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An Opener With No Fans Was Successful, But Surreal

M&T Bank Stadium
M&T Bank Stadium

The Ravens' first defensive drive of the 2020 season ended with Marlon Humphrey grabbing an interception. The defensive players sprinted to the stands to celebrate, except this time there was nobody waiting on the other side of the railing.

The Ravens' first offensive drive behind reigning MVP Lamar Jackson was punctuated by a leaping, one-handed touchdown catch by Mark Andrews. The most noticeable dancing came from the inflatable Bud Light Cellybrators in each end zone.

Baltimore's season-opening performance was dominant, but the atmosphere felt so different.

Playing the 2020 season opener without fans in the stands due to COVID-19 was a surreal experience that Ravens players and coaches won't forget.

So many things about the new normal for gameday felt abnormal. There was little traffic on the drive to M&T Bank Stadium. No tailgating in the parking lots. When the Ravens and Cleveland Browns ran onto the field, they were greeted with silence. No chorus of boos for the Browns. No crescendo of cheering for the Ravens.

Even from the upper deck, you heard clapping and yelling from both benches when somebody made a play. The cutouts of fans in the stands were not capable of yelling "Defense" when the Browns had the ball. Jackson still shook Cleveland defenders with moves, but the stadium didn't shake after any of his jukes or his three touchdown passes.

The Ravens handled their business in impressive fashion, winning 38-6. But doing it without fans in attendance sometimes made the experience seem surreal.

"I will say this; we miss the fans being here," Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh said. "The incredible amount of support from our fans that we normally have wasn't there. It was different. I felt like our guys did a great job at bringing their energy. We talked about it – B.Y.O.E. (Bring Your Own Energy). We had a T-shirt made up. And they did it."

The Ravens still found inspiration in the stands from looking at "Mo's Rows" the section of 576 cutouts honoring Ravens superfan Mo Gaba, who died of cancer on July 28 at the age of 14. The Ravens surprised Mo's mother, Sonsy, by inviting her the stadium on Friday for a pre-game look at Mo's Rows, and she helped paint "BaltiMOre" in the end zone, with Mo's name in gold.

Real fans were replaced by about 3,000 cardboard cutouts with fans' photos printed on them (all proceeds benefitted COVID-19 relief in the Baltimore area). Actor Josh Charles had a cutout, which he talked about on the “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon Show”.

As they warmed up before the game, multiple Ravens players walked around the stadium looking up into the stands at the cardboard cutouts. Some, such as wide receiver Willie Snead IV, knelt and said a prayer in front of Mo's Rows. It wasn't anything like living, breathing fans, but it helped.

"Josh Charles, he was bragging all week about how he bought his cardboard cutout," Harbaugh said. "We love all the people that supported Mo's Rows. That was really an incredible thing. So, thank you to all the fans who are supporting us from outside in, we definitely appreciate it."

The players shared those sentiments, and hammering the Browns was one way the Ravens could thank their fans who couldn't be in the stadium.

Rookie inside linebacker Patrick Queen had a terrific debut as a Raven, leading the team with eight tackles, recording a sack,  and forcing a fumble. Ravens fans love their defense, and they already love Queen. He's looking forward to hearing that love when fans return someday, and he's hoping it becomes a reality later this season.

"I wish I could put on for them, but I know they were at home watching, and we still got some excitement out of them and gave them some good stuff on TV to get them excited," Queen said. "I can't wait for them to be back."

At the end of the day, the Ravens still played with plenty of energy. As Queen said, "It's football; you've got to love the game. If you don't love the game of football, then you worry about fans, and you're not going to have fun."

Each team could hear the other side clearly shouting things out before the snap. The Ravens offense had to take extra precautions to be hushed in the huddle.

"It's definitely different, being able to hear calls and what the defense is saying and stuff like that – there's that aspect of it, a little bit. You hear what they're doing," Andrews said. "And then, obviously, we have to communicate on offense as well. Trying to be quiet, trying to stay [quiet] so they can't hear what we're doing. It's just different."

After the game's first touchdown, Andrews was mobbed by teammates in the end zone and spiked the ball with emotion. But where were the cheers echoing in Andrews' ears? Andrews missed them.

"Baltimore fans are incredible, and I can't tell you how much they help us out. Definitely felt that – (we) missed them today. I'm looking forward to, hopefully, having fans soon."

Now the Ravens know what it feels like to play an NFL game without fans. It's not something they want. But if the results are like Sunday's, the situation will be easier to deal with.

"Going into it, I didn't know how it was going to be," wide receiver Marquise "Hollywood" Brown said. "But just being out there with the guys, everybody was fired up. Everybody had their own energy; bring your own energy. So, we were out there having fun. Whenever we do get fans, it's going to be a lot better."

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