With the Ray Rice incident hanging over Thursday night's Steelers-Ravens matchup, fans arrived at M&T Bank Stadium feeling conflicted ... until the pads started popping. Plus, the best game of Week 2 and nine more things to watch
Obviously, it’s a different week. And I didn’t want to write the usual column in the wake of scandal and shame. Instead, The MMQB dispatched staffer Jenny Vrentas to Baltimore to cover the first post-Ray Rice game for the franchise—but not to cover football. I wanted her to talk to the fans, and find out what they are thinking as the team and the city and the league tries to move on from a seminal event. Her report showed a conflicted fan base, at the rivalry game of the year, won 26-6 by the Ravens. Her report:
BALTIMORE — By the time of kickoff Thursday night, high up in Section 526 of M&T Bank Stadium, Dave Sigman couldn’t shake an unusual feeling: apathy. He grew up leaving Sunday school early to go to Baltimore Colts games. His family has had Ravens season tickets since the NFL returned to this city. But last night, for a division rivalry game no less, he and his dad felt like they were in their seats only because they customarily don’t miss games.
“Walking over here," said Sigman, a urologist from Owings Mills, Md., “was as subdued a walk over for Ravens-Steelers as I can remember. It feels almost inappropriate to get too excited."
It had been just three days since TMZ unveiled video showing Ray Rice punching his now-wife in the elevator of an Atlantic City casino, knocking her unconscious. Now, Rice is an ex-Raven and suspended indefinitely by the NFL, the team owner sent a mea culpa to its season-ticket holders for an inadequate initial response, and the NFL is being investigated for its handling of the situation.
And here, at the epicenter of the controversy, football was being played.
Sigman wasn’t alone in having mixed feelings before Thursday night’s game. He had an empty seat next to him, because he couldn’t find a friend or coworker to take his third seat, even though this game would normally be one of the hottest tickets in Maryland. The tailgating lots were a bit quieter than they were for Sunday’s home opener. There wasn’t the same banter—friendly or unfriendly—that usually flourishes between Ravens and Steelers fans. But, this also didn’t feel like the eye of a storm that is threatening the highest ranks of the National Football League.
Despite calls by politicians and women’s advocacy groups for Goodell to step down, there were no protests outside the stadium. Purple, as it turns out, is the national color for domestic violence awareness, but that wasn’t why the crowd of more than 71,000 was wearing the hue. And while the organization has scheduled a one-for-one jersey exchange of Rice’s No. 27 jerseys next week, it wasn’t hard to spot fans wearing his number. I spotted more than 40, an equal split of men and women, in the tailgating lots and on the concourses before the game.
One was 18-year-old Gage Friend, who stood by the players’ entrance seeking autographs in a white No. 27 practice jersey: “I didn’t know how many people would make a stand and I wanted to be that guy, saying, ‘It is OK to support him and not treat him like a monster,'" he said. I met a mother and daughter both wearing No. 27; a flagger for gameday parking who said she was willing to be fired over wearing her purple No. 27 tee-shirt under her uniform; and another woman in a Rice jersey who said if she lived closer to Baltimore, she would show up at the jersey exchange to encourage those turning them in to reconsider.
Yes, there were some taking a stand for Rice last night, and not for the victims of domestic abuse or the greater cause—as you might have expected. This was also confounding: A pizzeria in South Baltimore had to end an exchange offering free pizza and a $2.70 donation to a local organization fighting violence against women for every patron who gave up a Rice jersey, because it received violent threats. “People were calling with threats of physical violence," said an employee, before making clear that the restaurant didn’t want any further media attention. They collected about 70 Rice jerseys before they stopped.
Jacob Simpson, the pastor at Salem Lutheran Church a few blocks away, was one of the first to turn in his Rice jersey to the restaurant Monday evening. “As a fan, it has left me pretty conflicted as to how to keep cheering for the Ravens," said Simpson. “I see how much the sport I love contributes to the problem of the bigger issue of domestic violence."
That’s the dilemma, right? Sports can be a blissful escape from the realities in the real world, but in cases like this one, those realities in the real world are bigger than the game. But as soon as the clock started running last night, Sigman started to realize many of the fans around him didn’t feel that same apathy he did. They leaped up for a 3rd-and-9 play; roared when Ben Roethlisberger was sacked; and chanted “Bull-sh--!” when the sack was overturned by a penalty.
“Well," he said with a shrug, “this is how it usually sounds."
Player You Need To Know This Weekend
Bryan Bulaga, right tackle, Green Bay (No. 75). Everyone looks at Jets-Packers and thinks one word: walkover. I don’t. The Jets are a top-three defensive front, and when Bulaga was lost in the season opener at Seattle, the Seahawks totally embarrassed the right side of the Green Bay line. So … what will happen Sunday when Bulaga, who is expected to play despite a strained knee ligament, faces off against one of the underrated defensive players in football, Muhammed Wilkerson? Bulaga would have to be 100 percent to have a good chance to win this battle, and because he isn’t—Bulaga has been shaky in practice this week, but is almost certain to play—Aaron Rodgers is probably going to be thinking of extra protection to his right Sunday, and getting the ball out quicker than he’d like. If Bulaga struggles, this has a very good chance to be a down-to-the-wire game.
Bose Sound Bite of the Week
In the latest example of you-can't-predict-the-NFL-and-you-just-shouldn't-try, we bring you Isaiah Crowell. A month ago, he was buried deep on the depth chart at running back for Cleveland. No more. With Ben Tate banged up and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan using a combo platter of rookies—Terrance West in the open field, Crowell when yards get hard—the two first-year guys combined for 132 rushing yards and two touchdowns in the loss at Pittsburgh. Which led to coach Pettine saying:
"A guy like Crowell, when he first got here, if you had said, 'Hey, he's going to line up against Pittsburgh and score two touchdowns,' I would have bet you mortgage payments that wasn't going to happen."
Listen to Pettine here:
Regular Old Quote of the Week
“Nope. Still stupid and will remain so in perpetuity."
—Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck, still being very hard on himself Thursday for a failed quarterback-sneak call he made in the Sunday night loss to the Broncos.
Ten Things I’ll Be Watching For This Weekend
1. How the Ray Rice story will be covered. I’ll be interested to see how the story lines go this weekend. But please don’t give me this one: Rice will never play in the NFL again. That story will be brought to you by the same people who told you, “Vick is finished after the dog-fighting.’’ We simply don’t know if Rice will play again. I believe he will, but would I put money in Vegas on it? No. He’s just too smart, and America is too redemptive a society, to make a final call on Rice’s career this weekend.
2. One of the worst weeks for games we’ve seen in a while. Look at what we’ve got. Dead serious here: The best game of all might be Falcons-Bengals. Or Eagles-Colts. Or Lions-Panthers. It’s just a very odd slate.
3. The Giants’ season on the line. Putrid on offense in Week 1, and throughout the preseason. Eli Manning looks bad, but he’s got so little help—from a terrible offensive line, to backs who would have to be Jim Brown to make it anything better than 2nd-and-9 consistently, to the longest hamstring injury (Odell Beckham’s) in recent NFL history crippling the offense. Arizona comes to town at the best time possible.
4. The strange story of John Abraham. I am counting on the reliable voices of Kevin Burkhardt, John Lynch and Pam Oliver on FOX to tell Abraham’s story Sunday at the Meadowlands. One of the best pass-rushers of our day told coach Bruce Arians on Tuesday that he wasn’t into football right now, and was having trouble remembering things, and now, 133.5 sacks into a stellar career, may be walking away from football for good. “I am not smart enough to know what depression is and things like that,’’ Arians said this week. A very sad story, and a clarion call for football’s future.
5. What Cordarrelle Patterson will do next. New England comes to play outdoors at the University of Minnesota on Sunday, which is fairly cool regardless of all the other factors. But New England doesn’t want to start 0-2. And Patterson is one of those what-will-he-do-next players, an explosive and Randy Moss-like player in the receiving game who Norv Turner is having fun with on things like fly sweeps. Can’t wait to see what he does next.
6. Falcons-Bengals. I love this game. Just love it. In particular, I love a rising-star corner, Desmond Trufant, clearly a top-10 NFL cover guy though people don’t know it yet, matching up against A.J. Green. I will be watching this game very closely, and you should too.
7. A strange TV assignment. Uh, why are Joe Buck and Troy Aikman at Cowboys-Titans, which might be the 13th-most significant game of the weekend? I do know why: see No. 2 above. But it just seems odd that the best FOX team is doing such a snoozer.
8. The crowd at the Bills’ home opener. “People are crying in Buffalo," said a friend of mine who has lived there forever. Why? Because they’ve got their team back—the Pegula family has bought the team and vowed to keep it in western New York—and after years of fretting that they’d be the L.A. Bills by 2017, there will be a flood of emotion at the Miami-Buffalo game Sunday in Orchard Park. And that is so great.
9. Another mismatch in a storied series. Denver has won four straight in the Chiefs-Broncos series by an average of 15 points. And nothing should change in Colorado on Sunday, because the Kansas City line cannot protect Alex Smith.
10. The opening of Levi’s Stadium. At least the regular-season opening. It’s a cool spot, an hour south of San Francisco, in the middle of the brainiac Silicon Valley. And the Besars-49ers game will be an interesting test. Can the Niners’ depleted defense survive a Jay Cutler strafing?