On fourth-and-long, the rookie sensed the kill. At the snap, Ed Reed bolted through the Denver line, hurtled toward the punter and blocked the kick with a thud heard nationwide on “Monday Night Football.” Four plays later, the Ravens scored a touchdown en route to a 34-23 upset of the Broncos.
Four weeks into the 2002 season, Reed had made a name as a game-changer, one of countless highlights he’d accrue during a 12-year NFL career that is likely to earn the onetime safety a bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame next year. A five-time first-team All-Pro, Reed retired in 2013 and is favored for induction in his first year of eligibility. He’d be the third Raven honored, following tackle Jonathan Ogden (2013) and linebacker Ray Lewis, who was enshrined in August.
And if that happens?
“Oh, man,” Reed said recently. “I’d be ecstatic for those who helped me make the journey.”
At his induction in Canton, Ohio, Lewis spoke of having played with Reed for 11 years, saying: “There was a trust and loyalty [between us] that will never die. And, man, I’m telling you, you talk about a gift to play with as a player, Ed Reed for my career was a gift.”
Three times, Reed led the league in interceptions; in 2004, he was the game’s Defensive Player of the Year. But Reed’s stellar career notwithstanding, his rookie season was fraught with blips and bumps that polarized fans trying to gauge his worth to the team. His selection as the Ravens’ first-round draft pick (24th overall) in 2002 from the University of Miami drew modest huzzahs.
“No one was jumping up and down at the team’s Owings Mills complex when Reed’s name was called,” The Sun’s Mike Preston wrote. “Another draft, just another player. He plays a position that really doesn’t stick out. ... Ed Reed’s name had no juice.”
Phil Savage, the team’s director of scouting, seemed almost apologetic in assessing Reed:
“He is not 6 feet, not a 4.4. Not this, not that. Just a football player.”
In hindsight, Reed understands their comments.
“Coming out of college, I wasn’t considered the fastest, the biggest or the smartest,” he said. “There was no way around that. But I didn’t take offense [at those reports] because I knew that, ultimately, I was born for this.”
Reed’s nine-day holdout in training camp soured some, who questioned his passion for playing, and vexed the Ravens to no end.
“You can’t miss too much camp,” linebacker Peter Boulware said of the no-show. “You’ve got to get a good deal, but eventually you have to take something and come in.”
The days dragged on.
“Ed’s hurting himself and he’s hurting this football team,” coach Brian Billick said. “That’s either important to him or it’s not.”
Asked whether he would send Reed a postcard from camp, Billick snapped, “I’m not going to waste the stamp.”
When Reed finally agreed to a five-year, $6.2 million pact — the holdout netted him an added $25,000 to his signing bonus — he hightailed it to Baltimore, having missed nine practices, eight meetings and a scrimmage. Coaches ragged on the college All-American during workouts, running him in every special teams drill and barely giving him time to catch his breath during water breaks.
Reed could take it, Billick said: “He has that kind of Ray Lewis-type energy.”
In his first practice, beaten by receiver Brandon Stokley on a 43-yard touchdown pass, Reed got bawled out.
“You would have got that if you had been here last week!” Billick thundered.
Afterward, during Reed’s first live TV interview on the field, teammate Chris McAlister sneaked up and threw a pie in his face.
“All in good fun,” Reed remembered. “It’s all to see if a rookie has chinks in his armor.”
Players teased him endlessly. At a team meeting, having been AWOL for the traditional rookie ritual, Reed was obliged to sing a song, choosing one from the movie “The Five Heartbeats.” It was, by all accounts, a lame effort.
“His singing stunk,” McAlister said afterward. “The guys weren’t happy with it at all. So he’s going to have to sing again.”
That he did.
Relegated to third team early on, Reed caught up and started the Ravens’ opener, a 10-7 loss to the Panthers in Carolina in which he made three tackles but looked hesitant at times.
“I just need to pay more attention to detail,” he told reporters. “I need to take my game to a new level.”
Two games later, before a home crowd, he blocked the Denver kick — the first blocked punt in Ravens history — and, later, intercepted a pass.
“It felt like the national championship game for me,” Reed crowed in the locker room. “Monday night, there ain’t a better time to showcase your talent. I came out and did my job and helped the team win.”
Now, looking back, he said, “That was just a taste of what was to come.”
The next week, with 10 seconds left and the Cleveland Browns driving toward a touchdown, he picked off a pass in the end zone and scampered to midfield to run out the clock. The Ravens won, 26-21.
But nothing defined Reed’s play that season like his performance in a 38-27 home victory over Cincinnati in November. In the first quarter, he intercepted a Bengals pass near midfield and took off, weaving this way and that in a classic show of broken-field running. Eight yards from the goal line, he held out the ball in his right hand, like a torch, in triumph — only to have it stripped loose by a trailing defender and recovered in the end zone for a touchback.
Boos rained down from the crowd of 69,024 in Ravens Stadium, again and again, as the play was shown on the video scoreboard. On the sideline, Reed ran the gantlet of reprimands, from Lewis to Billick who, after an animated chewing-out, said, “I don’t think Ed will do that again.”
Never mind that Reed picked off another pass that day which led to a Ravens touchdown. Or that he apologized for his gaffe (“I have to be smarter”). For days, he was crucified on sports talk shows. McAlister dubbed him “Blooper.” Reed took it all in stride.
“Let [the fumble] play” on NFL highlight films, he said. “I have a whole lot of football left.”
In a career filled with standout moments, Reed said that one best typified his on-field persona.
“That [interception and fumble] is the play I’ve picked out to describe myself as a football player,” he said. “That was me having fun on the field. There I was, returning the ball and jukin’ guys out while my teammates stood there watching.”
And the boneheaded fumble?
“That was the Lord saying, ‘That’s not how you play the game.’ ”
Two weeks later, in a 13-12 win over Tennessee, he blocked a Titans punt and returned it 11 yards for the game’s only touchdown. Again, near the goal line, Reed held the ball aloft as before — with one exception.
“I looked back before I put it up there,” he said.
His first-year stats: five interceptions, 85 tackles, one sack, two blocked punts and a touchdown. The Ravens finished 7-9. Two, maybe three of those victories came thanks to Reed. He nearly made the Pro Bowl but shrugged off the snub, then as now.
“I knew there would be another Pro Bowl,” said Reed, who’d receive that honor in nine of the next 10 years. “I wasn’t about one season, but career and longevity. It wasn’t about accolades, but showing that I was bred and predestined to be one of best football players to come into the league — and, every Sunday, to help my team to win.”