Fans find camp a hit

Ravens

On first full day, lots of physical play

July 26, 2008|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Sun reporter

At 6:30 yesterday morning, new Ravens coach John Harbaugh looked out across the practice fields at McDaniel College and caught his first real glimpse of Purple Passion. Fans were already arriving for an 8:45 workout.

"That was pretty cool," Harbaugh said later, after his first training camp practice with a full squad. "Obviously, it's a great football city, a great football area."

Aided by a short memory - or inspired by sweeping changes made by the team - an estimated 6,625 rolled into Westminster to celebrate the return of heroes Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Todd Heap.

What those fans saw was a new era unfolding.

Out: Practice jerseys and any sense of comfort level.

In: Play clocks, game jerseys (albeit from 2007) and lots of contact drills.

"It was kind of physical today," said Lewis, starting his 13th NFL season at linebacker with two live segments in the morning practice. "Anytime you can get through this type of physical practice and injuries are limited, it's a good day."

Team president Dick Cass likened the start of training camp to the first day of school. As for the first day's turnout, he had a simple explanation.

"It's the loyalty of our fans. We're coming off a 5-11 season when we were supposed to be a good team, and we disappointed our fans. This means a lot to us," Cass said.

Yesterday's crowd was in full throat. Fans cheered several plays, among them the nifty improvisation of quarterback Troy Smith when he eluded a defender by getting out of the pocket. They groused at miscues. "C'mon, Willis," one snapped after Willis McGahee fumbled.

There was, in fact, a lot to grouse about. All three quarterbacks - the rotation was Smith, Kyle Boller and rookie Joe Flacco - struggled not only to complete passes but also to get plays off before the play clock expired.

"They did OK," Harbaugh hedged when asked about the quarterbacks. "Way too many timeouts. But it's better than a delay of game [penalty], I guess."

Many fans already were lining up behind Smith as the preferred starter. Wayne Rawlings, 54, a retired electrician from Rosedale, said he arrived at 5:45 to claim a choice spot at the corner of the fans' section. Armed with a new $80 Ravens helmet and a silver metallic Sharpie pen, Rawlings hoped to add to his collection of autographs.

He also said he was pulling for Smith to win the quarterback derby. "Flacco," Rawlings said, "hasn't proved himself to me yet. Not that he has to prove himself to me."

Leon Thompson, 49, brought 10 children, from ages 4 to 10, from his summer camp in Owings Mills. His wife's niece, Nyla Cherry, is just 4, but she could name her favorite player: "Ray Lewis." She wore a shirt with his name and number to prove it.

Thompson is another Smith believer.

"He's got speed," Thompson said. "We need somebody agile enough to get out of the pocket and run."

Early returns on the revamped offensive line suggest that elusiveness will be a prized commodity of whichever quarterback plays.

Joe Strickland, 43, who took a vacation day from Legg Mason to attend, came to see the Ravens' new players, especially Flacco. "He looked good," Strickland said afterward.

Two recently retired Ravens also were on hand. Jonathan Ogden, an perennial All-Pro left tackle, and Mike Flynn, a capable center over his eight seasons, came to offer encouragement. Ogden even worked with the offensive linemen early in the morning session.

"It means he still loves the team," veteran wide receiver Derrick Mason said of Ogden's surprise appearance. "I guarantee you, he could be on somebody's golf course right now, but he chose to come out the first day and be a part of the team. J.O. is always going to be considered part of the Raven family."

Mason, starting his 12th season, offered another guarantee. After a five-win season, there's only one way to go.

"We're not going to be the same team," he said. "I guarantee we'll win more games than that."

But Mason stepped gingerly around the central theme of the opening practice: the transition from deposed coach Brian Billick to the new boss, Harbaugh.

"That's an unfair question," Mason protested. "They're both head coaches. I enjoyed Billick when he was here. I'm enjoying John right now. ... I'm not going to get into comparing the two; that's unfair. We have set a goal for this team, and we are working to achieve that goal."

It was left for Ray Lewis to sum up the first shot of what promises to be an arduous camp.

"It's good to be back, it's good to be fresh and it's good to be totally healthy," he said.

Now the trick is staying that way.

ken.murray@baltsun.com

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