As the Baltimore Ravens kick off the preseason tonight against the Carolina Panthers at M&T Bank Stadium, the motivations and emotions of the players will vary considerably.
As far as wide receiver Anquan Boldin is concerned, his unofficial debut is something to be survived as an established veteran who’s looking to remain intact in a relatively meaningless exhibition game.
The primary goal for the three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver is to build timing and chemistry with quarterback Joe Flacco in an actual game situation. Boldin said he’ll reserve his passion for when it counts. Namely, the Ravens’ high-profile regular-season opener against the New York Jets next month.
"As a veteran, you just want to get it over with," Boldin said with a laugh. "It’s preseason. We’re probably going to be in there about two series, three series at the most. You just want to get out there, kind of get used to the football speed of things and just make it out safely. We just want to see where we’re at as an offense with the first unit, move around, hit another team."
Outwardly, Flacco is always even-keel.
And a preseason contest doesn’t do anything to raise his anxiety level. It’s typically a rapid-fire exercise of limited playing time followed by a long evening of sitting on the bench.
"My job is easy," Flacco said ."I just treat it like a normal game, and then, all of a sudden, I’m getting pulled and you relax the rest of the game. From that standpoint, it’s pretty easy when you’re one of the guys that are out there first."
What’s essentially old hat for players like Boldin and Flacco is entirely different for the rookies. It’s a proving ground for them as they play in their first NFL game.
A fifth-round draft pick from Syracuse who’s having a strong training camp, defensive tackle Arthur Jones can’t wait to show what he can do.
"I plan on getting a lot of reps," Jones said. "The coaches already told us that the older guys don’t play much in these things. So, I’m excited to get out on the field and just go hard.
"I want to show people that the Ravens got a great defensive tackle in this draft and that they did a good job of picking me. I want to show them that I’m here to stay."
Regardless of whether it’s a seasoned veteran or a raw rookie, the first preseason game traditionally provides a welcome escape after weeks of continually bashing into their teammates since arriving at camp in Westminster in late July.
"Definitely, it’s tiring hitting the same players every day," inside linebacker Jameel McClain said. "We all know each other, and we’re tired of hitting the same-colored jersey. It’s about time that we get a chance to take out our camp frustrations on another team, and I know the other team is feeling the same thing. I’m pretty sure we’re all excited, and I’m definitely excited to get a chance to showcase some of my abilities."
A three-time Pro Bowl selection, Boldin and the other first-string players are slated to play roughly the first quarter.
The coaching staff will be evaluating the crispness of the offense and defense, taking a particularly close eye at projected new starters like free safety Tom Zbikowski and McClain as well as the kicking competition between Shayne Graham and Billy Cundiff.
"I think execution is the main thing," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "I think we’d like to our guys to be sharp, be on target, whether it’s blocking people, on target with our pressures, on target on defense with our assignments. That’s probably the No. 1 thing. We’d like to see our guys play hard. We like to see them be physical. We want them to play the way we want to play and start to establish that right off the bat. .. I think we’re ready to play our first preseason game."
Other key points of interest for the Ravens:
How will an injury-riddled secondary fare with cornerbacks Chris Carr (hamstring) and Fabian Washington (knee) possibly sidelined?
And how will the offensive line fare without Jared Gaither (back spasms) and Tony Moll (concussion) as young players like Oniel Couins and Ramon Harewood shoulder the majority of the workload at right tackle?
Finding a scientific way to avoid injuries isn’t a realistic proposition in a contact sport like football.
What the Ravens can do, though, is be cautious about sitting out players who are already battling various ailments.
"We’ll have a few guys that we’ll hold out, just as a precautionary measure that we just don’t want to push through the game," Harbaugh said. "Guys that will normally play in the regular season will not play in this game, I’m sure. Guys that we think have a little bit of something here or there, we’ll get out pretty quick.
"If something happens to a guy, he’s going to come out. You basically hold your breath and you pray as far as the big injury, because there’s nothing you can do about that. Hopefully, we’ll get through it. If we can say we got through it injury-free, that’s really a victory."
The Ravens will also be auditioning Zbikowski and wide receivers Donte’ Stallworth and Mark Clayton at punt returner.
Plus, Stallworth, Clayton, Demetrius Williams and rookie David Reed are vying for playing time behind starting wide receivers Derrick Mason and Boldin.
A former undrafted free agent from Syracuse who overcame being homeless for a year as a teenager, McClain is working hard to hold off Dannell Ellerbe and Tavares Gooden for the right to start next to All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis.
He doesn’t lack for confidence.
"I knew I belonged the day I came out of my mother’s womb," McClain said. "I was born to play this game, to go out there and hit somebody and play with a high intensity and a lot of rah-rah. So, it’s not like I came here wide-eyed, like, ‘Man, I don’t deserve this.’ I understand that you’ve got to work for everything in life, so I’m my biggest critic and my biggest fan."
Last season, the Ravens won all four preseason games.
That isn’t necessarily an accurate barometer of what will transpire during the regular season. So, Harbaugh downplayed the importance of winning games that don’t count.
"I don’t think it’s critical," he said. "You could lose all four preseason games and win a Super Bowl. We’d sure rather win. I’d rather get the feeling of winning, so we’re going to try to win them all. That’s our goal.
"If we don’t win, they obviously don’t count. Right now, that’s the task at hand. That’s what’s important now, and we’re going to try to win on Thursday night and we’re going to try to win them all."