The biggest loss in terms of football preparation during this COVID-19 offseason was, of course, the on-field work. There's just no way to have a virtual football practice.
But there were other important factors lost in the emptiness of the Under Armour Performance Center over the past three-plus months.
"Obviously, you can't get the one-on-one, fast pace of the practice," Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale said. "But the biggest thing we focused on was the camaraderie and the culture, because that's the challenge to replicate in building this thing. But we're proud of how we've approached that part."
A team starts to form not in Week 1, or even when training camp opens. It begins when the players first arrive for the strength and conditioning program in April, and it grows through those Spring OTAs and the June minicamp. That bonding was something Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh and his assistants were not willing to give up, and Martindale ran with it.
Harbaugh brought in some heavy hitters such as former Ravens Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Steve Smith Sr. for full-team Zoom meetings. Then Martindale recruited his own All-Star cast for his defensive meetings.
Before he was one of the NFL's best defensive coordinators, Martindale was an economics and business education high school teacher. So when it became clear that OTAs were going to go digital this year, he and his staff thought about how to avoid what he called "Zoom fatigue."
"I taught some boring subjects. So, I think you had to be creative," Martindale said. "I wanted to make it where they couldn't wait to come to the defensive meetings. We wanted to make it an event. We wanted to build a champion mindset and getting our culture right, because that was the most important goal that we had this offseason.
"We really wanted champions from all walks of life. They all had a common message, and that was cool; different eras, different sports, different arenas, and I think they all knocked it out. … I think we hit a home run with the speakers we had."
Here's the list of speakers, and Martindale's summary of them and their message:
Former Ravens DT Tony Siragusa:
"'Goose', who I think is a Hall of Fame teammate – if there was such a thing – he should get a gold jacket for that, along with his other accolades. He just kept it real with the players – what it was to become a champ."
Former Ravens S Eric Weddle:
"Weddle was great. It's a great perspective with Eric, because he talked about San Diego, then he also talked about L.A., compared to his Baltimore experience. He was awesome. The thing that stood out to me, and this is Eric Weddle, is he said, 'Hey guys, if a coach tells you, you had a good practice, that's not good enough. Don't walk in that building unless you want to be great. You want to have a great practice.' And he also talked to all the guys about ignoring the noises outside and preparation of being a pro."
ESPN Anchor Sage Steele
"We had Sage Steele, who I think is the best host and anchor in the business at ESPN. She talked about her own path, her own challenges, the challenges that she had in coming up through the business, and all the way back to [Indiana University], and I thought that was great – the perseverance that she showed. She also talked about the [Golden State] Warriors and other championship teams, what she thought that make up was, because she saw it up close."
Former World Heavyweight Champion Larry Holmes
"Larry Holmes was awesome – the champ. The biggest thing he hit on is that … I don't know how many of you are boxing fans – he was [former world heavyweight champion] Muhammad Ali's sparring partner for five years. I tied this with the practice squad guys and the undrafted free agents, and those types of guys. He didn't care if he got paid or not, he was learning from the greatest. So, he took every day that he went to work as a lesson. You know what he did – he eventually beat Ali. And he was quick to say – for all you boxing fans – that Ali was past his prime."
Former Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard
"Ryan Howard is a Rockstar – the MVP first baseman for the world champion [Philadelphia] Phillies. He's an underdog story – came from Missouri State. He also hit 58 home runs in a season, and he made it look like a softball league that year. But he said, 'Ignore the depth chart. Just become undeniable in what you want to do.'"
Former Dallas Cowboys and Denver Broncos OLB DeMarcus Ware
"DeMarcus Ware was awesome. Reminded me of a Ray Lewis-type of leader. He led by example. The thing there was becoming a leader from one team to another, which was good for Calais [Campbell] and Derek [Wolfe], and his thoughts on that."
Former Ravens Associate Head Coach/Special Teams Coordinator Jerry Rosburg
"We love Jerry. He talked about the standards of being a Raven, in his eyes."
Former Navy SEAL Commander Mark McGinnis
"He got the most questions from the players. It was awesome. He was talking about [how] training is harder than any competition, and not everybody can prepare like a SEAL. And he sees it the same way with the Ravens; not everybody can prepare like a Raven. We talked about teamwork. A lot of those guys were talking about being selfless."
Kentucky Men's Basketball Head Coach John Calipari
"He's one of the great personalities in sports. He talked about servant leadership, selflessness in pursuit of a common goal, and he challenged players. He talked about individual plays. He's a fan of ours. He watches the Ravens."
Former NBA champion and MVP Julius Erving
"'Dr. J' was awesome. He was awesome, because he gave a great perspective during the Civil Rights era – when he played and how he handled it. I thought that was good for the guys at the time. And we all know 'Dr. J' was – as I introduced him to the players – he was Michael Jordan's Michael Jordan, if you will."
President of the Baltimore City Council and 2020 Baltimore Mayoral Election Democratic nominee Brandon Scott:
"Brandon Scott was the one who knocked our socks off. You could see the greatness in him when he was talking. He talked about the future of Baltimore and how he sees it. It's a very timely discussion of issues in our city, and [he] outlined ways that our players can help. He's an inspiration about where he came from, and how he's become where he was at."
Former NFL Ravens Defensive Coordinator Rex Ryan & former NFL Defensive Coordinator Rob Ryan:
"Obviously, Rex's time with the Ravens, he spoke about that. And Rob – the 'Chasing Greatness' with those guys, we talked about Buddy Ryan, who I think is the defensive innovator in the NFL. I think he was one of the greatest coordinators, if not the greatest coordinator, of all time in the NFL."