PITTSBURGH – They put up a good fight. The Baltimore Ravens showed heart, resilience, character and all of that. They made the NFL’s only undefeated team put up a sweat when we expected a slaughter.
Yet as Robert Griffin III so poignantly pointed out after the 19-14 setback to the Pittsburgh Steelers, the midweek NFL theater wasn’t so much about sport, grit or entertainment.
Not after the depleted Ravens came into the thrice-postponed game on the heels of the NFL’s arguably worst COVID-19 outbreak yet.
“This isn’t just about football,” Griffin said. “This is about guys’ families, wives and children and anybody else that is in close contact with them at home.”
The Ravens entered the game with 17 players still listed on COVID-19 reserve list, many of whom tested positive. Yes, they can fret about the team’s playoff chances as they ride a three-game losing streak. But Griffin, who filled in for star quarterback Lamar Jackson and hobbled out of Heinz Field with an injured hamstring, felt the crux of this crisis so much more as a human being than as a football player.
“When we get a call saying that one of our players is positive, a million things run through your mind,” Griffin said. “It’s not whether you are going to be able to play, or whether you test positive. It’s a matter of, ‘Is this going to affect my family?’ “
While the Ravens’ outbreak has intensified scrutiny on the NFL against the backdrop of the surging COVID-19 numbers in the nation, Griffin said that the number of family members of infected players who have also tested positive hasn’t been reported.
It’s another layer to the Ravens’ crisis, he maintained, that is connected but perhaps easily overlooked in a football context.
“If we can’t come to the game properly prepared, and there’s a chance our family might get infected with this virus, that puts a lot of things in flux,” Griffin said.
Of course, the impact that the outbreak had on the football product was palatable, especially on the offensive unit that Griffin commandeered. In addition to Jackson, the top two running backs (J.K. Dobbins and Mark Ingram), the fullback (Patrick Ricard), the star tight end (Mark Andrews) and a starting wideout (Willie Snead IV) were out. They were also down to the third-string center (Trystan Colon-Castillo).
And Griffin was distraught by the first hamstring injury of his life.
“Emotionally, I’m down in the dumps,” he said. “It sucks.”
Griffin had some splash plays with his legs, although hardly enough to offset the heat from a Steelers defense that sacked him three times. He led the team with 68 rushing yards, including a 39-yard bolt that was his longest since his phenomenal rookie year with Washington. It set up the goal-line opportunity just before halftime that was squandered. And it gave the sluggish offense a jolt. Then, it all fizzled after Griffin pulled the muscle after escaping the pocket just two snaps after his big run.
“If I hadn’t done that, I felt like we would’ve won the game,” he said.
Like Griffin, the Ravens should carry no shame, given the circumstances. Sure, it’s another L in an environment where moral victories are worth as much as a wooden nickel. A season after finishing with the league’s best regular-season record, the Ravens (6-5) need to rip off a string of victories during their final five games to just make the playoffs in an expanded field. But the effort while cornered by football matters and COVID-19 alike reflected some serious mettle.
“Whatever happened, they never blinked,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said of his team through the last 10 days.
While Harbaugh and some of the Ravens players who appeared during postgame Zoom conferences commended the NFL’s efforts in trying to ensure player safety while continuing to play games, there were many questions.
Safety Chuck Clark wondered, with the protocols and concerns related to close contacts, why the Ravens were even allowed in the building on Monday and Tuesday for conditioning and walk-through sessions.
When Griffin was asked about the league’s handling of the pandemic, he responded, “That’s a setup question if I’ve ever heard one. What I will say, because I do think it needs to be said, is that there are some things that are going on behind closed doors that we’re not privy to.”
Harbaugh, in his first media session since the crisis began, didn’t want to delve deeply into some of the questions that have arisen. The Ravens suspended head strength and conditioning coach Steve Saunders, who the team said violated NFL COVID-19 protocols.
The coach contended that the team will have further statements at another time about details pertaining to the crisis.
“It’s not time to take an accusatory stance,” Harbaugh said.
Still, there undoubtedly is much overlap between football matters and real-life issues like COVID-19. That’s unavoidable during this unusual season of football in a pandemic.
With livelihoods and lives at stake, transparency is a must.
Just listen to the perspective Griffin dropped as he finished his Zoom conference.
“At the end of the day,” he said, “just because you’re a football player doesn’t mean you’re not human.”
The Ravens have recently provided reminders of that in multiple ways