"I'm trying to taste that victory for my birthday on Monday," said Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson who would be turning 22-years old on Monday. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun video)
One of the rules of Secret Santa was that every present had to be wrapped, which was a problem for Nick Keizer, because his involved a car. But Nick Keizer is a tight end, and there has maybe never been a better time to be a Ravens tight end.
So as Keizer walked out to the team facility’s parking lot a few days before Christmas, he had 13 rolls of wrapping paper and four friends with him. Nick Boyle was Keizer’s Secret Santa; his big gift was a Nintendo Switch gaming console, small enough to wrap without much help. But Keizer was assistant tight ends coach Andy Bischoff’s Secret Santa, and his gift, after some consultation with Bischoff’s wife, was tinted windows on his new car. The gift-wrapping for that required some help.
For a tight end group that has gotten better as it has gotten closer, this was just another day at the office. After Boyle, Keizer, Maxx Williams, Hayden Hurst and Mark Andrews were through with the car, “it looked really good,” Keizer said. All that was missing was a novelty oversize bow.
Keizer ended up leaving before Bischoff found his gift. But “I think he felt the love,” he said. “He felt the love, which is what it was about.”
After the Ravens clinched their first AFC North title since 2012 and a wild-card-round matchup this Sunday with the Los Angeles Chargers, coach John Harbaugh on Sunday called his team the “best” he’s ever been associated with in his three-plus decades of coaching. “The best bunch of guys who understand what it means to have each other’s backs, to fight through adversity and never be divided by anything.”
There might not be a better microcosm than his tight ends. Two are well-regarded rookies who struggled early; Andrews through training camp, Hurst through a late-August stress fracture. Two are fourth-year players; Boyle has established himself after two early-career suspensions, and Williams is back in the game-day rotation after a pair of midseason absences. And the undrafted Keizer, with Boyle and Williams in the final year of their contracts, might emerge as a replacement candidate with more practice squad seasoning.
There could’ve been drama. Instead, there are pizza nights on Thursdays at Boyle’s house.
“From Day One, when we got together, it took a little while, obviously. … They know there was that whole [fear of] 'Are we not going to like them?' ” Williams said. “And right away, we loved them.”
There has been a lot to love. Andrews, a third-round pick, has 34 catches for 552 yards, a Ravens rookie record for a tight end, and finished the regular season as Pro Football Focus’ top-rated rookie at the position, where he’s No. 7 overall.
Hurst, the team’s top overall pick, had a season-high 32-yard catch Sunday in the Ravens’ win over the Cleveland Browns and checked in as PFF’s No. 4 rookie tight end, continuing to mute some of the grumbling over his production.
Boyle leads the group in snaps — he recently surpassed the sidelined Joe Flacco for the season — and in late November received the highest of praise from Harbaugh: “Watch Nick Boyle,” he said in response to a question about the team’s rejuvenated running game. “That’s a big part of it.”
Williams went semi-viral for his one-on-one block Sunday against Browns Pro Bowl defensive end Myles Garrett and, after being a healthy scratch in Week 8 and Week 9, is actually the second-highest rated of the Ravens’ four top-30 PFF players at the position. No other team has even three.
“It's incredible,” Hurst said. “We're all asked to do different things, and no one really complains. We all just do our job, and we kind of just of feed off each other.”
The tight ends describe their fraternity as if it were inevitable — “We're kind of like brothers, in a sense,” Boyle said — and perhaps it was.
Take Williams, for example: He was Boyle’s training camp roommate as a rookie. He’s represented by the same sports agency as Andrews and has a brother-in-law who, also like Andrews, has Type 1 diabetes. As for Hurst, well, “I don't think there's many teams in the NFL that have two redheads on the team,” Williams said. (Joked Andrews: “They always talk about, like, sunscreen and whatnot and how much they put on and how they need it all the time.”)
In other ways, the tight ends are bonded by the same things that connect most guys in their early to mid-20s: video games and their own blunders, Adam Sandler and Will Ferrell movies, eating good food and shooting the breeze. When cold weather arrived and Andrews went out sleeveless for pregame warm-ups earlier this season, he learned he was just observing an unspoken tradition at the position.
“Tight ends are definitely a little bit off in the head,” he said. Earlier, he’d acknowledged that that wasn’t such a bad thing. “Everyone likes to be around the tight ends, just because we're fun to be around.”
If they weren’t, Boyle probably wouldn’t have them over for dinner. About six to eight weeks ago, Williams said, Boyle extended the invitation. "My wife will cook dinner," he recalled Boyle saying.
This was, in Boyle’s words, “kind of a breakthrough.” He has a wife and dogs. He knows he’s not the type of teammate to spend much personal time with other Ravens. But he and Williams agreed: This was the closest group of tight ends they’d known since arriving in 2015. Why not mix business with pleasure?
Hikeen Crampton started the week without tickets for this Sunday's playoff game in Baltimore between the Ravens and the Los Angeles Charges. By Wednesday, a bizarre chain of events landed him two free tickets to the Ravens first playoff appearance since 2014.
“It's a time for us to get together outside of football, have fun and not really have any worries,” Andrews said. “Just kind of talk amongst ourselves and have some good food and bond. That's what it's all about. It's a brotherhood. I think that helps this team, makes this team closer. The teams I've been around, the closer the team, the better you are.”
As Boyle explained it, friendship promotes honesty, and an honest exchange of ideas leads to self-improvement, whether it be in smack-talking (there’s a lot of that), run-blocking (the Ravens lead the NFL in carries since Week 11) or even gift-giving.
Because Hurst has “got all the money,” Keizer joked — the No. 25 overall pick signed a reported four-year, $11.1 million contract — he was everyone’s Santa around Christmastime. He gave generously, and thoughtfully, including a remote-control car to Boyle that can reach 70 mph. But then, so did everyone else.
Andrews thought to ask Boyle’s wife what he wanted, and ended up gifting a Bird scooter; the 280-pound Boyle now zips around his neighborhood while walking his dogs. Keizer only had an Xbox, so Boyle got him the Nintendo Switch. Bischoff got his tinted windows and a drive home with a lot of discarded wrapping paper.
But none had to shell out for what they perhaps appreciated the most: the season-extending win over the Browns, another week together at team headquarters, at least one more night at Boyle’s spent laughing over that time one of them tripped and fell during a game.
“That's what we're looking at,” Williams said. “We love our time together. Me and Nick, obviously, we're both in our contract years, so we don't know what can happen, but we're just taking every moment we can together and trying to help our team the best we can, and we feed off each other. You come into our meetings or you'll have practice, we're going to be feeding off each other, giving each other crap, having fun with each other. And it makes coming to work a lot of fun.”