The start of training camp is always an optimistic time, but I wouldn’t blame Ravens team officials for shivering with nervousness this year. What they experienced as camp began a year ago qualified as a disaster, and it’s hard to block the memory.
Every NFL team fears what I call the July Surprise – the out-of-nowhere injury, suspension or subtraction of some kind that wreaks havoc with their depth chart just as camp begins.
The Ravens dealt with so many July Surprises a year ago that their playoff hopes nearly were derailed long before they played a game.
Running back Kenneth Dixon suffered a season-ending knee injury just before camp began. Tight end Darren Waller was suspended for a year. Joe Flacco reported with a back injury that sidelined him until September, dealing the offense a major setback that reverberated for months. John Urschel, the likely starting center, abruptly retired before the first practice.
All of that came on top of the serious knee injury that cornerback Tavon Young suffered in a springtime OTA, as well as the hip injury that ended Dennis Pitta’s career around the same time.
The hits kept coming in training camp when rookie lineman Nico Siragusa was lost to a season-ending knee injury and receiver Breshad Perriman went down with a hamstring pull.
I crossed paths with a glassy-eyed team official in an Under Armour Performance Center hallway as all this went down. “Just trying to get through this,” he mumbled.
Although the Ravens endured and eventually just missed an AFC playoff berth, you can’t help wondering how their season would have gone without so many early obstacles to overcome. Flacco’s back injury, in particular, lingered as an issue into the season.
Last year’s July Surprises so traumatized the Ravens that you might see a fist pump or two from team officials if Flacco merely reports for camp without a twinge in his back later this week.
Few developments would signal more clearly that it’s a new year with better karma in play, or so the Ravens hope.
To be clear, they aren’t just fingering prayer beads and hoping for the best. After dealing with a debilitating run of injuries in several recent seasons, they’ve taken steps that, they hope, produce improved team-wide health.
Many players, especially veterans, received more time off during the spring season of OTA and minicamp practices, easing the load their bodies must endure.
Also, the Ravens are settling in with Steve Saunders, their head strength and conditioning coach, whose program, entering its second year, features cutting-edge techniques and sports science designed to limit injuries. Flacco and Terrell Suggs have raved about Saunders’ impact.
Injuries will still occur, no doubt – they’re inevitable in such a rugged game, and sometimes a knee gives out on the practice field during a non-contact drill. Injuries are up across the league.
But for what it’s worth, the Ravens sailed through their spring practices without any major subtractions this year. That’s a dramatic improvement, and the trend needs to continue for them to take their best shot at getting where they want to go in 2018.
Their schedule includes an extra week of training camp and an extra preseason game this year, which naturally increases the risk of injury, and the Ravens will also practice with the Los Angeles Rams and Indianapolis Colts before playing them in August. But Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh didn’t sound concerned last month.
“The fact that we can go hard and recover a little more, because we have a little more time to do that, is going to be a plus for us,” Harbaugh said. “We would have never done both (the Rams and Colts) in training camp if we didn’t have the extra time.”
The goal is for this year’s July (or August) Surprise to be that there’s no surprise at all, which would constitute a departure from recent seasons. A turn in the Ravens’ injury luck would bolster their playoff chances long before they play a game.