Despite yesterday's ominous fog and slippery field, the Ravens' first step was clearly a solid one.
After nearly getting canceled because of sloppy conditions, the team's first minicamp practice of the year was highlighted by the aggressive return of linebacker Ray Lewis, the strong-armed throws from rookie quarterback Kyle Boller and the steely confidence demonstrated by veteran quarterback Chris Redman.
Setting the positive tone for a season filled with increasing expectations was Lewis' long-awaited homecoming. In his first full practice in six months, the former All-Pro linebacker picked up where he had left off, showing no rustiness in barking out signals to his teammates and chasing down anyone with a ball.
Lewis, who is coming off a season-ending left shoulder injury, repeatedly tested it in the so-called non-contact workout. Whenever a receiver came over the middle, there was Lewis climbing over the back and stretching to deflect the pass.
"Everything on my mind [this offseason] has been football, and that's what I've been waiting to do," Lewis said. "Today, I'm like a kid all over again. I just wanted to go out there, run around and have fun.
"I say it every year and it happens every year: I'm probably in the best shape of my life. I feel no pain. The shoulder is not even an obstacle now."
Lewis reported yesterday at a sleek 240 pounds, which came from vigorous work at the Ravens' practice facility and in Lakeland, Fla. He returned to his hometown where he followed his old-school routine of pushups, sit-ups and a four-mile run to his high school.
The Ravens believe a healthy Lewis should make the difference this season. Although the Ravens went 5-6 without Lewis last year, they feel poised to return to the playoffs for the first time in two years with his presence back in the middle.
"I've said, only half-kidding, that this is the top free-agent signing of the offseason," said coach Brian Billick, flashing a smile. "Ray Lewis is coming back. A practice with Ray Lewis is better than a practice without Ray Lewis."
Team officials had wanted to pick their spots with Lewis, but they let him loose for a majority of the drills. He only sat out the full-team drills as a precautionary measure.
"The energy he brings, the excitement you see in his eyes, it's fun and a privilege to play with him," outside linebacker Peter Boulware said. "It was tough on him because he loves this game so much. To be sidelined and not able to participate was tough on him. He's got a lot of bottled up energy and bottled up emotions that will probably come out the next few days."
Boller was introduced to Lewis on his snap of a seven-on-seven drill. Led by Lewis, several defenders continually shouted, "Come on, rook," to the draft's 19th overall pick.
Undaunted, Boller eluded pressure by rolling to his right and zipping a pass off the shoulder pad of receiver Frank Sanders.
"To be honest, I wasn't even paying attention," Boller said. "I was reading the defense. Right now, my first day, I'm trying to think where all the routes are going to be. I have so many things going through my head, I don't have time to think that Ray Lewis is sitting there, eyeing me up."
Though admittedly wide-eyed, Boller kept a calm head in the huddle and wasn't overly erratic on his passes or footwork. But the velocity on his throws made the biggest impression.
Every pass was delivered hard and straight to his receivers. His one low-lining bullet to Randy Hymes, who was dropping to his knees to make the catch, knocked the receiver backward.
"He's a young guy who has a live arm," Sanders said. "He is just anxious to prove himself, as you can tell."
Boller isn't the only quarterback out to prove himself.
Knowing that his open competition with Boller was officially under way, Redman displayed a comfort zone rather than a rifle arm. He made smart decisions on his reads and delivered solid throws all day.
"All I can control is, go out there and complete some balls and be a good leader out there," Redman said. "That's my major emphasis right now."
Showing that leadership, Redman called Boller last night and invited him out to dinner today.
"In a competitive situation, that's a lot to ask of a guy," Billick said. "But Chris has extended himself to Kyle. Why? Because a Trent Dilfer and an Elvis Grbac did that for him."
Redman, trying to prove that he is fully recovered from back surgery in January, didn't miss a repetition yesterday, but he also didn't have to take a hit.
"The real test will be the first game, honestly," Redman said. "Right now, after this test, I feel great. I think it helps a lot when you know what's going on."