At some point in the future, Ravens safety Ed Reed is going to retire from football. It could be in a month, or it could be in five years.
When it comes to pass, in all likelihood, there will be no news conference. No ceremony or celebration to recognize Reed's remarkable career. He wouldn't go for that kind of pomp and circumstance. According to teammates who know him best, it will just be a phone call to the Ravens, and he'll be gone.
You'll probably see it on the news crawl one morning, maybe while you're making breakfast or attempting to wrangle your kids out the door and off to school. You might do a double-take, just to make certain you saw it correctly. Ed Reed? One of the best free safeties in NFL history is walking away? Can that be right?
Someday it will be. Reed's recent admission that he's mulling retirement because of injuries is not a bluff. Even before this season, Reed contemplated walking away because of a pinched nerve in his neck. No one took it particularly seriously, not even the Ravens. But there was real doubt there. He hated the idea of not being able to pick up his young son and play with him someday years from now because he didn't listen to his body today.
Now, a year later, the neck injury is essentially unchanged. He is 31 years old. He played much of the past season with ligament tears in his hip and groin but was still selected to his sixth Pro Bowl despite missing four games. Moments after the Ravens' 2009 season ended with a 20-3 loss to the Indianapolis Colts - a game in which Reed intercepted Peyton Manning but was stripped of the ball from behind after a lengthy return - he surprised the media and fans, but not his teammates, by putting the odds at 50-50 for returning in 2010.
Coach John Harbaugh said in a news conference last week that after talking with Reed he expects him to return, but acknowledged that it's up to Reed.
"It kind of hit me on the sideline," Reed said. "It hit me now because I don't know how much I'm going to be able to have going forward. It'll be a long offseason just thinking about. It hurts just thinking about it."
Whether he returns or retires, there has never been a more appropriate time to take stock of what Reed means to the Ravens. There is a good chance, no matter how closely you follow the team, that you don't realize the depth of his influence. It goes well beyond game-changing interceptions and school-yard laterals.
To an outsider, this is still Ray Lewis' team. It's a mantra drilled into our heads every time the Ravens appear on television. It's part of the narrative virtually every time the Ravens are talked about or written about. Lewis' personality drowns out all the other story lines.
But behind the scenes - on the practice field, in the film room and in the hallways of the Castle - this team belongs to Reed as much as it does to Lewis.
"He's one of the few people who is not tainted by the business part of the game," Ravens cornerback Domonique Foxworth said. "To some degree, it creeps into all of us, especially guys who have been around it for a while. But he's one guy who I can say honestly, he reminds me of a high school kid. You kind of get hardened by your professional experiences. He's managed to remain genuine in everything he does. While he's in the building, genuinely 100 percent for the betterment of the team, which I don't know that you can say that about anyone else, coach or player, that I've ever met in the league."
'He just loves football'
In the complex realities of an NFL locker room, leadership takes on many forms. And Reed's behind-the-scenes influence might be one of the least talked about, but most important, factors in the Ravens' success.
"A lot of people see this as Ray's team and Ray's defense. Everything about the Baltimore Ravens, a lot of it is focused on Ray," Foxworth said. "And that's the thing about Ed is, he doesn't care. He gives those impassioned speeches that motivate us as a team from time to time. When there is a gripe on the team, or when we need some rest, he'll go upstairs and confront Coach Harbaugh just as much, if not more, than Ray. But that doesn't get reported, and Ed doesn't care. Because he's genuine. It's not about how it looks. It's not about who's going to be [mad] at him. It's not about who is going to love him. It's about what he thinks is best for the team."
That isn't to suggest that there is a rift between Reed and Lewis, or that a power struggle exists. Both are important to the Ravens' ebb and flow. In the modern NFL, no one man has the ear of 52 others, and both players seem to understand that. Lewis is an important mentor to countless younger players, and he deflects and absorbs the majority of the attention, in both good times and bad. It is rare, however, to hear broadcasters or columnists sing hosannas to Reed's leadership skills the way they do to Lewis'.