Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens built their team to be versatile. In a pandemic, that could be ‘a sword that cuts both ways.’

Kordell Stewart got his nickname not because of how he moved. It was because he was a multihyphenate. Early in his Pittsburgh Steelers career, “Slash” was a quarterback-receiver-running back. Years later, he’d go on to earn another slash, the most unlikely and fleeting of his career — and in Baltimore, of all places.

In 2004, Stewart had been signed to back up Kyle Boller, the Ravens’ second-year quarterback. Stewart’s first appearance didn’t come until Week 10, in an eventual overtime road win over the New York Jets. The team’s starting and only punter, Dave Zastudil, had separated his shoulder on a second-quarter return. Coach Brian Billick knew Stewart could punt a little.


“Yeah, well, you’re a starter now,” Billick, now an NFL Network analyst, remembered telling Stewart. He’d punted in high school and once for the Steelers in 1998. “He goes, ‘What?’ and went in.”

If there were ever a season for the stuff of coaches’ nightmares to play out on a weekly basis, this is it. Across the league, staffs are resigned to the inevitability of players missing games this year because of COVID-19. The coronavirus pandemic could send more players to the injured reserve in 2020 than football itself.


It will be 17-plus weeks of unprecedented roster maneuvering, and few solutions will be as fortuitous as Billick’s. Stewart punted five times that day, dropping two inside the Jets’ 20-yard line, including a 42-yarder downed on the Jets’ 9 in overtime. Three days later, AFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors went to “QB-P KORDELL STEWART, BALTIMORE RAVENS.”

With the depth and versatility of the 2020 Ravens, there might not be a team better equipped to handle the vagaries of this season, from injuries to infections. But only so many quarterbacks can replace a punter on a moment’s notice. It becomes a game of roster Jenga: Take away one too many key pieces, Billick said, and “you’re screwed. You’ve got to adapt in a way that’s going to be very, very tough.”

Certain pieces are foundational. There is no replacing Lamar Jackson, although the team will start padded practices Monday with three other quarterbacks of a similar mold. Ronnie Stanley might be the NFL’s best left tackle, and moving over Pro Bowl right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. would help only so much. Patrick Ricard is a Pro Bowl fullback with no backup. Calais Campbell and Matthew Judon are unique talents in the defense’s front seven.

But the flexibility the Ravens have cultivated on both sides of the ball could reveal itself in times of need. On offense, the Ravens typically cross-train their interior linemen. (Patrick Mekari, for instance, never played center in college.) They have four quality running backs. They align their wide receivers, tight ends, backs and even quarterbacks based on need, not position.

In April, after the Ravens drafted Devin Duvernay, a productive slot receiver at Texas, coach John Harbaugh indicated that the team expected its receivers to know how to run every route in every play in coordinator Greg Roman’s offense. “We play all the guys in different spots, the same as we do on defense,” he said.

There’s a reason defensive end Calais Campbell called coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale a “genius” last week. Player responsibilities aren’t bound so much by their position’s conventions as they are by Martindale’s imagination.

Safety Chuck Clark played five positions last year, according to Martindale, his presnap range stretching from center field to the line of scrimmage. Marlon Humphrey emerged as an All-Pro slot cornerback after Tavon Young, who likewise started his career as an outside cornerback, went down with a neck injury. Cornerback Jimmy Smith could play on the outside, inside or at safety. Jihad Ward, Pernell McPhee, Jaylon Ferguson and Judon all lined up as outside and interior pass rushers in 2019.

Then there’s the newcomers. First-round pick Patrick Queen should see time at both middle linebacker and weak-side linebacker. Same goes for third-round pick Malik Harrison, who also occasionally lined up as an edge rusher at Ohio State. And Campbell can play anywhere up front.


“I always say that we’ll have the best 11 out there to play the game,” Martindale said in a conference call Wednesday. “The best 11 might be a different group. There might be six others coming out with a different personnel [group]. But the NFL’s just like the NBA’s become: It’s all matchups, and right now, with the talent that we have, it’s a lot of fun.”

Baltimore Ravens Insider

Baltimore Ravens Insider


Want the inside scoop on the Ravens? Become a Ravens Insider and you'll have access to news, notes and analysis from The Sun.

The challenge, Billick said, is what happens to a team when Mr. Versatility is unavailable, stuck in self-quarantine or rehabilitating an injury. With less time for players to acclimate this offseason and more uncertainty over who might be available, coaches are fighting a war against time on two fronts.

In the Ravens defense, an unexpected absence could be doubly painful. Say Campbell arrives at the team facility Wednesday and tests positive for COVID-19. With other teams already protecting up to four practice squad players, the Ravens’ front office would have four days to find not only an early-down edge-setter but also an interior pass-rush presence. His adaptability would be irreplaceable.

“It’s kind of a sword that cuts both ways,” Billick said. “Yes, [the versatility] is an advantage, in that you’re going to be able to plug-and-play some other guys that maybe some other teams aren’t as used to moving around if you get hit in a certain area. But you can also get hit to where you have to plug some guys in that are new to the team that clearly limit some of the complexities of what you can do.”

For as bumpy as 2020 might be, teams will enter this season with at least some accommodations. An unlimited number of players will be allowed to be designated for return from IR, and players will be eligible to return after three regular-season games following their IR placement. Practice squads have grown from six players to 16. Teams can now activate 55 players on game day, provided eight are offensive linemen.

But with no “bubble” environment to keep teams completely safe, the intrigue isn’t just in how they’ll look on the field. It’s also in how many players can get there in the first place.


“You just don’t have a crystal ball,” Roman said Wednesday. “There’s a lot of factors that could happen, a lot of what-ifs, and you’ve got to, I think, plan for some of those scenarios. So you want to be as flexible and adaptable as possible, certainly from a personnel standpoint.

“I think there’s definitely a possibility that you’re going to need a lot of guys to play in the course of a year. It could happen. So we’ll see. It’s definitely something that we’re trying to build for, to be as adaptable as possible. It just goes back to: Every player in that locker room is important.”