BALTIMORE -- He skipped onto the field for pregame warmups, his jersey rolled up under his shoulder pads. M&T Bank Stadium, already half full, roared to life.
He gathered his teammates in a circle at the end of warmups. The stadium JumboTron captured every move. His neck snapped back and forth as he barked his message to the troops. His fingers jerked, his arms flapped. The stadium, now three-quarters full, roared again.
Then came the pregame introductions, the moment when players run from the tunnel to the field. “Where the Streets Have No Name,” by U2 echoed through the stadium. A live drum line added an insistent backbeat. Flames burst from torches on either side of the tunnel, followed by Roman candle bursts, as each player took the field.
There is a definite hierarchy to Ravens introductions. Some teams go in positional order but save one superstar for the end. The Ravens handle introductions like a Broadway curtain call, bit players to supporting actors to stars. Haloti Ngata! (Flames, fireworks, cheers.) Terrell Suggs! (Flames, fireworks, more cheers.) Ed Reed! (Flames, fireworks, a real ruckus.)
Suddenly, the music changed to “Hot in Herre.” The flames escalated obligingly. He appeared among billows of smoke. It was the moment we waited for. Ray Lewis: Helpless Dancer.
We have seen Lewis’ pregame war dance before. It is usually aggressive, intense, spastic enough to invite easy parody. This dance was smooth, celebratory, exuberant. He grabbed a patch of turf and clutched it to his heart. He craned his neck and sounded his barbaric yelp over the roofs of Baltimore. He glided to and fro. The crowd thrummed. The fighter jet flyover that occurred moments later was both quieter and less climactic.
Ray Lewis danced before the final home game of his career joyously and carelessly, like it wouldn’t be the last time.
What motivational power all of this cavorting and gesticulating had was not clear at the end of the 24-9 Ravens victory. Football players are only slightly more electrified by the sight of a coworker boogying as you or I might be. Anyone who needs motivation to get pumped for a home playoff game will probably never participate in a home playoff game. The inspirational power of a dance – or even a trusted teammate’s return to the field after a long absence – only goes so far. Coach John Harbaugh said it succinctly during the post-game hysteria: “You don't play a 60-minute football game on emotion."
The Ravens, in fact, looked listless for much of the game. They were sloppy and sporadic on offense, particularly in the first half, which isn’t exactly news. They gave up long drives on defense, only to stiffen once the Colts were deep in their own territory. For the first quarter-and-a-half, they hardly looked inspired at all.
The Ravens did not win because Lewis danced. They won because Paul Kruger looked down at his jersey, saw the No. 99, and decided that he was J.J. Watt. Kruger had a strip sack, another 1.5 sacks, and a deflected pass; two of his big plays came at the Colts' 30-yard line, stopping two different drives. They won because Bernard Pierce picked up the slack for Ray Rice, who develops fumblitis in the playoffs, and carried 13 times for 103 yards. (Rice added 117 total yards, including a 47-yard screen catch-and-run that uncorked the Ravens offense before halftime.) They won because Joe Flacco shook off a miserable first half and began targeting Anquan Boldin on the Ravens’ signature sideline bombs, and the Colts could not stop them.
They also won because they were facing a team with an offensive starting lineup full of rookies and a sick offensive coordinator. Bruce Arians was taken to the hospital before the game with nausea and dizziness. His condition is not considered serious, and veteran coach Clyde Christensen called a fine game in his absence. The Colts kept their composure for much of the afternoon, but there were moments when T.Y. Hilton or Vick Ballard could not haul in a pass, or when Kruger beat rookie lineman Bradley Sowell off the snap, where they looked like a young team, on the road, dealing with another curve ball, out of their depth.
Lewis himself finished with 13 very quiet tackles, most of them after receptions or six-yard runs. Andrew Luck gift-wrapped a pass and shipped it straight to Lewis’ midsection, but Lewis bobbled and dropped it. A third quarter pass to Reggie Wayne sailed just beyond Lewis’ fingertips; Lewis joked after the game that the brace he wore on his arm kept him from extending. Late in the game, Luck escaped the pocket and raced past Lewis as if the future Hall of Famer were standing still. The all-time great is still very good, but that position at the end of the pregame fireworks display is a lifetime achievement award.
Lewis the player was productive but not exceptional on Sunday. Lewis the inspirational figure probably did not rattle the Colts more than many other factors rattled them (and again, they were not too rattled). Teammates told us what we wanted to hear after the game – “I think everybody was affected by it. We all wanted to play well for him,” Boldin said – but they visibly gathered themselves before they spoke, body language that said: We won a playoff game for the fifth straight year, practiced hard all week, I had 145 receiving yards, and we are talking about a freakin’ dance.
And now, the left brain takes a brief break. A grown man doing a dance originally called “The Squirrel” is not the stuff of left-brain thinking. The right brain has a point to make: It’s not how you won or lost, it’s why you play the game.
Football’s appeal is its inspirational power. If the sport did not provide a sense of wonder, a feeling that we could enjoy, vicariously, those moments of power, victory and euphoria, then we would not watch.
Fans came early to watch Lewis warm up. They chanted “Thank you, Ray” as the Ravens iced the game. They stayed late to watch him perform a Cal Ripken victory lap. Hundreds of them waited by the players’ exit, an hour after the game, hoping for a photo or an autograph. Lewis is Baltimore’s greatest sports hero since Ripken, its greatest football hero since Johnny Unitas. The dance is inspiration for the people football is supposed to inspire. Lewis is a reason to thrum, howl and get swept up for a few moments. It does not have to affect the outcome of the game to affect us.
Lewis danced before the final home game of his career joyously and carelessly, like it wouldn’t be the last time. It wasn’t. For the game’s final play, Harbaugh put him in as the deep “running back” in the victory formation. Flacco knelt. And Lewis danced, because his last ride is not yet over.
Ray Lewis was halfway through his press conference when the in-house telecast at M&T Stadium stopped showing a glowing image of a No. 52 jersey and switched over to the Redskins-Seahawks game. Through the miracle of Twitter, I knew that the Redskins led 7-0 and that they had waltzed down the field during their first drive. When the game flickered on in the conference room, my attention was divided between Lewis and the Redskins.
I felt guilty, except that Lewis’ attention was divided, too. He kept stealing glances at the screen as he spoke. After all, the Redskins were in the red zone. Things were getting interesting.
Here’s Lewis talking about what Ravens fans have meant to him:
“Everything I did to get back, if it wasn’t for my team, it was for my city. That’s one thing that I bought into from Day One. I’m not just here in this city to play football, I’m here to actually create real change in this city. If my effort can give you hope, faith or love, then so be it. I’ll give everything I have, and today was about me giving everything that I had, showing people that no matter the circumstances that you may be going through, just push through it. If you can push through it, you will encourage somebody. Today, hopefully through what I did today, somebody was uplifted.”
Meanwhile, a few dozen miles down I-95, Griffin rolled out, threw an incomplete pass, and landed awkwardly. Then a handoff, followed by a touchdown pass. The replay showed Bruce Irvin giving Griffin a rough shove as the quarterback stumbled and winced with pain after stepping through the pass.
Lewis told a funny story about the birth of the Ravens:
“I’ll never forget the phone call that [general manager] Ozzie Newsome gave me. I picked up the phone, and Ozzie said, ‘Hey, how are you doing? This is Ozzie Newsome. I want to congratulate you, because we are going to draft you.’ The first thing I said to him, I was like, ‘Ozzie, what’s our team name going to be? Who are we?’ We hadn’t made the transition yet. We were still the Browns, and we hadn’t gotten uniforms yet. We had none of that. It was all a huge shock. I was like, ‘I don’t know who I’m playing for. I don’t know where I’m going or anything like that.’ But, I’ve always told everybody that God doesn’t make mistakes, and he knew that Baltimore would be a very special place to bring football back.”
Meanwhile, Griffin disappeared into that strange little box at FedEx Field for some of the woodshed triage that we have seen a little too often this season. Griffin emerged from the super-secret wine cellar cleared to play, or something like that.
The Seahawks were about to come back. Griffin was about to limp through two-and-a-half quarters in which he could not lead the Redskins past midfield. As Lewis wrapped up his remarks, the story of wild-card weekend shifted from the Ravens’ past to the Redskins’ future.
Every time Robert Griffin limps off the field, three first-round picks and a second-round pick limp off the field.
Every time Griffin pulls the ball back on a read-option play, races to the outside and gets hammered by a defender, the entire future of the Redskins organization races to the outside and gets hammered by a defender.
Every time a Redskins game ends with questions about whether Griffin has torn his ACL – and this has now happened twice in the last month – the Redskins run the risk of losing the equivalent of four players (the ransom in draft picks they paid for the right to draft Griffin), as well as the centerpiece of all of their on-field and off-field plans for years to come.
And yet, this actually happened on Sunday: Griffin, already playing with a knee brace, running options, rolling out, taking hits, going into the shed of medical mystery for treatment, throwing off his back foot because he was obviously too uncomfortable to follow through and … still running options.
This is like taking a diamond Rolex to a dance club and tossing it on the floor, over and over again, to see what happens.
At press time, the extent of Griffin’s late-game injury in the Seahawks 24-14 win over the Redskins was unknown. We do know he crumpled, untouched, while trying to retrieve an errant snap one play after a sack by Bruce Irvin. It was the Seahawks’ second sack of the game, but a third was negated by penalty, and Griffin suffered four knockdowns and a pair of harsh tackles at the ends of runs. Griffin was getting knocked around, as he has often in his last four starts.
A great controversy is brewing about whether Griffin was healthy enough to play in the first place or whether he should have stayed in the game after receiving medical attention late in the first quarter. I am not Griffin, Mike Shanahan or Dr. James Andrews, so I cannot pretend to tell the exact extent of Griffin’s injuries at various junctures, how he felt, or what Shanahan and Son were thinking when they called pistol read options and rollout passes for a player who was visibly hobbling after throwing passes.
I do know that no one should call a pistol read option for a player who is visibly hobbling after throwing passes. Especially when that player represents one of the largest investments by a franchise in a single player in the history of professional sports. Playing Griffin when he was noticeably injured was risky. Playing him in a game plan that ensured he would have to run and take additional hits was reckless and dangerously short-sighted. Every coach asks his players to take unhealthy risks. By making Griffin continue to play his mobility-based game when he was clearly immobile, Shanahan also expected Griffin to compound them.
We had a lot of fun with the Shanahan pistol option this year. We diagrammed it, debated how to stop it, questioned its current and eventual role in the NFL strategic toolbox. But there is a simple reason that designed quarterback runs should be a limited-use wrinkle in NFL systems. The quarterback gets hit, a lot. He gets hit because the football is in his hands. He gets hit because unblocked defenders sometimes get a crack on him just after he gets rid of the ball. He gets hit because all that time spent reading defensive ends and practicing intricate handoffs is time not spent reading safeties and developing passing rhythm, so the option quarterback sometimes hangs in the pocket too long when he is asked to drop back and throw some conventional passes.
Griffin carried the ball 120 times this season. According to Football Outsiders, 71 of those runs were designed plays. That’s just less than five opportunities for Griffin to get hit, to go with the scrambles and 30 sacks, that aren’t completely necessary. That “designed run” figure could be much higher, because Griffin has the option to run on many plays that become handoffs. Griffin’s “option” is not really his choice in most cases: it’s a scripted read. If the Shanahans persist with their option-heavy offense – assuming Griffin is healthy next year – they allow opposing defensive coordinators to decide just how often the most important single player to any football franchise takes his chances in the open field. That’s a recipe for another season of knee braces, trips to the surgery shed and hard questions about medical procedures during press conferences.
Option plays and designed quarterback runs are a great limited-use weapon: at the goal line, in short yardage, as a once-in-awhile tendency breaker. The coach must balance the risk of intentionally subjecting the quarterback to a hit with the potential reward. A touchdown is often worth the risk. A fourth-and-one conversion sometimes is. Routine yardage is not, particularly when the quarterback is already injured, and when he’s the basket that contains three drafts worth of eggs.
Griffin will be fine; knock on wood. He will be more fun to watch completing passes from the pocket than he is writhing on the ground or disappearing into the “M*A*S*H” barn. If we want to see less of the latter last year, we have to see more of the former.
(Two quick points. First, I think the Seahawks will soon face the same dilemma, but they were less reliant on Russell Wilson option plays for much of the season. Second, Griffin said after the game that he insisted on staying in and that he knows the difference between pain and an injury, just as he said after the Ravens game. Good for him. The medical decision cannot rest with the 22-year old whose reputation and livelihood are built on his ability to be as tough and competitive as possible. If he was a good gauge of his own health, he wouldn’t have been on the field in the fourth quarter when he was incapable of bending down to pick something up.)
The divisional matchups are set, and some of them ain’t pretty. The Broncos host the Ravens next Saturday at 4:30 ET. That should be a beating by the Broncos. The Patriots host the Texans on Sunday at 4:30. That should be a beating by the Patriots.
The 49ers host the Packers on Saturday at 8 p.m. That might not be a beating, but most people will pick the 49ers. (I haven’t made up my mind yet). The Falcons will host the Seahawks on Sunday at 1. The early line has the Falcons as two-point favorites. That line is going to move.
Pumping up the first-round winners as they travel to face the teams that earn byes is a cottage industry. We love to talk about “momentum” and speculate that the bye teams have grown fat and complacent during their brief recuperation periods. This year, it is impossible to claim that the Texans and Ravens have momentum after dreary wins. The Packers are a better case, though it is hard to get mileage out of “look how they manhandled Joe Webb.”
That leaves the Seahawks, who are wasabi hot, who are playing well in all three phases of the game, against the bye team we love to feel indifferent about. The Seahawks are technically underdogs right now, but they are about to become such a fashionable pick that the Falcons will start to sound like Northern Illinois.
All four favorites won this week. The only “upset” on next week’s schedule has a blinking arrow next to it. Where are the real upsets, the ones that shock the football world and upend the traditional storylines?
They are coming. Know how I know? Because we least expect them.
(Here are Saturday Night’s game roundups. If you were looking for jokes, most of them are there.)