As Terrell Suggs prepares to enter Ravens Ring of Honor, teammates recall a ‘super raw’ rookie who was always the ‘life of the locker room’

posted in: News | 0

As much as the sacks and the laurels, Terrell Suggs remembers the frustration, the times when he felt less self-assured than he seemed on the surface, the older co-workers who lent helping hands.

From the long view, Suggs’ career was seamless: No. 10 pick after he set a single-season NCAA sack record at Arizona State, NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year at age 21, NFL Defensive Player of the Year at 29, Super Bowl champion at 30, Ravens institution by the time he played his 16th and final season in Baltimore.

At halftime of Sunday’s game against the Detroit Lions, Suggs will become the 12th Ravens player inducted into the team’s Ring of Honor.

Put his first year as a Raven under the microscope, however, and the story is both messier and more interesting.

“Yeah, you’re gonna get frustrated,” he said of his NFL beginning. “In college, you’re used to knowing everything you’re supposed to do, but when you get up there, you’re not top dog anymore. I felt like I wasn’t progressing the way I should have.”

Suggs was never supposed to be here. Articles about the Ravens’ draft plans for 2003 stated matter of factly that he would be off the board, picked No. 6 in the first round by his hometown Arizona Cardinals.

He filmed a commercial with future teammate Ray Lewis before the draft, and when Lewis teased him about how he’d be treated as a rookie, Suggs declared he would never make it to Baltimore’s pick.

The Ravens needed pass rush help after they finished an unfamiliar 22nd in total defense the previous season. But speculation focused on Penn State’s gifted defensive tackle, Jimmy Kennedy, especially after Kentucky’s Dewayne Robertson shot up draft boards late in the process. Kennedy and Robertson would combine for 24 1/2 sacks in 184 career games, the equivalent of two good Suggs seasons, but we’re getting ahead of our story.

The Ravens made draft day a whole lot more interesting when general manager Ozzie Newsome struck a deal with the Minnesota Vikings to move up from No. 10 to No. 7 for Marshall quarterback Byron Leftwich. After a lost season with Jeff Blake and Chris Redman under center, they thought Leftwich was the man to set them on a fresh offensive course. But Newsome heard a busy signal when he phoned NFL headquarters in New York to report the trade. Minnesota’s clock expired with the pact unconsummated, and Leftwich went to Jacksonville.

Meanwhile, the Cardinals traded their pick instead of selecting Suggs, whose stock had slipped when he ran a 4.8-second 40-yard dash at a predraft workout. “Maybe they should have put a quarterback at the end, and then he would have gotten there a lot faster,” cracked Rex Ryan, the Ravens’ defensive line coach at the time.

“It was just crazy,” Suggs remembered. “I didn’t know where I was going to go. It was a free fall.”

Ryan immediately saw the implications when the trade for Leftwich fell through: “I was the only one sitting in there happy as hell. This was a once-in-a-generation talent, Terrell Suggs, and we were about to luck into him.”

Those stopwatch digits were apparently more important than Suggs’ 24 sacks as a junior at Arizona State, but not to the Ravens. They picked him No. 10, then traded back into the first round to add quarterback Kyle Boller, setting off euphoria inside their headquarters and among their fans.

“I didn’t think there was any way or any formula that I could have come up with that would have us getting Kyle Boller and Terrell Suggs in the same draft,” the normally stoic Newsome said that evening.

Suggs was expected to start at outside linebacker immediately. He would close on quarterbacks from one edge while incumbent Pro Bowl selection Peter Boulware would converge from the other.

That was the vision anyway. In reality, Suggs was 20 years old and had been asked to do just one thing in college — surge upfield in pursuit of sacks. Setting the edge? Dropping into coverage? These were foreign concepts.

“He was super raw,” Boulware remembered. “When he put his hand in the ground, you knew that he was going to be special, the way he came off the ball with his combination of speed and power. But our defense was very complex. It was hard for rookies to pick it up.”

Suggs joined a defensive culture forged by the workaholic Lewis, one in which even younger stars such as safety Ed Reed were film nerds. Compared to them, he was a 6-foot-3, 260-pound class clown.

Fellow rookie edge rusher Jarret Johnson roomed with Suggs at minicamp. “He was terrible,” Johnson recalled, cackling. “Always on the phone.”

Retired Ravens great Michael McCray worked with Suggs on his rush moves that summer and referred to the rookie as “an infant” because he had so much maturing to do.

Johnson remembered coach Brian Billick calling Suggs out in training camp, suggesting the Ravens were not getting their money’s worth.

“I wasn’t starting on defense, and I couldn’t play special teams, so Brian Billick didn’t like that too much,” Suggs recalled. “I would say probably half the defense and [kicker] Matt Stover came and talked to me after that and said, ‘Hey, you’re a rookie. It’s not going to all come to you at once.’”

Ryan didn’t buy the criticism.

“I thought the kid was a stud, and I knew what was getting ready to happen,” he said. “He was like an Energizer bunny, too. … You don’t come in as just a hardened veteran. That’s nobody in this league. His personality might have been a little different, a lot different than probably Ray’s at that time, but you don’t have to be just one way. I loved him.”

Plenty of teammates valued Suggs’ goofiness.

“The life of the locker room,” Boulware said.

“There’s so much stress and pressure that if you don’t laugh, if you don’t have a person like Terrell, it’s freaking miserable,” Johnson said.

Suggs did not, in fact, start across from Boulware. More versatile players such as Adalius Thomas and Cornell Brown took his snaps. Suggs served as a designated pass rusher.

“In time, that will happen,” defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said. “But it’s got to be the right time.”

Suggs did not complain.

“I definitely have to know my coverages better and get better in my [pass] drops,” he said that October. “That’s the No. 1 thing that’s keeping me off on first and second downs. And the play of [Adalius] and Cornell, they are playing really solid right now. So if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Looking back, he appreciates the patience Thomas, Boulware and others showed in teaching him.

“I really didn’t have good study habits then, but I picked it up pretty fast,” he said. “They’d been rookies before, so I think they understood it. They were probably more patient than the coaches were.”

Not to suggest he squandered the third downs on which he did play. In his debut against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Suggs bull rushed past his blocker’s outside shoulder and dropped quarterback Tommy Maddox for a 7-yard loss. He would add another sack in each of his next three games on his way to a team-high 12 for the season.

Johnson was struck by Suggs’ apparent belief that he belonged with the best in the NFL and by the physical evidence suggesting he was right.

“Just how comfortable he was,” he said. “I remember how nervous I was, didn’t feel comfortable around the vets, kept my mouth shut. But I remember how cool he was and just the ungodly ability. I was thinking, ‘Oh crap! It doesn’t matter that you came from the SEC. This is a different ballgame.’”

Suggs laughed at his friend’s perception. “I was definitely not comfortable around the older guys,” he said. “These were ‘vet’ vets.”

Whether they let on or not, the men Suggs revered saw him as a foundational addition. After Lewis watched him and Boulware menace Denver quarterback Danny Kanell, he said, ”When they start jelling, it’s going to be scary.”

Suggs played just 39% of the Ravens’ defensive snaps but led the team with 24 quarterback hits and six forced fumbles. He won Defensive Rookie of the Year as a part-time worker, presenting an intoxicating glimpse of what lay ahead.

“It’s like, ‘If he only played third down and won it, just imagine what happens when he plays every down and really becomes a linebacker,’” he said at the time. “Then it’s going to be something to see. Until then, it’s stay tuned.”

The stay tuned part turned out pretty well. Suggs made seven Pro Bowls, bounced back from severe injuries to record a franchise-record 132 1/2 sacks, played more games in a Ravens uniform than anyone until punter Sam Koch passed him. He was a remarkable physical specimen all the way but evolved into one of the cleverest players on the team, sniffing out screen passes like no other.

He yearned to finish his career as a Raven but signed with his hometown Cardinals for the 2019 season because he wanted to be close to his ailing mother, a decision he does not regret.

He never abandoned his silly side. Early in coach John Harbaugh’s tenure, the Ravens held up a team flight because their star pass rusher showed up without the proper shoes. In his last years with the team, he would commandeer owner Steve Bisciotti’s golf cart and, with nose tackle Brandon Williams riding shotgun, steer it into tackling dummies. He ran out for games wearing the mask of Batman’s movie nemesis, Bane.

“I played with him nine years, and he was the same dude the day I left,” Johnson said. “He was like a giant kid, always cutting up, but he could do that because they had so many serious guys around. Terrell was allowed to just be Terrell.”

Suggs still finds it strange that when the story of Ravens defense is told, his name is uttered beside those of Lewis, Reed and the others he thought of as big brothers 20 years ago.

“It’s mind blowing,” he said. “I can’t grasp it.”

Week 7

Lions at Ravens

Sunday, 1 p.m.

TV: Ch. 45

Radio: 97.9 FM, 101.5 FM, 1090 AM

Line: Ravens by 3


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.