How long did the Ravens’ four-year playoff drought feel?
Marshal Yanda’s mouth curled into a grin as he considered how to sum it up. “Somebody was asking me about tickets today, and if we got tickets during the playoff games,” the 12-year veteran said. “And I couldn’t really [remember]. I was like, ‘Uh, it’s been a little while.’ ”
He laughed along with the reporters surrounding him. But in truth, a lot of pain and frustration went into those four years. For Yanda, the seven-time Pro Bowl guard, a shoulder injury forced him to switch from the right to the left side in 2016, and a broken ankle cost him most of the 2017 season.
Like his small band of teammates who’ve been around since the Ravens’ last playoff appearance, Yanda is not about to take Sunday’s game against the Los Angeles Chargers for granted. “This is why we all play,” he said. “We’re excited.”
Four years is a lifetime in professional football. That’s not hyperbole; the average career lasts 3.3 seasons, according to the NFL Players Association.
If you need a flesh-and-blood demonstration, just compare the roster of the 2018 Ravens with that of the 2014 team, the last to make the playoffs. Of the 53 names on each, only 11 are the same.
Those who’ve covered the expanse range from Terrell Suggs, already an institution in 2014, to C.J. Mosley, who was a rookie then and has grown into a centerpiece over the intervening years.
There’s a shared feeling of satisfaction (with a dose of relief) among these 11 men, who suffered through the late-season disappointments and fan backlash that have haunted recent seasons.
“I would say this year, making it to where we are right now, there is a really specific sense of accomplishment,” kicker Justin Tucker said. “It is different than 2014 or 2012, just because of all the tight games and tough situations we’ve had to battle through. This vibe is different. There seems to be a little more intensity to it.”
Two of the least likely names on the list of 11 sit one stall part in the Ravens locker room. Anthony Levine Sr. and James Hurst could hardly seem more different on the surface, one a 5-foot-11 defensive back who’s created a special-teams alter ego named “Co-Cap,” the other a 310-pound lineman who might be the most easygoing character on the team.
Both are NFL survivors, however, who’ve made themselves indispensable to the Ravens by taking on unglamorous roles with aplomb. Levine is the special-teams mainstay who can slot in to the secondary whenever the Ravens face a pass-happy offense or lose a player to injury. Hurst is the utility lineman who can deliver competent work at either guard or tackle spot.
“I remember [special teams coordinator and assistant head coach] Jerry [Rosburg] and [coach John Harbaugh] telling me, ‘The more tools you have in your tool bag, the more valuable you are,’ ” Levine said. “If you’re just a special-teams player, you can stay around for a little bit, but you’ve got to be able to do more. You can’t just be a one-trick pony.”
On the same row of lockers sits Tucker, one of the most popular players with Ravens fans and the most accurate kicker in league history. Within this chaotic world of comings and goings, Tucker is part of an unshakable triumvirate know (with tongues slightly in cheeks) as “the Wolfpack.”
They’re also known as punter Sam Koch, who’s been around longer than any Raven but Suggs; Morgan Cox, the team’s long snapper since 2010; and Tucker, the baby of the bunch in his seventh season. You can’t talk to any one of them without hearing about all three. That’s their credo.
“It’s not something that we take for granted,” Rosburg said of the three-man bond. “It’s an enduring thing that we stand on every week. Our core players know that too.”
Come playoff time, the kicking unit swims against the tide.
“It does seem like the intensity is ramped up a little bit,” Tucker said. “But I feel like a big part of my job is managing the emotions that come with playing in an NFL game. Everybody else in the stands and on our sideline can be as emotionally invested as they want to be, but if I do that, I feel like it could affect me. So Morgan, Sam and I try as best we can to hold that all back until after the game, when we’re celebrating in the locker room.”
Of the 11 holdovers, the one in the most unfamiliar position is quarterback Joe Flacco. In 2014, Flacco was the unquestioned face of the franchise, two years off his Super Bowl Most Valuable Player performance and delivering the best statistical season of his career under then-offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak. Now, he’s the backup to rookie Lamar Jackson and likely preparing to stand on the sideline for his last home game at M&T Bank Stadium.
You can still see Flacco joking with Jackson and flinging spirals at practice, but he’s no longer the man who stands before the media every Wednesday to speak for the team.
The rest of the 11 (defensive end Brent Urban was around in 2014 but on injured reserve) are key members of the Ravens’ No. 1 defense.
Defensive tackle Brandon Williams was a first-year starter in 2014, just beginning to prove that he’d been a major steal in the third round of the previous year’s draft. Now he’s established as one of the most reliable run-stoppers in the NFL, finishing up the second season in a five-year, $54 million contract.
There’s cornerback Jimmy Smith, who finished last season on suspension for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs and started this season on suspension for violating the league’s personal conduct policy in a custody dispute with his ex-girlfriend.
He’s still adept at hanging step-for-step with the league’s best receivers, but Smith talks like a much older man at 30 than he did at 26. He took for granted how good the Ravens were in his early seasons with the team. “It’s definitely changed,” he said after they clinched their playoff berth on Sunday. “When I first got here, first couple of years, we were really good. We got there quickly, and I guess kind of took for granted how hard it is to come by wins in this league. To have six years before we win another championship — at least [in the] division — you kind of really appreciate it even more now.”
Mosley seemed ready to be on the field for every play from the moment he walked in the door of the Ravens’ practice facility in Owings Mills, a rarity for a rookie. These days, first- and second-year players talk openly about emulating the 26-year-old middle linebacker.
“I joke around with him about it, and it’s the truth,” defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale said. “When they come in as rookies, obviously they’re really young. But he’s playing full-grown-man, old-man football now. … I think that sets the tempo for our defense. ”
Despite his four Pro Bowl appearances in five seasons, Mosley’s career had been defined in part by the defensive letdowns that cost the Ravens essential games in 2016 and 2017. He felt the weight of it all as Baker Mayfield’s final pass zipped toward his hands Sunday evening.
“It felt like it was in the air forever,” he said of his playoff berth-clinching interception against the Cleveland Browns.
Finally there’s Suggs, a quieter presence (at least publicly) this season but still the defense’s dean and de facto spokesman.
He’s now played more games than any other player in Ravens history. He lined up for playoff battles with Ray Lewis and Ed Reed and bounced back from tearing each of his Achilles tendons. After all that, he did not even attempt to downplay the significance of returning to the postseason.
“You can’t take getting into the second season and playing in January for granted,” Suggs said. “We’re one of the last 12 teams playing, and we’re going to do something great. This team’s kind of writing its own story.”
Many of the 11 holdovers offered similar responses when asked what wisdom they would share with younger teammates experiencing the playoffs for the first time. They advocate a blend of business as usual and appreciating the glory of the moment.
“I tell people, ‘Don’t change what we’ve been doing,’ ” Yanda said. “Our preparation has not changed from training camp, and how you approach this game from day-in to day-out, it doesn’t matter who you’re playing.”
But this is not just another game, he and others acknowledged.
“Cherish this moment,” Levine said. “We used to think the playoffs was a given. We’re the Ravens, we’re going to get in. So I would just say cherish it; don’t let a moment go by, thinking, ‘Oh, I’ll get it done next time.’ ”