Pernell McPhee sat on the side of the practice field, sweltering under an August sun that could make any nine-year veteran reassess his will to play on.
He felt … grateful.
“I took a deep breath and looked to the sky and thought, ‘Wow, I’m in the NFL,’ ” the Ravens outside linebacker said. “Because the years went by so fast and you had people saying, ‘He ain’t going to be able to do this or that anymore.’ But when you leave it in God’s hands, it all works out. I’m so blessed to be here.”
After a series of injury-hampered and unfulfilling seasons in Chicago and Washington, McPhee wasn’t sure he’d catch on with a team in 2019. He certainly had no inkling he might return to the city where he grew up as a pro. But here he is, a significant part of the Ravens’ plans for their reconstructed defense and one of the strongest links between the franchise’s present and past.
The Ravens brought McPhee back for two key reasons, one practical and one spiritual.
With Terrell Suggs and Za’Darius Smith playing in other cities, they needed someone to supplement Matthew Judon as a pass rusher. Even at age 30 and coming off multiple knee surgeries, McPhee brings a sturdier resume and more physical power than any other candidate on the roster.
But coaches also see him as a wise elder who will counsel young linebackers such as Tim Williams and Jaylon Ferguson through the inevitable shocks and disappointments that come with entry to the NFL.
“He’s a no-nonsense, tells-it-like-it-is guy, and we appreciate that, and our guys do,” coach John Harbaugh said. “Our young guys need that. He’s a guy who’s been around, and he knows what it takes. It’s not all sunshine and daisies out there, and McPhee reminds them of that.”
In fact, McPhee felt anything but sunny four years ago when the Ravens let him leave in free agency without making a competitive offer. He’d grown up with the franchise, made essential plays in the team’s Super Bowl run and peaked in his fourth year, just like he was supposed to. Why didn’t they see him as essential?
The Ravens would ultimately be lauded for their acumen — picking McPhee in the fifth round out of Mississippi State in 2011, developing him into an inside-outside pass-rushing force and moving on as soon as the price soared too high for a player who’d always faced questions about his knees.
Think about that equation from the other end, however. Sure, McPhee was happy to sign a life-changing $38.75 million deal with the Chicago Bears, but the experience felt bittersweet.
“Everybody’s mentality isn’t the same when you go to other places,” he said, reflecting on his move to Chicago. “Here, the only expectation is to win a championship, whether you do or don’t. Everywhere else you go, they don’t even talk about winning a championship. So, it was a real big change, even though the money was nice.”
McPhee was general manager Ryan Pace’s first major free-agent signing in Chicago, and he came roaring out of the gate with seven tackles for loss, 11 quarterback hits and an interception in his first eight games. But he suffered a knee injury midway through the season that led to surgery.
“If I would have been smart instead of being a fool, being young, I probably would’ve taken a year off,” he said. “I think I lost maybe two or three more years in the league, just because of my body. But I’m a selfless player; I like to be out there and sell my soul out for my teammates. That’s what I was trying to do, but obviously, it didn’t work out on my behalf.”
Beyond his physical woes, he felt some in the Bears organization looked down on the fooling, outspoken spirit he’d shared with Ravens teammates such as Suggs and Haloti Ngata.
“It was having that freedom,” he said when asked what he missed most about Baltimore. “Coaches just saying within our defense, ‘Make plays but be you.’ Other places, it ain’t like that. I like to dance. I like to have fun and let my emotions out on the field. Here, you can do that all day, every day.”
Over the two seasons that followed, McPhee looked like his old self in bursts but started just five games. When the Bears released him before the end of his deal, he said he probably would have done the same, even though the rejection hurt. He signed a one-year contract with the Washington Redskins for the 2018 season and found himself looking for another this spring.
As he waited, McPhee said he had a vivid dream in which he was back in the Ravens’ facility. He also prayed.
“I just told God, ‘Let me stop worrying about if I’m going to play again,’ ” he recalled. “And about a week later, I got the phone call. And I was like, ‘Really?’ I never thought I was going to be back here.' ”
Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale quickly spoke to McPhee’s heart when the linebacker visited his old stomping grounds at the team’s facility in Owings Mills.
“Phee, I need your leadership,” Martindale recalled telling the veteran linebacker.
“You want me to come back and lead the dogs?” McPhee replied.
“Yeah! Yeah, I do,” Martindale said.
McPhee signed a one-year, $1.03 million contract and to date has delivered exactly what coaches expected of him.
“He’s the old guard, or the ‘OG,’ as the players say it,” Martindale said. “And you can see that power and that old Raven rough, tough mentality, and he’ll help bring that along with that group. We’re excited about our potential pass rushing.”
McPhee said he’ll lead with words and actions, joking that some days his body won’t let him do the latter.
“It’s just having that dog mentality — be very violent, very vicious,” he explained, his face brightening at the thought. “But also being a grown man, executing and playing fast with the mentality of win, win, win. You accept nothing else.”
Most players on the Ravens defense were not around the last time McPhee pulled on a purple jersey. But they appreciate the connection he represents between them and the era of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed.
“Phee is a whole different character. He already knows the Raven way,” fourth-year defensive tackle Willie Henry said. “He knows what Harbs wants. He knows what the defense needs. He played with Hall of Fame players, Pro Bowlers. And Phee just brings in that special talent you don’t see every Sunday, that guy you can bring in and bring that versatility to play inside or out.”
The last part of Henry’s comment is key. The Ravens would love to see McPhee terrorize quarterbacks from the outside, but they’ll also count on him to assault the middle and set the the edge against the run (an underappreciated strength of Suggs’ game).
“I dare anybody to try me on the run,” he said. “I dare anybody to run to my side.”
Harbaugh said that as he watched the team’s public practice at M&T Bank Stadium with owner Steve Bisciotti, they both noted McPhee’s zip coming off the edge.
“People talk about, ‘He’s getting older,’ and, ‘He can’t move,’ ” Harbaugh said. “He can move. He can run. He looked really explosive.”
After that boiling practice last week, McPhee shook his head as he considered the way his life has circled over the last four years.