NEW ORLEANS — The barren road out of the NFL is littered with terrific athletes who could run faster, jump higher, lift more weight, and throw the ball harder than most others.
They are now hollow memories filled with mind-boggling 40-yard times and ridiculous statistics from their time in college football.
But the truly great NFL players through time have three common bonds. They have terrific talent. They have undeniable toughness and internal fortitude. And they have rare natural instincts for the game that are fine-tuned through exhaustive study and repetition.
That greatness of one player, seen so many times in showdowns against the Patriots, will once again be on display Sunday night in the Superdome — perhaps for the final time at this level — when Ravens safety Ed Reed takes the field for Super Bowl XLVII.
“He just does things that nobody else at that position does or I don’t know if they’ve ever done it,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said of Reed last month. “He’s special. He’s really special.”
Reed has come home in search of his greatest success: that elusive Super Bowl title. In fact, it comes as almost a surprise to realize that this is Reed’s first appearance in the ultimate game.
“I can’t explain it. This is awesome,” Reed said. “To come home, to be in Louisiana, in front of the home team, the home crowd, playing for the Super Bowl . . . I can’t really explain it. I’m really speechless.
“For everything that I’ve been through to get to this point, everything we’ve been through as a team to get to this point, it’s just awesome.”
It’s fitting that it happened now. Reed was born and raised in St. Rose, La., just west of New Orleans. His exploits at Destrehan High are legendary. There wasn’t anything in sports that Reed couldn’t do. As an outfielder, he was invited to a pro tryout camp. Reed averaged 20 points a game in basketball. For the track team, Reed ran all the sprints and sprint relays, did the long jump and high jump, and threw the javelin.
And, of course, for the football team he did it all: quarterback, kicker, kick returner, and star defensive back.
But he also had an undying thirst to work at his craft. He was recruited by now-Colts coach Chuck Pagano to the University of Miami, and former Hurricanes teammates have told tales of Reed trying to wake them up at 5 a.m. to study film or get in extra work on the practice field.
That continues to this day with the Ravens. Every young teammate you talk to about Reed says the same thing: He shares all his knowledge with you, and will do it all the time.
“We’ve watched film together at his house, and he just shows me how he watches film as a defensive back and how I should apply that to my position,” said fifth-year linebacker Jameel McClain.
“It’s not just about the way he prepares himself, but the way he prepares the people around him to make them better, too. It’s definitely a sign of his true greatness. All of the great ones share their knowledge to build others up, and that’s who Reed is 100 percent.”
Like a quarterback
Reed’s résumé is well-known. The NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2004 has earned nine Pro Bowl selections, been named first-team All-Pro five times and second-team All-Pro three times. He has scored 14 touchdowns in his career, and he’s the only player in NFL history to score off a punt return, a blocked punt, an interception, and a fumble recovery.
“He’s unique in his own right,” said 49ers quarterback Alex Smith. “He’s so unorthodox in how he plays; it’s not textbook safety play that you’re used to seeing.
“He plays Cover 2 different than anybody; he plays the middle different than anybody, and obviously has exceptional range and great instincts. When he is around the ball, he has great ball skills as well.
“He’s a unique guy to go against; it definitely requires a lot of film study because he doesn’t play safety like anybody else.”
Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees, who was with the Patriots from 2004-09, said Reed plays safety like an elite quarterback.
“Tom Brady can be looking this way and know he’s going [the other] way and make the safety drift so that he can get that seam open,” Pees said. “Ed can go this way, to make you think he’s going that way, when he knows you’re going back to the seam.
“There’s not a lot of guys that have that innate ability to do that. He’s one of them.
“He knows, he studies film enough that he can tell, maybe by either the quarterback’s mechanics or body language or by the formation or whatever, he can set some guys up.
“And there’s very few quarterbacks that can do it. [Peyton] Manning, Brady can do it. They can put the safety where they want him to hit what they want. He’s kind of the opposite. I think he’s one of the few safeties that I’ve been around that can actually do that.”
The big unknown
The question is, how long can Reed continue to be an elite player? He’ll be 35 Sept. 11.
“I’ve got a lot of years in me,” he said. “I don’t want to play till I’m 40. I always said my mark in the NFL is 35. I always said that if I feel I could play more, I would, so I’ve been doing a great job with my doctor.
“I can still cover ground with the best of them. I’m not going to say I can do it better than any other safety because we all have different attributes that we bring to the table. There’s a reason why, outside of me dropping a few, people don’t throw my way, man. I still get that respect on the football field.
“I can still play this game, and when I can’t, trust me, you’ll know.”
You could see the respect that Brady had in the AFC Championship game. It probably had something to do with the absence of tight end Rob Gronkowski, but Brady looked extremely gun-shy about throwing anywhere near the middle of the field. And that was definitely a factor in the Patriots’ loss.
“I think he does [still have it] because what happens is he’s got the experience behind him that kind of sets those things up,” Pees said. “It’s like any player as they get older. Even though sometimes speed or something may diminish, their idea of how to play the play and what to do aids them and the experience takes over from there.”
You have to wonder whether Belichick will come calling. Reed will be an unrestricted free agent, but his preference is to remain with the Ravens — though Pagano, whom Reed has called a fatherly figure, could be making a call as well.
“Oh, I know. Bill loves Ed. I know he loves Ed,” Pees said. “The thing about Bill is, Bill’s always about two years ahead of where he wants the team to be.
“He’s always done well in the draft, he’s always done well in free agency. He doesn’t think about next year, as much as he’s already like, ‘Here’s how the team’s going to go, here’s who’s going to be leaving in a couple years.’ He is really unbelievable that way.
“I don’t know. There’s been guys when their contracts came up in New England who wanted multiyear contracts, and he wasn’t about to give them a multiyear contract because he was going to give them a one-year contract because he was already thinking two or three years ahead. So the guys left because they couldn’t get the multiyear contract that they want.
“So, I really don’t know. He works on a different framework than a lot of guys.”
Greatness, whether it be Belichick or Reed, tends to go that way.