A popular Super Bowl pick to start the season, the Ravens are 0-3 for the first time in franchise history. Their spitfire wideout is trying to turn things around, but one man can only do so much
BALTIMORE — As if attending the funeral for their own season, Ravens players filed quietly into the home locker room at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday afternoon. Wordless, expressionless, Joe Flacco, Justin Forsett, Jimmy Smith & Co. buried their collective frustration in silence following the first 0-3 start in franchise history. All were despondent and still.
All, that is, except for Steve Smith Sr.
“Some of them just like being on the f------ team!” Smith barked as he speed-walked through the tunnel, stomping his feet on the carpet.
When the locker room doors were closed, the veteran wideout addressed his teammates about personal accountability. Look in the mirror. Take ownership of your own performance, of this team, of this season. Pull your own @#$%&^$ weight. After having a bit more time to cool down, he told reporters, “Losing isn’t frustrating. It pisses me off.”
Baltimore was a popular Super Bowl pick this season. The Ravens had a healthy Terrell Suggs at linebacker, a potent Flacco-Smith connection, and Forsett was expected to improve upon his 1,266-yard rushing campaign in 2014. Then Suggs tore his Achilles in the opener, a six-point loss to the Broncos that the Ravens followed up with four-point losses to the Raiders and Bengals. Were Baltimore teams of old to endure a stretch like this, there would be no shortage of voices extolling the virtues of accountability in a postgame setting.
“Back then you had a unit that had been together for some time,” says linebacker Albert McClellan, who was 26 and in his second season, in 2013, when the Ravens won Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans. “So they knew how each other played and how to feed off of one another. The camaraderie was already there. We didn’t have to build that.”
If coach John Harbaugh is overseeing the reconstruction of the locker room and general manager Ozzie Newsome is staffing it, then Steve Smith is its foreman, scrambling in late September to salvage what he says is the last season of an illustrious career. Following the 28-24 loss to the Bengals, Smith was asked if he’s playing the best football of his career. “Um, I guess,” he said, clearly annoyed. “I hate losing so it really isn’t about me right now.”
At least he’s setting the example.
At 36, Smith turned a simple out-route that should’ve gone for five yards into a 50-yard touchdown in the third quarter, breaking tackles and outrunning defensive backs whom he would later describe emphatically as “trash.” It was one of 13 passes he caught for 186 yards and two TDs. He now has 25 catches and 349 yards on an astounding 40 targets this season—more than any other wideout except for the Patriots’ Julian Edelman and the Falcons’ Julio Jones. Smith is on pace for 213 targets, 63 more than what he had in 2005, when he led the NFL in catches, receiving yards and touchdowns.
“It’s wins and losses,” he asserted in the postgame presser. “It’s not about stats.”
Baltimore’s deficiencies, of course, have had little to do with Smith.
Forsett has rushed for 124 yards in three starts behind a struggling offensive line, earning just 3.2 yards per attempt. Minus Suggs, defensive coordinator Dean Pees has been forced to manufacture pressure with defensive backs and inside linebackers to varying degrees of success. And Bengals wideout A.J. Green did a considerable amount of work on the defensive backfield of Will Hill, Jimmy Smith, Kendrick Lewis and Lardarius Webb: he caught 10 passes for 227 yards and two touchdowns, including an 80-yarder that put Cincy up 21-17 with six and a half minutes left to play.
Jimmy Smith, the fifth-year corner who whiffed on a tackle that would’ve dragged Green down at the 20, declined interview requests after the game. He remained in full uniform for nearly the entire open locker room session, sitting motionless in front of his locker, head in hands. Once showered and dressed, he headed for the exit but was called back with a bark.
“Jimmy, come here,” said Steve Smith, who pulled him in close for a private conversation.
When Steve Smith arrived in Baltimore last season after spending the previous 13 with the Panthers, he was something of a stranger when he joined this locker room. Now he’s the trusted vet tying up loose ends and trying to mend a rapidly fraying morale. “I don’t care if it was my first year,” he says, “It doesn’t matter. People pay to see you perform and win.”
Only five 0-3 teams have ever made the playoffs. Fortunately for the Ravens, the road gets easier before it gets harder. On Thursday night, they’ll face a Steelers team that is without Ben Roethlisberger, who suffered a knee injury on Sunday. Then they’ll play the Browns, with Josh McCown presumably at quarterback, followed by the hapless 49ers in San Francisco. The Roethlisberger injury opened a door that nearly seemed shut. The last team to start 0-3 and make the playoffs was the 1998 Buffalo Bills, who did so with the Jets, Dolphins and Patriots all finishing with winning records in what was then a five-team AFC East.
The AFC North isn’t that good, but turning things around will require improved play along the offensive and defensive lines, and a herculean effort from Smith, the only receiver whom Flacco has shown much confidence in thus far. It’s not lost on his teammates that Smith, who joined one of football’s marquee franchises 18 months ago for a last hurrah, is now the most vocal man trying to ward off the Ravens’ first losing season since 2007.
“Honestly, I think we’re all frustrated about where we are at the moment,” linebacker Arthur Brown says. “But we feel our destiny hasn’t changed. It may take a different path, but we have what it takes to get there.”
Smith, in his blunt but endearing way, simply said, “We’ve got to put our tissues away and be able to practice and play.”
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