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Ravens WRs forced to check egos at door

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OWINGS MILLS, Md. – The word hangs strange in a professional sports locker room of today.

Sacrifice.

Seriously? A group of the most prominent wide receivers in the NFL – Derrick Mason(notes), Anquan Boldin(notes) and T.J. Houshmandzadeh(notes) – have been placed together on the Baltimore Ravens and forced to give up dozens of their precious catches for the vague promise of what? Winning a Super Bowl? And they have done this without great complaint?

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Derrick Mason makes a touchdown catch in December against the Texans.
(AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Receptions decline

Ravens wide receivers Derrick Mason, T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Anquan Boldin have all seen their reception totals decline prior to previous seasons.

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Source: NFL

“Well every once in awhile they have something to say,” Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco(notes) says with a smile.

There was, after all, the game earlier this season when Mason – the team’s longtime star receiver – screamed at Flacco on the sideline, but that was quickly diffused. Yes, you can tell the Ravens receivers don’t love seeing their catch totals plummet, that they must wonder why an offense that was supposed to be more explosive still remains more or less conservative. They are receivers after all. Receivers always want more catches. Still they say little given the situation.

“What can I do about it?” asked T.J. Houshmandzadeh, a one-time star making do with just 30 receptions. “You can get upset about it and act like a [expletive]. You can complain about it and [expletive] up what’s going on here.”

He shrugged. He won’t do those things.

He chose to be here, after all.

When the Seahawks released Houshmandzadeh in the days before the season began, he had a choice of teams who called. Most promised the same thing – the chance to catch 100 passes. But they weren’t playoff teams. They didn’t offer winning with those catches. And at 33 years old, he longed to win big.

“I came here because my chances were better here of winning a Super Bowl,” he said.

Even when it meant being the No. 3 receiver on a team that doesn’t throw the ball a great deal.

“When you have numbers in terms of guys there’s still only one ball to go around,” said running back Ray Rice(notes), who gets the ball most, usually at the expense of the receivers.

As he spoke, outside of the Ravens locker room, Houshmandzadeh walked past.

“Look at T.J.,” Rice said, “He could be a legit No. 1 receiver on any team but he comes here to take a lesser role and win a championship. You don’t see that very much.”

At the end of last season, the Ravens could sense a need for change. For more than 10 years they won with defense, often treating the offense as a way to generate the 10 or 14 points for the defense to protect. Rare did Baltimore try to win with its offense.

But as the defense has softened and Flacco has grown in his third year, an urge came to be more explosive, to add players who could bring points quickly and transform the Ravens from a team that could win with both offense and defense.

They traded for Boldin and signed Houshmandzadeh. They hired Jim Zorn, a renowned quarterbacks coach, to work with Flacco and signed Marc Bulger(notes) as a backup to insure the offense’s success.

Such moves scream big plays, lots of scoring, the promise of a team that is going to throw and throw and throw. And the Ravens clearly have a different offense this season – one that can score quickly if needed. In the past when the Ravens fell behind by two touchdowns, it usually meant the game was over. Now they are capable of storming back, or even building fast leads.

Still, progress was always an experiment and you do not change a culture in a season. Not here. Not with a defense like Baltimore’s that is still dominated by linebacker Ray Lewis(notes). The Ravens defense might not be as controlling as it was in the past but it remains very, very good.

That creates a unique dynamic. Baltimore has in Mason, Boldin and Houshmandzadeh – three receivers who have each caught more than 600 passes in their careers and yet the Ravens don’t use them any more than they have any other receivers in other years.

On the Ravens, always a run-first, pass-second team, that isn’t much.

So Boldin, who twice had more than 100 catches in his career and had 84 last season in Arizona, has only 64 receptions this season. It means too that Houshmandzadeh, who caught 112 passes in the 2007 season, has only 30 in Baltimore. Even Mason, the incumbent No. 1 starter has but 61 catches this season.

“Some of these guys who have caught a lot of balls in their careers have never played with a really good tight end or a really good back before,” Cameron said of Rice and tight end Todd Heap(notes), who have both been key parts of the offense.

It makes a difference. For instance, Rice, at 5-foot-8, 212 pounds, is a bowling ball of a runner and the team’s top option against a Cover 2 defense. New England uses its tiny receiver Wes Welker(notes) often against the Cover 2, but since the Ravens receivers are all much taller targets Rice becomes an excellent option. Those are catches, however, that are not going to Mason, Boldin and Houshmandzadeh.

Cameron calls plays less like an offensive coordinator and more like a head coach. This is different from many other offensive coordinators who feel the pressure to make their units as productive as possible for career-preservation, team balance be damned. But Cameron has been a head coach before; he understands that an offense must sometimes support a great defense. And while the temptation lingers to throw, throw, throw, especially given the offense’s roster and a quarterback he appears to adore, he has resisted.

“We’re trying to grow the offense to the best of our abilities,” he says. “At the same time we are trying to run an offense that is complementary to everything we do.”

For example, he tried to slow the offense as much as he could against New Orleans two weeks ago to eat up time and keep the Saints' explosive offense off the field. The Ravens won and Boldin and Houshmandzadeh each caught one pass. Houshmandzadeh’s was for 15 yards, Boldin’s for just two.

There was little protest from either.

“When I first came here, a lot of people said [Mason] doesn’t want another guy coming in here thinking he was the No. 1 guy, yet he has accepted me from Day 1, along with everyone else in the organization,” Boldin told the Baltimore Sun last month. “We’re both at the point in our careers where the only thing we want to do is win a championship.”

Cameron has done his best to placate everybody. Before the season he asked each receiver to write down his personal goals. When he collected the papers he noted wryly that all of them had set lofty ambitions, far beyond what the Ravens offense was going to provide.

“I will do what I can to help you reach your individual goals,” he told them. “But they are second to our winning.”

For now the Ravens receivers seem to grasp that, even embrace it.

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