On August 9, 2005 the Ravens were scheduled to take the practice field for the 7th day of camp at McDaniel College in Westminster. Being the beneficiaries of a beautiful indoor facility in Owings Mills, Coach Brian Billick chose to bus his troops down from Westminster to team headquarters in order to come in from a steady rain to improve the efficiency of practice and eliminate the risk of a weather related injury.
The practice was spirited and productive and featured some of the hardest hitting in camp up to that point. As the practice was approaching its close, the team engaged in an 11-on-11 scrimmage. A play had just ended and as the combatants made their way to their respective sides of the line of scrimmage, one white jersey remained on the turf — a player riveted by obvious pain.
A hush fell over the facility. The spirit was broken.
As Adalius Thomas grimaced in pain, the luster of a promising season faded. A defense that is built around the athleticism of its members was in jeopardy of losing perhaps its most versatile athlete.
Bill Tessendorf and his team of trainers hovered over AD. The concern of Brian Billick was noticeable, more noticeable than after any previous injury suffered by a Ravens’ player during camp. Immediately you could sense the wheels turning as Billick seemingly tried to collect the emotion of such a potential loss. With Dan Cody down, what would the Ravens do if AD was missing from the defense?
The Ravens defense is proud of its versatility and its collective ability to shift and morph into various formations with a wide range of personnel packages. But many of those packages are predicated upon the abilities of AD. Who else on the Ravens has a more diversified resume than Adalius Thomas? He is a defensive coordinator’s dream, just ask Rex Ryan.
"Adalius has the flexibility to play defensive tackle sometimes, defensive end, outside linebacker, inside linebacker, a dime back, so you know he can line up all over the place and I think that’s something that very few people in the league have –that flexibility and we’re fortunate to have him obviously."
The Kansas City Chiefs’ Trent Green said that when the Chiefs played the Ravens in 2004, they were constantly aware of AD’s presence on the field and keyed their plays off his positioning because he can be so disruptive.
Last year Ryan planned to use the "46" or the "Double Eagle" as he calls it, as one of the base defensive packages. Going into the season Ryan said, "That double eagle, the true standard 46 defense, we are probably in a third of the time right now. But our other defenses are prominent as well. So it’s just the fact that we can play the 46 every snap of the game or we don’t have to play it at all. And I think that’s going to help us when teams have to prepare for us."
The "46" was never anywhere near as prominent as Ryan had expected. Injuries played a key role. The realization that the Ravens front line wasn?t quite up to that of the Bears’ old "46" also placed a damper on "46" plans. Yet AD’s presence still provided a luxury that few teams have. His versatility helped to circumvent key injuries to Ray Lewis and Ed Reed.
Understanding how to use AD is a challenge as well. His ability to do so many things can be tempting for the defensive coaches yet the team is aware that they can’t burn out AD and they are also well aware of his unique special teams’ skills that are virtually impossible to replace or duplicate. According to Ryan, "The thing that we have to do as a team — and this is something that Brian has talked about — for us to be a Super Bowl contender, Adalius HAS TO be a contributor on special teams. He’s that kind of player, that kind of impact player on special teams. We have to have him do that. And obviously playing at such a high standard on defense as well, we are going to have to spell him on defense. We can?t afford to give him plays off on special teams but we will give him plays off on defense. It may be a combination of four or five guys that are taking his plays."
Four or five guys! No wonder the silence was so thick you could cut it with a knife on August 9. Talents like Adalius Thomas are rare and one has to wonder how he survived through nearly 6 rounds of the 2000 NFL Draft. AD came to the Ravens courtesy of Southern Mississippi, Brett Favre’s alma mater. Thomas was regarded as a diamond in the rough by most scouts, and a player that probably should have been drafted three rounds earlier if not for that once dreaded "tweener" tag.
During his NFL career, AD has shown glimpses of greatness. And while he may never be held in the same regard as a pass rusher like Michael McCrary or Peter Boulware, AD is equally important to the Ravens defense and it could be argued that he is the most important player on that defense. Yet he?s quick to share the credit with his defensive mates.
"Yeah, you know with the players we have, it gives us a chance to do a lot of different things. So I think it’s good that [Rex] brings a lot of different things to the table, you know with me and Suggs, Rod Green, Tommy Polley (last season) and Ray. And then there’s Jarrett Johnson so all those things you can add into the mix."
Native Baltimorean Tommy Polley came to the Ravens last season by way of St. Louis, a team known for its offensive prowess. When asked about joining the Ravens, a team known for defense Polley said, "It’s what I expected playing with Ray, Reed and guys like McAlister. But AD, man, I knew he was a Pro Bowl special teamer but I had no idea just how good he is. A man that size that can run a 4.5 is scary!"
The scary thing for the Ravens after the 2006 season is that it could be the last season the Ravens have AD who will then be an unrestricted free agent. Ed Reed is expected to land a huge contract that should keep him in Baltimore throughout his prime. Dan Cody is expected to play the Sam linebacker position in 2006 to free AD as a roamer. Should Cody show promise and another linebacker steps up, AD might not be part of the Ravens beyond the coming season. Former 49er and now Seahawk Julian Peterson recently signed a deal that will pay him $18.5 million in guaranteed money. AD has been every bit as productive as Peterson over the past few years. Can the Ravens afford to keep AD? At this point we aren’t sure but you can almost be certain that the Ravens will allow AD to test the market just as they did the last time AD’s contract came up after the 2003 season.
And this time AD might find a more receptive free agent market. After all there are guys like Mike Nolan and Phil Savage out there that understand.
That knee injury back on August 9, 2005 turned out to be nothing more than a minor sprain that forced AD to the sidelines temporarily. This coming season, AD just might achieve a personal goal that eluded him in 2005 — the Pro Bowl. We all would like to see nothing less for a man who is as accomplished off the field as he is on it. But such accomplishments could land him elsewhere in 2007.
And then there will be a hush over an entire city and hearts will be broken.
It’s the business of the NFL.
Just ask Steve McNair.