With Mason getting open, Ravens receive big upgrade

With Mason open, Ravens receive big upgrade


Instead of offering a convoluted answer, Ravens receivers coach David Shaw summed up his opinion of his top player's success this season in four words.

Derrick Mason is better.

"That's it," Shaw said. "We, as coaches, we make this game complicated. The media make this game complicated. The fans make this game complicated. On the field, playing receiver, if you've got a guy covering you, no matter what the route is, you've got to get open. And that is what Derrick does."

Actually, Mason is not just better, he's substantially better. The nine-year veteran is better at getting open than anyone else the Ravens have had at wide receiver in years, which explains why he became the team's first 1,000-yard pass catcher since 2001 on Sunday.

In doing so, Mason can send Ravens officials into this offseason a little more at ease with their receiving corps. The perennial question of what legitimate receiver the Ravens might be able to sign to ignite the passing game can be laid to rest.

Heaven knows, the team has gone through its share of flops.

Marcus Robinson and Frank Sanders came to the Ravens in 2003 with 1,000-yard seasons on their resumes. Kevin Johnson did so a year later. None came back for a second year.

Robinson finished his year strong, becoming Anthony Wright's favorite target with six touchdowns over the last six games. He signed a free-agent contract with the Minnesota Vikings after the Ravens pursued then-San Francisco 49ers receiver Terrell Owens.

Sanders, slowed by a foot injury and age (30), never had much of an impact, with just 14 receptions in looking like a shadow of the player that had 89 catches five years earlier. He has not played in the league since.

Kevin Johnson, for whom the Ravens traded a fourth-round pick to Jacksonville in April 2004, had averaged 66 catches a season before barely hitting half that total with the Ravens.

Mason was not aware of the Ravens' recent history with free-agent receivers. He does not care too much about that now.

"When I came here, I didn't look at who they brought here previous years because you can't go by that," said Mason, whose 83 catches are a single-season franchise record. "Every player is different. I knew that when I came in here, I had one agenda, and that's to play good and be worthy of what they gave me and why they brought me here. I've done some good things thus far, but then again, there are a lot of things I can get better at."

The best thing Mason has done is convert third downs. Mason leads the league with 29 receptions for 318 yards and two touchdowns on third downs. Eighteen of those catches have resulted in first downs.

Why is he getting it done where others have failed? Not because there have been any magic plays or calls designed for Mason. He is just doing a better job than his predecessors in beating one-on-one coverage, relying on a burst when coming out of his routes to create separation that is second to none in the NFL.

"Ask any corner in the league who is the hardest to cover. He is always on that list," Shaw said of Mason.

Mason's play may have lived up to expectations, but what the coaches may not have bargained for are the outbursts. Never known for creating controversy in his eight seasons with the Tennessee Titans and quarterback Steve McNair, Mason caused a stir two weeks ago when he said he felt like a running back because of the types of routes he was being asked to run. Shaw had to mediate the situation.

Before Kyle Boller's renaissance, Mason was a vocal critic of the quarterback.

And most recently, Mason threw a tantrum after the referees ruled he trapped a ball on the ground against the Vikings. Mason demanded Ravens coach Brian Billick challenge the call, and when he did not, Mason yelled at Billick, then threw the ball 20 yards down the field. Billick blew off the incident.

"On the sidelines, it's an emotional time. Sometimes you've got to be emotional back," Billick said. "You don't have the time in that situation to go, `Well, you know [Derrick]. I think we ought to talk this over because I don't think you had the proper ... ' It's, `Shut up and get back in the huddle.' Then he says whatever he wants back, then goes back in the huddle and does his job. That's how it works, that's how we operate, and I appreciate his passion."

A little attitude seems to be something teams have to accept nowadays from prolific receivers. And Mason, despite coming to a place that could not boast of having that for some time, has maintained his productivity.

"My main thing was, I felt like any situation I go into, if given the opportunity, I can flourish," said Mason, who now has five straight 1,000-yard seasons. "That's regardless of what team I'm on."


Free-agent catches

Accomplished free-agent receivers signed by the Ravens since 1999:

Receiver Previous best/First year with Ravens

Qadry 1994: 45 catches, 696 yards, 5 TDs (Minn.

Ismail 1999: 68 catches, 1,105 yards, 6 TDs

Frank 1998: 89 catches, 1,145 yards, 3 TDs (Ariz.)

Sanders 2003: 14 catches, 170 yards, 0 TDs

Marcus 1999: 84 catches, 1,400 yards, 9 TDs (Chi.)

Robinson 2003: 31 catches, 451 yards, 6 TDs

Kevin 2001: 84 catches 1,097 yards, 9 TDs (Clev.)

Johnson 2004: 35 catches, 373 yards, 1 TD

Derrick 2003: 95 catches, 1,303 yards, 8 TDs (Tenn.)

Mason 2005: 83 catches, 1,000 yards, 3 TDs

Ravens@Browns Sunday, 1 p.m., chs. 13, 9, 1300 AM, 102.7 FM Line: Ravens by 3

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