Special season for Ravens' Stills

Reserve linebacker, dominant on special teams, calls campaign `highlight of my career'

December 09, 2006|By Edward Lee | Edward Lee,Sun reporter

Gary Stills is the first to acknowledge that he hasn't made the kind of impact on the Ravens' defense that he had envisioned. A pass-rushing linebacker who once collected 7 1/2 sacks during a three-year span for the Kansas City Chiefs, Stills has just two tackles, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery this season.

Yet Stills, 32, is adamant that this season - his first with the Ravens - is his best ever.

"This is the highlight of my career," said Stills, who is in his eighth year in the NFL. "I can give credit to my Lord and Savior first and foremost. But the guys on the team, the togetherness, how we socialize and just enjoy ourselves, the camaraderie is just unbelievable. ... This family thing is unbelievable here, and I think that's a reflection on how well I'm playing this year."

Although the 6-foot-2, 250-pound Stills might be an afterthought on defense, the same cannot be said on special teams, where he has established himself as the league and team leader in tackles.

Stills has registered 35 special teams tackles, which far outpaces the franchise record for special teams tackles in a single season of 26, set by free safety Corey Harris in 2000.

Stills already has eclipsed his career single-season high of 34 tackles, which remains the franchise record for the Chiefs. He also is on pace to finish the regular season with at least 46 special teams tackles, which would match the NFL record set by Hank Bauer of the San Diego Chargers in 1980 and probably earn a second career Pro Bowl invitation.

That's why coach Brian Billick didn't hesitate to quantify Stills' value to the team. "He may be the best special teams player in the league, in my opinion," Billick said, "and [I know] I'm biased."

That Stills has reached this stage in his career is telling in what he has had to overcome to get here.

A native of Trenton, N.J., Stills repeated the fourth and seventh grades and sat out his freshman year at West Virginia after being ruled academically ineligible. Kansas City, impressed with Stills' skills as a pass rusher, spent a third-round pick on him in the 1999 draft.

Although Stills amassed 79 tackles and 7 1/2 sacks in a three-year span from 2002 to 2004, Stills could not crack the Chiefs' starting linebacking corps. But Stills cherished his time in Kansas City, where he absorbed lessons from Marvcus Patton and the late Derrick Thomas.

"I learned what football really means, to display your mental and physical ability [while] going 100 miles per hour and making contact and still being able to function and focus on the task at hand," Stills said.

Despite recording 148 special teams tackles to become Kansas City's all-time leader in that category, the team chose not to re-sign Stills, whose presence on the free-agent market caught the attention of Frank Gansz Jr.

"I didn't jump on the table; I did handstands on it," recalled Gansz, the Ravens' special teams coordinator who held the same position with the Chiefs for the previous five seasons. "I knew not only the type of player that he was, but also what type of person he was and what he would bring to the team and the locker room. I felt like he would be a great addition to this team."

Like Thomas and Patton, Stills has tried to mentor the younger players. Cornerback Evan Oglesby, who ranks second on the team with 14 special teams tackles, recalled covering a kickoff to open the second half of the Ravens' 35-22 victory over the New Orleans Saints on Oct. 29.

Before the game, Stills pointed out a tendency of the Saints' blockers to double-team a player closer to the middle of the field and leaving a player on the far wing open.

"He said, `Recognize this and shoot that hole,' " recalled Oglesby, who raced down and tackled Michael Lewis after a 19-yard gain to New Orleans' 23-yard line. "He sets the tone on special teams. ... When you look at Gary out there on the field, he's physical and he's got a nose for the football."

After years of making tackles for Kansas City, Stills returns to his first NFL home tomorrow when the Ravens meet the Chiefs, where linebacker Kris Griffin leads the team with 16 special teams tackles.

It's a reunion Stills has been looking forward to since the Ravens' schedule was released this summer.

"I appreciate the [Chiefs'] organization for drafting me. They were the first team in the National Football League to ever intimate that they had confidence in me," Stills said. "But I'm not on that team anymore, and they got somebody else that they felt could do my job better. I want to let them know that they haven't found anyone in the league that can do a better job than me."

Notes -- Linebacker Dan Cody (knee) and running back Musa Smith (neck) will not play in tomorrow's game. Right guard Keydrick Vincent (groin) and linebacker Dennis Haley (ankle) were upgraded to probable. Tight end Daniel Wilcox (hamstring) is still questionable, and cornerback Ronnie Prude (illness) is still probable. ... Matt Stover is one field goal away from joining an exclusive club of kickers who have made 400 field goals. Stover, who has 399 in his 17th year, would join Gary Anderson (538), Morten Andersen (537) and John Carney (409). ... A flu bug has spread among the Ravens, including Billick. "I've got more drugs in me than the entire Haight-Ashbury district in San Francisco," he joked. ... The Ravens had two players in for tryouts: receiver Alex Bannister (a former special teams ace for the Seattle Seahawks) and punter John Torp.

edward.lee@baltsun.com

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