OWINGS MILLS — Veteran wide receiver Derrick Mason delivered an abrupt retirement announcement Monday that sent shockwaves throughout the Baltimore Ravens’ organization following an unanticipated action that creates an offensive crisis if he follows through with his plans.
Although Mason definitely caught teammates and team officials off guard with his decision, it also triggered unconfirmed opinions that the two-time Pro Bowl wide receiver might be saber-rattling due to his unresolved request for a new contract.
And teammates raised the question whether Mason, 35, was in an emotional state following the murder of former Ravens quarterback Steve McNair, his close friend and former teammate. Nine days ago, McNair was shot to death in a downtown Nashville condominium by his 20-year-old girlfriend, Sahel “Jenny” Kazemi.
Perhaps the strangest aspect of the news was the fact that Mason had worked out Monday afternoon at the Ravens’ training complex and met with team officials before leaving the building at nearly the approximate time that a statement was released through his agents’ Web site.
"It’s a decision that I’ve made," Mason said in a subsequent ESPN interview. "If I do change my mind, it won’t be because of the Ravens. It’ll be because of some other things, my family and talking with other people. I still got to talk with some coaches over there. As far as financially, I don’t think they can do anything to sway me."
The Ravens’ top wide receiver had lobbied publicly and privately for a contract extension this offseason as he approaches the final year of a five-year, $20 million contract. While the Ravens hadn’t turned Mason down flat and were amenable to discussing an extension, they weren’t inclined to offer him a new deal at this time.
Mason has also been recuperating from surgery to repair his labrum and scapula and had raised doubts about whether he was going to participate in training camp, which contradicted Ravens coach John Harbaugh’s expectations for his return. Mason didn’t return telephone calls from the 24×7.
“It really hurts losing a guy like Derrick, we’re losing a leader,” fullback Le’Ron McClain said in a telephone interview. “To not have a guy around like that who has been there for us, we’re losing a great player and I hope every receiver practices like him, plays like him and acts like him.
“I think with Steve’s death and everything that went on with that, I think that took a toll on Derrick and might have something to do with this. I’m surprised that he wants to retire. It hurts me, for real, because he’s one of my best friends on the team. If anything was going bad with me, I would talk to him and he could always put a smile on my face.”
Of course, Mason has yet to actually file his retirement papers with the league office.
That raises the possibility that he could change his mind before training camp.
“For any player to retire, he has to send a letter to the NFL stating this," team spokesman Kevin Byrne said. "Derrick Mason has not done that."
Many of the players were surprised by Mason stating that he would no longer play football.
“It’s bittersweet, it’s a loss,” offensive guard Chris Chester said. “We’ve lost someone that’s been such a big part of our success and done such great things for the Ravens. I think Derrick has planted some seeds in all of us on the team to help us continue to grow and be a professional like he was.
“I’m actually surprised. I know he’s been banged-up, but I’m still pretty surprised. It makes sense, but it still catches you off-guard regardless of the circumstances.”
In his statement, Mason went out of his way to deny that this was a decision prompted by financial concerns.
And Mason claimed that this wasn’t a decision made without serious deliberations.
"I have been thinking about this since the season ended," Mason said. "Emotionally, I am just not that enthused. I have not been that enthused to get up and work out. It was getting to that point. This decision has nothing to do with the contract situation. I have made enough money, more than enough money. Emotionally, there are things that are more important.
“It’s time right now. I don’t know what’s going to happen from here, but it’s going to be really nice to see what life has in store for me. What I want people to remember about my NFL career is that I played hard, played hard in practice and the game. I tried to make everyone better and would do anything to help."
Mason’s agent, Lamont Smith, issued a statement stating that Mason had contacted him on July 10 about his plans to retire.
“He indicated that he did not want me to continue to seek a contract extension from the Baltimore Ravens and that his decision had little if anything to do with Baltimore’s refusal to grant him an extension,” Smith said. “He stated that emotionally and physically he did not feel up to the enormous demands that professional football requires to compete at the level that he is accustomed to competing.
“He asked me to delay the announcement of this decision out of respect for his former teammate, Steve McNair, so we obviously complied with his request. After speaking with Derrick, I telephoned Ozzie Newsome and advised him of Derrick’s decision. Given that Derrick just reached this decision on Friday, he has not as of yet filed official papers with the league offices. We expect that he will do this when he gets around to it.”
Mason played for the Tennessee Titans for the first eight seasons of his career and has played for the Ravens for the past four years, solidifying their receiving corps.
Despite a painful shoulder injury last season, Mason still caught a team-high 80 passes for 1,037 yards and five touchdowns. For his career, he has registered 790 receptions for 10,061 yards and 52 touchdowns.
"I have had a tremendous career, and I played for two great teams, I had fun," Mason said. "In my career, I have been able to do everything but win a Super Bowl. I’ve had the opportunity to play on great teams and with great players.
“After 12 years, I have seen it all and done it all. Right now, I am content with the decision I am making. All good things come to an end, and I am ready to see what else life has to offer."
If Mason does retire, the Ravens would lose their most reliable outside presence.
Mason is sure-handed and has earned the trust of quarterback Joe Flacco, building chemistry with him throughout last season.
The Ravens would likely have to promote Mark Clayton as their new featured target and insert injury-prone Demetrius Williams into the starting lineup with Marcus Smith and Kelley Washington acting as their backups.
If Mason is out of the equation, someone is going to have fill the void.
“I feel like they have no choice, but to step up,” McClain said. “I know Mark and Demetrius and Marcus and the guys will do their job. The season will go on. Training camp is about to start. We’ve got to get ready.
“We’re losing a great leader and a great receiver, but, hopefully, this just motivates the other guys. Let’s get it going. The sky is still the limit for us. I know it’s going to make me play a little bit harder and try to be that leader.”
The Ravens explored trade scenarios for Arizona Cardinals Pro Bowl wide receiver Anquan Boldin, but balked at hefty trade compensation demands and were averse to Boldin’s financial demands of $9 million annually.
The Ravens also held internal discussions about trading for troubled Denver Broncos Pro Bowl wide receiver Brandon Marshall, but were scared off by his history of domestic violence issues as well as the reasons they backed off of pursuing Boldin. They never made a serious run at Marshall.
Mason downplayed the Ravens’ need at wide receiver should he retire.
"I have left them in great hands," Mason said. "Mark Clayton is a younger version of me. Williams can be a true player; he can be in the elite class. Smith, [Justin] Harper, Washington, they all are a young group that can only be better with Joe in the backfield."
If Mason is placed on the reserve-retired list, his $3 million base salary would no longer count against the Ravens’ salary cap.
There aren’t a lot of viable receivers available in free agency, but some of the top names include Marvin Harrison, Matt Jones, Drew Bennett, Amani Toomer, Jerry Porter and D.J. Hackett.
“I have a lot of confidence in our other receivers’ ability,” Chester said. “Derrick planted some seeds with those wide receivers that will grow. I still think we’ll be a plenty potent offense.”