For Dennis Pitta, A Healthy Season Was Success In Its Own Right

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Reliable.

That's what Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta built a reputation on during his first three years in the NFL. He became one of quarterback Joe Flacco's most trusted targets, and a steady chain-moving threat in the Ravens offense.

Two hip surgeries derailed that reliability, however, and forced Pitta out of football for nearly two years. They threatened to end his career prematurely.

But after entering the 2016 season as one of the team's biggest question marks, Pitta has reassumed his status as one of Baltimore's most dependable offensive weapons.

To the surprise of many, Pitta will play in all 16 games when he suits up this Sunday in the regular-season finale in Cincinnati. And his production suggests that he's back to his old self.

Pitta's 75 receptions are the most on the Ravens, and the third most*among NFL tight ends, trailing only the Kansas City Chiefs' Travis Kelce (84) and Carolina Panthers' Greg Olsen (77). Pitta's 638 receiving yards are third most *on the team, and he's scored two touchdowns.

But Pitta isn't surprised, and neither are his teammates.

"As long as my hip was in place, I feel good about being able to be out there," Pitta said. "My hip has felt great all year."

That was a nerve-wracking "as long as," however. After Pitta dislocated and fractured his hip during training camp in 2013, then did the same thing in the Ravens' third game of the 2014 campaign, he had a different kind of surgery that gave a better chance of long-term stability.

Still, there were doctors, friends and family members that didn't think Pitta should return to football. The possibility of a third hip fracture seemed just too brutal.

But Pitta was determined, and he came into the season without trepidation. While reporters and fans may have cringed with every big hit early in the season, that faded. Pitta has stood up to the NFL's punishment.

"When I decided to come back, that was my expectation [to play all 16 games]," Pitta said. "It wasn't like, 'Oh, we'll see if I get hurt.' I felt good enough and knew that it would hold up."

With hindsight, it's easy to say now that Pitta would stay healthy and produce. But when he returned for organized team activities and training camp, there was still a wait-and-see approach. There was a reason why the Ravens signed veteran Benjamin Watson last offseason.

Over the course of last summer, the Ravens gained confidence that Pitta would not only play again, but play well.

"There was a point in there where I could tell, 'He's going to play. He wants to. He wants to too badly,'" Flacco said. "It's tough to really read the fact that this has been a huge deal for him. I think it has been what he's expected. That's why he's in this position, because he expected to come out here and play at some point."

Head Coach John Harbaugh said there was no "eureka moment" when he knew Pitta was going to be back to his old self.

"To my eye, once he was back practicing, he was back," Harbaugh said. "He's had a heck of a year. He's another guy who loves football, and I have nothing but the utmost respect for – just really respect what he's done."

"Not surprised," safety Lardarius Webb added. "You see him working in the training room and putting in work every morning you come in. You know he has the hands. You know he has the skills. You were just hoping that his hip would last and would be strong enough, and it did."

This offseason will be a whole lot different for Pitta.

He can have a normal offseason getting healthy, then preparing to be as explosive as he can be next season. Pitta also committed himself more to the weight room this year under the urging of safety and good friend Eric Weddle. So Pitta can be even better next year (he has two years remaining under his contract extension).

But, most of all, Pitta laughed and said it will be a different offseason because he won't have to "stress as much over life-changing decisions." And his mom and wife can finally be at ease, right?

"They will after next week, that's for sure," Pitta said, referring to Sunday's Bengals game.

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