Take a moment to peruse the roster of the 2003 Ravens.
That team’s in-his-prime superstar, Ray Lewis, played his last game five years ago. Daring safety Ed Reed followed Lewis out the door one season later. Quarterback Kyle Boller hasn’t played since 2011, star runner Jamal Lewis since 2009.
Terrell Suggs sacked opposing quarterbacks 12 times in 2003, his maiden NFL voyage. Fourteen years later, surrounded by teammates who were in elementary school back then, Suggs will go into Week 17 of this NFL season with … 11 sacks.
“It’s incredible. The guy is Wolverine,” said Jarret Johnson, who entered the league with Suggs and now serves as an analyst on the Ravens’ radio broadcasts. “I know when I fell off, I fell way off. But he still has that power. He might’ve lost a step, although you watch him this year, and it doesn’t look like it. But I think he could play another three or four years.”
It’s at least possible that when Suggs leads the Ravens onto the field Sunday for their crucial season closer against the Cincinnati Bengals, he’ll be playing his 110th and last game at M&T Bank Stadium. The Ravens could save $4 million in salary-cap space if they don’t bring back the 35-year-old linebacker. He’s watched them part, however painfully, with franchise stalwarts such as Reed and Haloti Ngata.
Does Suggs, in his gut, feel he’s nearing the end?
“Nah, I don’t,” he said in a quiet moment, sitting in front of his locker after Wednesday’s practice. “I’ll be surprised by nothing, but it doesn’t feel like it. I’m not preparing for it like that.”
And why would either side call an abrupt end to one of the most fruitful team-player bonds in Ravens history? Suggs was just named to his seventh Pro Bowl, 13 years after he made his first — a record of quality longevity matched only by all-time greats such as Lewis and Jerry Rice. Ravens coach John Harbaugh has said Suggs is playing his best football in many years.
He’s remained healthy from summer workouts on through a season in which he’s second among the team’s front-seven defenders in total snaps. He’s still the clown prince of the locker room and the practice field — who could forget the Bane mask he wore in a team photo or the time he crashed a conference call claiming to be a reporter named Hacksaw Smithers? — but he’s also an NFL big brother to a roster full of young defenders.
“Do I seem old?” he said, letting the question hang in the air. “Do I play like I’m old?
As the respective leaders of the team’s offense and defense, Joe Flacco and Suggs share an unusual bond. The understated quarterback couldn’t be more different on the surface than the garrulous linebacker. But Suggs has always been one of Flacco’s loudest boosters, and each man respects the other’s physical and mental toughness.
“He is not a guy that does it here or there. He is out there pretty much every snap of the football game playing physical run defense [and] getting after the passer,” Flacco said. “He can do everything. It is definitely very impressive, and he is one of those guys that you will definitely look back on when you are probably 50 and be able to tell everybody that you played with them.”
Players raise a few points about Suggs when describing how he’s not fully understood or appreciated by the football-viewing public.
One is the degree to which he’s regained his power and explosion off the line after tearing both his Achilles tendons, the left one in Week 1 of the 2015 season and the right while playing pick-up basketball in 2012. Suggs came back from the first injury after just five months and played through the team’s Super Bowl run with one good arm because he tore his right biceps.
Ravens tight end Benjamin Watson can identify, not just as a 14-year veteran but as a member of the “Achilles club.” For years, he looked at Suggs as the opponent who had to be circled for special attention whenever his team played the Ravens.
“I do have great respect for him. The level that he’s played at for a very long time is not easy in this league,” Watson said. “When you look at injuries, when you look at all the things that happen to football players over the course of their career, and to still be able to come out here every day and still be able to play at a high level on Sundays, you garner respect simply because of that.”
The other trait teammates and coaches stress is Suggs’ finely tuned football brain.
“Everybody sees the athlete he is — big, strong, fast, plays hard, great pass rusher, sets the edge, all the physical things you could see,” Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. “If you’re out at practice, you see how much fun he is, how much energy he brings. But I don’t think you fully understand what he’s like off the field, studying. He is from the book of Ed Reed, Ray Lewis, those guys.”
Pees said that on Wednesdays, when he first goes over the next opponent with his players, Suggs is invariably ready to discuss the game plan like a coach.
Some even suggest his outlandish side is a deliberate misdirection.
“I think he puts up a façade, for sure,” said 11-year veteran Eric Weddle, who calls Suggs one of the greatest defensive players he’s been around. “He’s got his ego and a persona he’s got to cater to, especially with [the media]. He puts on a show. But as teammates, we get to see the other side. He’s as much a student of the game as he is an athletic specimen on the field. People don’t see that, but he spends hours and hours studying.”
Suggs said he made a choice midway through his career to learn the game more deeply, to take his cues from Reed and think about the opposing offense like a coordinator. Watch him play now, and you see a masterpiece of educated guess work, from the way he anticipates the quarterback’s snap cadence to the way he suddenly halts his rush to obstruct a screen pass.
Johnson said it’s been fascinating to watch his former teammate evolve from a character he compared with “Clifford the Big Red Dog, basically a giant 4-year-old” to a source of stability and wisdom for the younger players in the locker room.
“Because Ray [Lewis] was here for so long, we never had to worry about filling that role,” Johnson said. “He was able to just be Terrell and have fun, make plays.”
Now, next-generation Ravens, from second-year linebacker Matthew Judon to defensive tackle Brandon Williams, say they feel comfortable asking Suggs just about anything.
“Every year, there’s something more I learn about him, more in-depth than just being loud, crazy ‘Sizz,’” Williams said. “You have those brotherhood moments where you just sit and talk and get in each other’s head. After games, I’ll call him or he’ll call me, or we’ll [be] back up here at the facility, and we’ll just hash it out about it, and get over it. I definitely love him for being a great leader, great role model on the field, and just being there — whether it being helping us study more, or see what he’s seeing so everyone else can get on the same page.”
Suggs said he thought little about preparing for a long career when he was in his 20s. He could snarf junk food all week and still emerge as a superhuman athlete Sunday. He’d see Lewis clutching a gallon jug of water everywhere he went and wonder why hydration was so important to the All-Pro linebacker.
“I wasn’t thinking in those terms,” he said. “Ed Reed and Ray Lewis, their level of football professionalism was unknown to mankind. They put in countless hours off the field, in the facility, in the film room, taking care of their bodies. … There was so much little stuff that I didn’t pick up on until later. But I had a first-hand look on how to appreciate this game.”
He takes seriously his big-brother role on the current team in part because he didn’t always listen to the counsel of his elders.
“My biggest regret as a professional athlete is that I didn’t take advantage of the knowledge and wisdom that Ray and Ed had,” he said. “Not until later in my career. I had them the vast majority of my career, but it took me a long time before I started paying attention and asking questions.”
Suggs sensed this could be a banner year long before the first whistle blew. He felt relatively healthy coming out of last season, and after surgery to clean up bone chips in his elbow, he threw himself into offseason workouts with Ravens director of performance Steve Saunders. Gone was the Suggs who spent most of his spring and summer in Arizona and who seemed touchy when observers asked about his conditioning.
“It was just a good feeling,” he said.
Could this late-career flourish push him into the Pro Football Hall of Fame? Suggs ranks second in career sacks among active players (behind Julius Peppers) and won Defensive Player of the Year in 2011. Opponents and former teammates frequently refer to him as an obvious choice for Canton.
Of course that would be nice, Suggs said. But he’s more interested in achievements he can control, like leaving a permanent mark on the Ravens.
“I want to be one of those rare players who gets to play his whole career in one place,” he said. “That also says something about your legacy. What’d Ray play, 17 years in one spot? I’m creeping up, and that’s crazy.”