At 6:13 a.m. on Aug. 3, John Simpson checked in from Ravens training camp with a selfie. The fourth-year guard had reported to his first Owings Mills camp just over a week earlier. Seven practices later, he looked like he could barely keep his eyes open.
“Ion [I don’t] even know what day it is …” Simpson wrote in an Instagram story. “But here’s to another day of camp.”
No modern NFL team has ever won in the preseason as consistently as the Ravens, whose 23-game winning streak dates to 2016. The best explanation for their dominance might also be the simplest: Few teams practice in the preseason like the Ravens.
Their opponent in Saturday’s preseason opener at M&T Bank Stadium provides a useful contrast. The Philadelphia Eagles opened camp with just one set of back-to-back practices scheduled over their first three weeks, relying on the occasional walk-through to break up regular practice days. The Ravens opened camp with 10 practices in 11 days, including one walk-through day in a stretch of six straight practice days.
“You talk to these guys and you look at the analytics on it; they’re expending a lot of energy out there,” coach John Harbaugh said after Thursday’s practice, which ended early after about two hours of team drill-heavy work. “They’re working hard. You try to do it in ways to keep them safe but also get them ready to play as best we can. Those aren’t, I don’t think, necessarily conflicting goals. You want them to go together as much as you can make it happen, and they’ve done a great job.”
The results are convincing. Over their preseason winning streak, the Ravens have outscored opponents 541-261. Since 2016, only three teams have a better winning percentage (.696) in September. In their 15 years under Harbaugh, they’ve had just two losing seasons.
The factors behind the Ravens’ preseason potency are as varied as their schemes. Team officials pride themselves on their recruitment of high-quality undrafted free agents, who can make up about a quarter of a team’s 90-man roster. Coaches have pointed to the contributions of preseason-only stars such as Josh Woodrum, who recorded a 102.2 passer rating in seven games during the Ravens’ preseason run, as well as future Pro Bowlers such as fullback Patrick Ricard and kicker Wil Lutz, now with the New Orleans Saints.
But, in a league with relative financial parity, how teams practice — and how they play — can have an outsize impact on preseason success. Harbaugh has dismissed the notion that Ravens starters get more snaps than other teams’ starters; quarterback Lamar Jackson, for example, has played in just one game over the past three preseasons, totaling six offensive snaps.
At a time in the NFL calendar when teams are gearing up for Week 1, the Ravens, more often than not, simply play as if they’re better prepared than their opponents to meet the demands of a regular-season game.
“Our training camp, I feel, it’s not like many other training camps. We go HAM [hard as a m-----------], basically,” former Ravens safety and current scouting intern Tony Jefferson said on safety Kyle Hamilton’s “Inside the Garage” podcast before the team’s 2022 camp. “We really get after it. The weather doesn’t make it any better. It’s really a tough camp.”
It used to be tougher. The Ravens have scaled back their intensity in recent years, limiting the number and duration of padded practices. Harbaugh said Thursday that the Ravens’ approach to camp has evolved over the past five years, a stretch during which preseason and in-season injuries have sometimes ravaged the team. He expected it to evolve over the next five years as well.
Still, under the midday sun, in Maryland’s swampy humidity, there’s plenty of time on task. Some Ravens practices run for 150 minutes, the maximum allotted time under the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement. Players expected to contribute on special teams rarely get a lengthy break, transitioning from punt and kickoff work, to individual drills, to seven-and-seven and 11-on-11 work. There are the positional meetings and the weightlifting sessions and the team meals. It can be a lot of effort for not much reward.
“If you don’t like to work, you’re going to see it as a hard training camp,” quarterback Josh Johnson, who’s played for an NFL-record 14 teams and is vying for a spot on the Ravens’ 53-man roster, said Thursday. “But if you appreciate the work and understand what reps do for you, you’ll be very grateful for that. That’s what I remembered the last time I was here for training camp [in 2016] — same situation here. We all get an opportunity. In each rep, you bank them, and when you bank them, that’s an opportunity for you to see where you’re at in the system, so you can go out there and play as comfortably as possible.”
No approach is bulletproof. The Eagles, criticized last summer for their light camp schedule, had all 22 starters healthy entering Super Bowl LVII and finished with the third-fewest “adjusted games lost” to injury in 2022, according to Football Outsiders. (The Ravens finished 25th, one year after finishing last and two years after finishing eighth.)
Philadelphia center Jason Kelce, who’s started 139 consecutive games, told local reporters last month that the team does “as good if not better than anybody at trying to stay healthy,” though he acknowledged the NFL’s “100% injury rate” among players.
In Baltimore, the Ravens’ stated goals aren’t any different from the Eagles’, or any other team’s, really: “Build as deep a roster as we can. Be as strong as we can, top to bottom. Create competition throughout,” owner Steve Bisciotti said Tuesday on SiriusXM NFL Radio. How they go about reaching them, however, is where they distinguish themselves.
“Yes, Philly does have a different approach — not as many reps,” Ravens defensive backs coach Dennard Wilson, who spent the past two years on Philadelphia’s staff, said Monday. “But here, with the reps that we get, the young guys get a ton of reps here. So, with the young guys getting [reps], you develop those players faster.
“The vets, they might have their certain amount of plays, and then we’re able to get them out and let these young guys come in here. So the way this schedule is here … you’re building your front-line guys, but you’re building your back line up, too. So it’s been great being here. It’s kind of like I’m used to when I first was in this league [in 2004], and I love it.”
The team’s summertime supremacy has created certain expectations. Las Vegas sportsbooks have the Ravens, who are 43-12 in the preseason under Harbaugh, as 4 1/2-point favorites over the Eagles. And, even as camp has left the team thin at certain positions, it’s also helped the Ravens prepare physically for what’s to come. After a lot of practice, Harbaugh believes they’re ready to play.
“I expect us to be in really good shape,” he said. “Now, they’re not coming off of much rest. They’re going to go into that game not completely recovered — because that’s how training camp is.”