The NFL received a shock Thursday morning with the sudden passing of Gene Upshaw, the Hall of Fame guard and executive director of the NFL Players Association.
He was 63 when pancreatic cancer claimed his life at his home in Lake Tahoe, Calif.
Every player in the league owes thanks to Upshaw, who guided the union through the 1987 strike over labor concerns, for being an integral part in the institution of the Collective Bargaining Agreement of 1993.
That measure brought forth the coveted idea of free agency that not only allows players to sign the multi-million dollar contracts of today, but also led to increased parity, which gives any team the chance to be competitive year after year.
Since then, the players have prospered so much that NFL owners recently opted out of the latest labor contract, which was negotiated two years ago by Upshaw and former commissioner Paul Tagliabue.
In fact, the NFL has enjoyed the longest streak of labor peace in any of the top four professional sports, consisting of the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL.
Upshaw had recently received criticism for issues ranging from NFL veterans and their health care, and not being forceful enough when representing the players to owners and the commissioner.
Matt Stover, the longtime Ravens' NFLPA representative, thinks such criticism only comes with being a strong leader.
"He had, what I call, courage to deal with some hard issues and some hard times in the NFL," Stover said after Thursday's practice. "To lead guys through strikes and lockouts and scab games and to not take income, a salary [was courageous]. [He was] somebody who made hard decisions, sometimes very unpopular.
"As you know, there's been a lot of opposition to Gene, but he led like he felt the union needed to be led, and you can't fault a man for that."
Stover noted that the player's association has already named an interim replacement in Richard Berthelsen, who has been the NFLPA general counsel.
"I think that is very wise," Stover explained. "Our executive committee immediately responded to make sure that the union realized that we have leadership intact, and that the players understand it and the NFL owners know that we have proper leadership."
As a player, Upshaw was regarded as one of the best offensive linemen of his era. He played 15 years with the Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders, earning two Super Bowl rings and seven Pro Bowl berths.
"He laid the groundwork for guys such as myself and players of today, not only for what he did for the union, but also how he played and the caliber of person that he was," Stover said. "I can't say enough about that. At this point, it's a shock to all of us.
"It's something where we as a union and as players are going to take some time to grieve. I'm hoping that I can go to the funeral and pay my respects to him and his family."
Noise, Noise, Noise
In order to prepare for the St. Louis Rams' Edward Jones Dome this weekend, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh moved practice inside the fieldhouse Thursday and set up speakers on the sideline.
Sound technicians piped in loud crowd noise throughout the entire session, turning the volume up when Baltimore's quarterbacks took the line of scrimmage.
"It's better than going out there Saturday and getting crowd noise and being shocked with it," said Harbaugh. "It helped us. We had a few issues that we improved on."
No Heap or Gregg, But Maybe Wilcox
Starting tight end Todd Heap has been nursing leg injuries. Starting defensive tackle Kelly Gregg is coming back from a knee injury.
And, while they both could potentially play this weekend or in the Ravens' preseason finale against the Atlanta Falcons, Harbaugh is going to keep his two stalwarts on the bench until Sept. 7 for the regular-season opener.
"You'd like to, but it may not be the best thing for them," Harbaugh said. "Those guys have played a lot, and they had good camps up until they had their issues, so I think our No. 1 priority for those guys is Cincinnati."
Meanwhile, another key contributor that has been hampered by injuries, tight end Daniel Wilcox (foot), is expected to play after only one full week of practice in 2008.
"He's trying like heck to get in and play, so there's a good chance he'll play if we don't have a setback between now and then," said the coach of Wilcox.
Gordon Sees Opportunity
With Gregg and fellow defensive tackle Kelly Talavou (shoulder) sidelined, Amon Gordon knows he will see more snaps this Saturday against the Rams.
He took advantage of those opportunities in a big way last week when he posted six tackles - two of which were for losses - and a sack.
Still, Gordon doesn't want to get overly excited, considering his career path. Gordon has been cut from two teams over his three-year career - the Cleveland Browns and Denver Broncos - after being drafted in the fifth round of the 2004 draft.
"I've been in situations where I've played well and not been able to move forward, so I know what that feels like," Gordon said. "I need to make sure that I take advantage of my opportunities when I can.
"Guys are nicked up, and it's really unfortunate for those great guys. But, that's part of the game - you can't control that. What I can control is how I play on the field."
Now that defenses are allowed to have one member of the unit wear a sideline-to-helmet radio, the Ravens have been working through many glitches in the system. "It's a big concern," Harbaugh said. "They need to be able to hear the radios. Is it us operating it? Is it the signal not coming through? What is it exactly? We're studying that right now and we want to make sure we have it right, because when they don't get the call, then we're not on the same page. It's been spotty in practice, too."…Right tackle Adam Terry seems to be near 100 percent after missing significant time due to an ankle injury. He has already reclaimed his starting spot from Mike Kracalik...Ex-Ravens center Mike Flynn was signed by the New England Patriots.