Eight Ravens named to Pro Bowl

Only Chiefs have as many

it's a Ravens team mark, motivation for playoff push

December 19, 2003|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

The Ravens had eight players named to the Pro Bowl yesterday, tying the Kansas City Chiefs for most representation at the NFL's annual all-star game.

The team-record invitations increased the Ravens' stature around the league and served notice inside the locker room. With as many wins as Pro Bowl players, the Ravens are out to prove they are better than a fringe playoff team over the next two weeks.

"There's big things expected out of our team now," said tight end Todd Heap, who will be making his second straight Pro Bowl appearance. "We can't let up now. We've got eight Pro Bowlers. So, we better make sure everybody sees that."

The Ravens' selections ran the gamut from the locks (linebacker Ray Lewis, offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden and running back Jamal Lewis) to the expected picks (safety Ed Reed and linebacker Peter Boulware) to the mild surprises (Heap, cornerback Chris McAlister and special teams ace Adalius Thomas).

The spectrum also went from the perennial Pro Bowl performers (Ray Lewis and Ogden) to four first-timers (Jamal Lewis, McAlister, Reed and Thomas).

After the selections were announced, the Ravens (8-6) found themselves sharing the spotlight with the Chiefs (12-2) - both placing eight on the 42-player AFC team - while overshadowing the Philadelphia Eagles (11-3) and New England Patriots (12-2). Each of those teams had only two players named.

"The beautiful thing about it is that every guy that is going is under 30 years old," said Ray Lewis, who is headed to his sixth Pro Bowl.

When coach Brian Billick named the Pro Bowl players after practice, no one was more anxious than McAlister. Passed over in his previous four seasons, McAlister had to endure an even longer wait as Billick announced five other players first.

After McAlister's name was called, it started the loudest ovation of the day and ended months of doubt for the charismatic cornerback.

In a season that bottomed out with him missing curfew and getting benched in Week 3, McAlister redeemed himself by silencing the opponent's top receivers every week.

"When he did say my name, I got real choked up and it felt like everything I've gone through this year was worth it to me," McAlister said. "I was supposed to go through it, I was supposed to suffer and be in the situations I was in for a reason. The reward of it is making it to the Pro Bowl."

The day was one of vindication for Ray Lewis, too.

After undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery last year, Lewis heard those questioning whether he could return to a Pro Bowl level. He answered them by anchoring the NFL's fifth-ranked defense with 198 tackles, five interceptions and two forced fumbles.

"You question my ability, but you can't question my heart," said Ray Lewis, who is a top candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. "To come back after shoulder surgery and make it, that's one of those things you dream of."

Lewis' influence rubbed off on Reed, a second-year player who leads the Ravens with six interceptions, 18 passes broken up and two blocked punts.

"They say you hang around a dog, you may catch fleas," Ray Lewis said. "He's been hanging around me from Day One. I guess he'll be hanging around me eating some pineapples in Hawaii."

The Ravens were projected to place five players on the Pro Bowl team but received welcome surprises with Thomas and Heap.

The most unexpected pick was Thomas, who was placed on injured reserve with a fractured elbow Wednesday. He led the team with 23 tackles on special teams, forcing one fumble and blocking a punt.

Heap said he was caught off guard in beating out Denver's Shannon Sharpe, who had five more receptions and touchdowns than his former understudy.

"Based on the criteria of what they look for, you would be pressed to ... show me why someone else is in there other than myself," Sharpe said.

The Ravens put four starters from their defense on this year's Pro Bowl team, which is one more than their record-setting group in 2000.

"It says that we have the talent and the physical ability to be just as good or even better than that Super Bowl defense," said Boulware, who is making his fourth appearance. "It's up to us to get it done."

The Ravens' strong run in the draft was underlined by yesterday's selections. Of the franchise's first nine first-round picks, seven have now received invitations to the all-star event.

"It's a tribute to the front office that we got players who have talent and play hard," said Ogden, who is going to his seventh Pro Bowl in a row, which extended a Ravens record and the longest current streak for NFL linemen. "It's a good sign for things in the future."

This year's eight selections broke the record for the Ravens, who had six players invited twice (1998 and 2001). The Ravens also have three alternates: kicker Matt Stover, guard Edwin Mulitalo and fullback Alan Ricard.

The voting results were weighted equally among the fans, players and coaches. The Pro Bowl game will be played Feb. 8 in Honolulu.

"With eight Pro Bowlers," said Jamal Lewis, the league's leading rusher, "we need to be going to the playoffs."

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