in Major League Baseball as virus outbreaks have sidelined multiple teams. They’ve heard college sports leaders waver on moving forward with 2020 football schedules. They’ve empathized with peers around the NFL, who’ve opted out of playing because of health concerns.
“It’s scary in a way,” Brown said. “Because we don’t understand the effects of this virus long-term, from an individual standpoint. If I get it, is it something that’s going to affect me for the next 10 years, where somebody else who catches it, it might only be for five or six months?”
But for a brief window Monday, they did not have to dwell on this unsettling big picture. They could enjoy watching the NFL’s reigning Most Valuable Player, Lamar Jackson, spring out of the pocket at midseason speed. They could look up to towering defensive end Calais Campbell, as he dispensed wisdom to rookies in his gravelly bass. They could feel the promise in the air as first-round pick Patrick Queen streaked in to make the morning’s first stop.
“When you get back on the grass, it’s all pretty normal,” All-Pro cornerback Marlon Humphrey said. “You’re out there practicing with the guys, having a good time, grinding it out — blood, sweat and tears. And that’s kind of really the only normal thing you’ve got going.”
Like many players, Humphrey had to get creative to keep himself in peak shape over the offseason. He ran up and down rock piles with his brothers at a sand and gravel supply site in Birmingham, Alabama. He darted around a track with his sister, Brittley, an All-American hurdler at LSU. He did pull-ups on playground jungle gyms near his family’s home.
“Anything that could get me at my highest heart rate, going,” he said.
Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey talks about his goals for the 2020 season and practicing as a team during the coronavirus pandemic.
Linebacker Matthew Judon experienced a busy summer in a different respect as he hoped for a long-term extension with the Ravens, only to sign a $16.8 million franchise tender for this season alone. Those negotiations seemed far from his mind as he too clung to the normalcy of a typical practice.
“This virus has affected a lot of us. It’s impacted the whole world, and it’s impacted how we do things on a daily basis in and outside the building,” Judon said. “Football is different, but just getting back out there with the guys, getting a sweat going … for just a split moment, it felt like we didn’t have to worry about the virus.”
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The feeling passed as soon as players crossed back into the building and re-donned their masks.
“We’ve got to go back, not into quarantine, but to being safe,” Judon said. “But out on the field, running fast, getting back, it felt a little normal.”
The Ravens hope these practices represent more than a blessed return to the familiar. No team enters the 2020 season with loftier hopes. So players see these summer rituals as nascent steps in a story that could carry all the way through the Super Bowl. There’s comfort in that aspiration, which lives on, undiminished, in the face of the pandemic.
“I think they’ve been really chomping at the bit to get out there and do … football,” Harbaugh said. “We have a long way to go, a lot of work to do in a short period of time. But we’re looking forward to getting to it.”