The Buddy System Works for Ravens
Wednesday, January 10, 2007
OWINGS MILLS, Md., Jan. 9 -- He is the bubbly player bounding across the practice field, smaller than the rest of the linemen, sporting a stomach bulge befitting a middle-aged, sitcom dad and a grin from one end of his battered face mask to the other. Despite his physique, Kelly Gregg is one of the premier defensive tackles in the NFL, a happy anomaly on a Baltimore Ravens defense marked by players with taut muscles and superior speed.
Baltimore's vaunted defense has no shortage of physical specimens, from Ray Lewis and Ed Reed -- both past defensive players of the year -- to hybrid players such as Adalius Thomas, Trevor Pryce, Bart Scott and Terrell Suggs and perennial Pro Bowlers such as Chris McAlister. And then there's the unknown guy plugging up the middle of the field at nose tackle.
"For the linebackers, our greatest asset is Kelly Gregg, and [end Haloti] Ngata and Trevor up front," Lewis said.
The Ravens will host an AFC second-round playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts on Saturday, facing perhaps the most feared offense in the league, and their defensive stars point almost unanimously to Gregg (listed as 6 feet, 310 pounds) as the foundation. The focus of their 3-4 formation, he is charged with leading the run defense in the middle of the line, routinely taking on multiple offensive linemen so that the ends and linebackers can make the highlight-reel plays. He is their Buddy Lee -- nicknamed after the character from the Lee jeans commercials.
"We have some freaks of nature, but Kelly is a freak of nature too, now," said Pryce, who led the team with 13 sacks. "Kelly is strong in ways that people don't understand. He's weightlifter strong, but he says he doesn't lift weights anymore. It's a natural thing he was born with. He has that leverage [from being smaller than most opponents] and he tries to take advantage of it.
"The way football works is kind of like everything else; the middle has to hold everything else up. It's almost like the human body, your core is the most important thing. And Kelly is our core."
Pryce, signed as a free agent in 2006 after nine years in Denver, was most eager to play with Gregg. After all, Pryce's line coach with the Broncos, Jacob Burney, had raved about Gregg.
"In Denver, anytime we watched film of the Ravens, our D-line coach would go crazy," Pryce said. "He would praise Kelly and say, 'Aaghh, that's the best player in the NFL!' He'd say it all the time. He loved him. Our D-line coach was one of those old hard-nosed guys, and he'd say all the time that Kelly is the best defensive lineman in the NFL."
Gregg, 30, overhears Pryce and jokes that the defensive line coach must be clueless. A self-deprecating fellow on a defense with no shortage of egos, Gregg has so thoroughly embraced his Buddy Lee status that he gleefully signs that name, rather than his own, when fans request it -- and that happens all the time.
Although he has come a long way, Gregg was a long shot. When he signed with agent Jack Bechta, Gregg acknowledged his shortcomings but had a demand. "Kelly kept pounding the table and looking me in the eye," Bechta said. "Will you fight for me? That's all he wanted to know. He didn't care about money or anything else. He just said, 'If I don't get an opportunity right away, will you fight to get me one?' "
He put up strong performances at Senior Bowl practices but Bechta heard no buzz from NFL people. "He was like Rodney Dangerfield," Bechta said. "Nobody was willing to give him any respect because he didn't pass the eye test. He didn't look the part." Despite posting strong sack and tackle numbers his senior season at Oklahoma, Gregg was not selected until the sixth round by Cincinnati in 1999.
He was waived by the Bengals that September (their personnel people told Bechta that Gregg would never play in the NFL), spent the season on the practice squad, then signed with Philadelphia that offseason, went to NFL Europe and was waived by the Eagles at the start of the 2000 season. The Eagles hoped to re-sign him to the practice squad -- and were offering twice as much as Baltimore -- but Gregg signed with the Ravens, for one reason: Rex Ryan.
Ryan, son of defensive mastermind Buddy Ryan, was Gregg's defensive coordinator at Oklahoma in 1998 and Baltimore's defensive line coach in 2000 (he is now defensive coordinator). Ryan pushed the Ravens to draft Gregg in 1999, and Coach Brian Billick and General Manager Ozzie Newsome were aware of Gregg when he ended up on waivers. Gregg called Ryan shortly after his release and was quickly driving down I-95.
Ryan was upfront with Gregg: the Ravens were en route to a Super Bowl title with one of the best defenses in NFL history, and were loaded with proven tackles. But Tony Siragusa and Sam Adams were nearing the end of their careers and opportunity was a year away.
"His wrestling background [he won two national heavyweight titles in high school] gives him a huge advantage over other people," Ryan said. "He can whip a lot of people with his body control and his leverage. He has built-in leverage with his height and he plays with his knees bent and everything is in a power path, and he can bench 550 pounds. He may not look big, but he is big. He's a great player, a super technician."
Gregg spent all of 2000 on the practice squad. With Adams and Siragusa often hurt, Gregg practiced regularly with the first-team defense, and never took a snap off. He participated on special teams in practice, and also worked as a tight end, guard and fullback with the scout teams.
By the end of 2000, the offensive line coach wanted him to play guard, the running backs coach wanted him as a fullback and the tight ends coach wanted him, too. Ryan won out and Gregg appeared in eight games in 2001, registering his first sack. He started all 16 games in 2002, and led all defensive linemen with 104 tackles. Gregg missed two games in 2004 -- the only two he has missed since becoming a regular in 2002 -- and has been at his best this season, with a career-best 3 1/2 sacks, earning leaguewide notice for tracking down and sacking Michael Vick in November.
"I was like, 'You guys are crazy,' " Ryan recalled telling the other coaches. " 'He's my guy. He's a defensive tackle.' It just tells you the kind of person he is. Everybody believed in him."