OWINGS MILLS, Md. — When you report at NFL training camps, interviewing people is often a balancing act, with 80 or so players and all the coaches coming off the field at nearly the same time. Last Monday morning around 11:15, the Ravens’ PR staff and I had a four-man weave going as the team finished practice. I needed coach John Harbaugh, quarterback Lamar Jackson, tackle Alejandro Villanueva and the man the offense hoped to get 300 touches this year, running back J.K. Dobbins. None of the interviews can be very long, lest you lose one or two you really need.
Jackson would be sometime later. Villanueva came first, as he walked off the field. Then I got shuttled to Harbaugh, and had a three-way chat with him and owner Steve Bisciotti. That left Dobbins. While with Harbaugh, I noticed Dobbins out of the corner of my eye, waiting for me to finish, and the problem was, I’d barely started with Harbaugh. Dobbins just waited. Three, four, five, six minutes. I’ve had a lot of experience doing these things, and I can tell you that the player often doesn’t wait. Maybe I’d get him later in the day, maybe it’s a washout.
Dobbins, in shorts, white socks and no shoes, waited.
“Pleasure to meet you!” Dobbins said.
We’d never spoken before, and I remembered reading something about his disappointment at sliding down to the 55th pick of the 2020 draft coming out of Ohio State, despite having a comparable college career to Ezekiel Elliott. I wanted to make the point to him that after covering the league for a long time, one of the verities I’d learned was it doesn’t matter how high you are picked; it matters who picks you. I never got to the statistical point I was ready to make, that Baltimore has rushed for 1,400 more yards than anyone in football the past two years, and nobody in this day and age runs it 56 percent of the offensive snaps . . . except the team he’s on, the team that saw him average 6.0 yards per carry as a rookie, the team that’s nirvana for a running back. That team had a blueprint to use J.K. Dobbins a ton in 2021.
“How much do you want that?” I asked.
Dobbins made a “phew!” sound. He paused a second, then said:
“How much do I want it? Man, let me think,” he said. “Let me think of some analogy here. I want that more than a person wants to breathe. I want to be that guy because that’s just who I am. I wanna be the best. Why not me? I train with one of the best—Dalvin Cook. We’re best buddies. He was second in scrimmage yards in the league last year.
“I’m just thinking, every day I lay my head down, my mind is racing about how to be the best. I went to the same college as Ezekiel Elliott. I had more yards than him. Why not me in the NFL? I want that. I wanna be the bell cow. I wanna be the guy that my teammates look to like, We wanna be on your shoulders. My offensive line is looking at me like, We want this guy to run behind us. I can feel it from them. I’ve been working hard for it. I think I’m ready for it if that opportunity comes.”
Saturday. Five days later. Preseason finale at Washington. Ninth offensive snap of the game for Baltimore, with the first unit getting a final cameo before the opener 16 days away in Las Vegas. Dobbins caught a short pass out of the backfield from Lamar Jackson, and got sandwiched, WFT corner Jimmy Moreland hitting him from the front at the left knee and linebacker Jordan Kunaszyk dragging him down from the back.
Immediately, WFT linebacker Khaleke Hudson began waving to the Baltimore sidelines for a trainer. As the play unpiled, Dobbins didn’t get up. He grabbed his left knee.
“Look out,” said Ravens TV voice Gerry Sandusky on the telecast. “J.K. Dobbins, injured on the play and clutching his leg. And this . . .”
“. . . is a potential worst-case scenario.”
With the Dallas-Tampa Bay season-opener 10 days away, there’s much still to be decided all over the league. Among the issues: 864 players getting released or IR’d on 32 teams before 4 p.m. ET Tuesday . . . 512 players to be re-signed to practice squads . . . a flurry of trades that’s already started (Sony Michel, Shaun Wade, Gardner Minshew and Lawson replacing Lawson with the Jets), with teams looking to move players they’d likely cut . . . the fate of Deshaun Watson possibly in the balance (but I’m dubious) before cutdown . . . Covid still likely to play havoc with some team before Week 1, despite 93 percent of NFL players being vaccinated . . . a slew of players trying to make it back for opening weekend (including almost every significant Giants skill player) . . . Hurricane Ida leaving some uncertainty in New Orleans and the NFL TV schedule in Week 1 . . . and a man who wears a sweatshirt reading “ANALYZE MORE NEVER GUESS” being thrown a rotten curveball just before roster cutdown, wondering if he should sit still with the roster he’s built or go chase a running back to replace his bell cow.
The worst case was realized after an MRI on Sunday. J.K. Dobbins tore his ACL on Saturday night when his left knee hyperextended inward; per Mike Garofolo of NFL Network, the damage might be more than just the ACL. Dobbins is gone for the year. It’s likely no contending team suffered a bigger injury in August than the Ravens did in losing Dobbins for the year, and it left GM Eric DeCosta perusing the running-back market (Houston’s Phillip Lindsay? Indy’s Nyheim Hines?) or thinking the Ravens can survive with roster-depth powerback Gus Edwards and youngsters Ty’Son Williams and Justice Hill. The Ravens were deep in personnel meetings Sunday trying to figure it all out. And DeCosta, the wearer of ANALYZE MORE NEVER GUESS, was likely leaning in part on his burgeoning analytics team to help him decide. My guess: Baltimore will stand pat, because of its faith in Edwards, and because Williams has opened eyes throughout camp.
Crucial players disappear. That’s life in the NFL. My story out of Baltimore was going to be how the Ravens always seem to figure it out. They’re never bad. They went 5-11 in 2015; that’s John Harbaugh’s only losing season out of 13. They have to be good every year to compete with the Steelers, who are just as impressive. (Regular-season and playoff wins from 2011-20: Baltimore 104, Pittsburgh 104.)
Now it’s up to DeCosta (the Ravens are 26-9 since he took the GM reins from Ozzie Newsome two years ago) and Harbaugh to be sure the Dobbins injury doesn’t derail their hopes for the season.
Every year I’ve been at Ravens’ camp, the drill is similar. I look out on the field and see two or three vet free-agents, or vets acquired in trade, dropped out of the sky onto a contending team. This year, there are four newbies: right tackle Alejandro Villanueva, right guard Kevin Zeitler, wide receiver Sammy Watkins and pass-rusher Justin Houston. As a class, that’s a pretty impressive foursome. Near the end of my time with Harbaugh, he nodded to a trio of players walking off the field behind me: Houston and two young front-seven players.
“Justin’s teaching ‘em,” Harbaugh said. “How great is that?”
Houston’s agent, Joel Segal, called DeCosta a couple of times after Houston’s time in Indianapolis ended last winter. DeCosta told Segal the Ravens just didn’t have the cap money to go after Houston. Make an offer, Segal said. I don’t want to insult a guy who will be a Hall of Fame candidate one day, DeCosta said. Meanwhile, cornerback Marcus Peters, one of Houston’s good friends, texted DeCosta in all-caps one day: JUSTIN HOUSTON. Finally, DeCosta told Segal he’d make an offer. One year, $2 million. DeCosta felt almost embarrassed, and for a player coming off a two-year, $18-million deal in Indy, the offer was a major comedown. Houston settled for a year and $2.075 million. He just wanted to play for the Ravens.
That’s one benefit for Harbaugh and this team: Even when the money’s relatively low, vets with something left still want to come. “I always try to make sure guys understand, Hey, this is what you’re getting into. These are our standards. This is what we believe in. This is our world view,” Harbaugh said. “These guys tell us they know, they’ve talked to our guys and they know. That makes me feel good, that our guys are saying good things about our program.”
Harbaugh credits Bisciotti for setting the stage; Bisciotti watches tape of draft prospects so when he sits in on draft discussions he can understand why DeCosta is high and low on various players. It’s hard to give a Cliff’s Notes explanation of the Ravens’ pursuit of excellence, but Harbaugh tried:
“I think it’s just a relentless persistence in everything you do, all the time, to be as good as you can be. Whether it’s scheme—we’re never satisfied with our scheme—or how we teach our scheme to make sure our players understand what we’re trying to get accomplished.
“We try not to live in a world of gray. We live in a world of black and white when we teach. We tell players, This is what we want you to do. This is what we want it to look like. Crystal clear. Every play we run, every defense we call, every special-teams rep we take. What stems from that is a real clear vision in terms of what type of players you have, what the roles are. And you try to get the type of players that fit those roles. Then the other piece is the type of personality, character, work ethic that fits what’s gonna be expected. It’s gonna be a lot of work. You come here, you know you’re gonna work. It’s gonna be football-based. We get guys who embrace that.”
The other part of the Ravens I’ve always thought was important is this: Most teams get apoplectic when big-money players reach free agency and it looks like they might leave. The Ravens almost welcome it. Huge contracts elsewhere for players like C.J. Mosley, Za’Darius Smith, Matthew Judon and Yannick Ngakoue mean savings for the Ravens cap, plus Compensatory Draft Picks. The Ravens lead the league in those extra draft choices over the past 20 years. Harbaugh, Newsome and DeCosta have thick skin, and they can take the sky-is-falling fan sentiment when big vets leave; they know it’s part of a smart circle of life in the NFL.
That doesn’t make days like Sunday any better for earnest people like Dobbins, who provided a huge boost for the offense last year as his workload increased. The Ravens have been worn down this summer by soft-tissue injuries to key offensive weapons Marquise Brown, Sammy Watkins, Miles Boykin and Rashod Bateman. Now the biggest injury of them all. Days before his season ended at FedEx Field, Dobbins was smiling about his professional fate. “Coming here was God’s way of calming me down and letting me know I’m in the right place,” Dobbins said.
There will be time to consider everything else with this story, particularly what erasing a potential hugely productive season will do for a back scheduled to earn $870,000 in the second year of a four-year second-round deal. But a bright prospect with a starry season ahead of him on a likely playoff team is done in August, and it stinks. Just another reminder how unforgiving the NFL can be.