By the time Jared Gaither quietly and officially left the Baltimore Ravens last summer, he was an afterthought, a mere footnote about squandered potential.
A towering offensive tackle from the University of Maryland, the 6-foot-9, 340-pounder's three-year tenure with the Ravens was derailed by injuries and his lack of a strong commitment to football.
Now, Gaither is slowly rebuilding his career with the San Diego Chargers and is poised to square off with his former teammates Sunday night in a high-profile nationally televised game.
"I have definitely matured, just through lessons throughout the seasons and the NFL," Gaither said. "Even leaving different teams and going to different teams, you learn more. I'm getting older. And with age, you do mature more."
A former fifth-round draft pick in the NFL supplemental draft after dealing with academic ineligibility issues when he played for former Terrapins coach Ralph Friedgen, Gaither was an initial hit as the replacement for retired All-Pro left tackle Jonathan Ogden.
However, his time with the Ravens hit a crossroads during the spring of 2010.
Behind the scenes, Gaither was lobbying general manager Ozzie Newsome for a lucrative contract extension through agent Drew Rosenhaus. And his demands weren't met by a front office unwilling to make a long-term financial commitment to a player who lacked consistency on and off the field and wasn't paying the price in the weight room.
"He was a good tackle here for us," said Pro Bowl outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, who will be rushing the passer against Gaither on Sunday night. "Of course, the business side of it got in the way of us having him."
A mysterious foot injury sidelined Gaither at a minicamp simultaneous to being shifted to right offensive tackle and replaced by Michael Oher on the left side.
Then, Gaither showed up for training camp months later 30 pounds lighter at a skinny 311 pounds. He developed back spasms after being bull-rushed in pass-rush drills by heavier teammates.
It was later diagnosed by California back specialist Dr Robert Watkins as a thoracic disc injury and the Ravens placed Gaither on injured reserve on Oct. 23, 2010.
He wasn't retained by Baltimore as a free agent, and signed with the Kansas City Chiefs.
"I just had an unfortunate back injury, basically," Gaither said. "I assume that's why it ended how it ended. I'm still young in my career. I still have a lot of football to go. I wouldn't speculate or waste my time trying to guess or wonder.
"You just have to move on, and I've done so. Everything that took place in history helped me to be a better person now. I'm looking forward to just keep on building and getting better."
The Chiefs cut him on Nov. 29 after committing a key penalty and he was claimed off waivers by the Chargers.
Since then, Gaither has emerged as a key figure for a Chargers offensive line decimated by injuries.
"Jared is playing really, really well," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "He's playing really hard, he's very physical. He's been just stellar both in run and pass. So, he's really upgraded their offensive line tremendously. I'm happy for him. He's done a nice job."
Gaither has started the past two games at left tackle and will be assigned Sunday night to block Suggs, who leads the Ravens with 13 sacks.
For a beleaguered offensive line that lost starting left tackle Marcus McNeill for the season, claiming Gaither has turned out to be a wise move.
"When Jared was cut by Kansas City, it was a no-brainer for us," Chargers coach Norv Turner said. "It solidified our line, to be honest with you. I didn't know how Jared would do. I knew he was athletic, but he's been great for us the last two games and played good with very short notice.
"He's a big man, long arms and he's a very good athlete. So, he's kind of bailed us out. I don't know where we would have been without him. I don't think we would have won the last two games, and I think we would have continued to struggle to protect the quarterback."
Gaither was dismissive of the Chiefs' decision to part ways with him, noting that they recently fired coach Todd Haley.
"They brought up some younger guys," he said. "Obviously they are trying different things and now they fired their coach. So, they have some things they have to figure out obviously."
The Ravens remember how difficult it was to get past Gaither.
His combination of nimble feet as a former prep blue-chip basketball power forward offered a scholarship to the University of South Carolina, long arms, massive wingspan and natural strength presents a challenge.
"He's a great athlete," defensive tackle Haloti Ngata said. "I think if he was still here, he would probably be playing. He's a big guy that can move around. You can't really get around him a lot of the time. Hopefully, our guys on the end can get him some good work this weekend and maybe we can smash on him a little bit, too."
Turner said the Chargers will provide some assistance to Gaither and not simply leave him matched up alone against Suggs.
Suggs has seven sacks in the past three games and was just named AFC Defensive Player of the Week.
"He can pretty much do it all," Gaither said. "That's why he's up for Defensive Player of the Year. I'm looking forward to the matchup."
On his third NFL team and happy to be starting again, Gaither said he harbors no animosity toward the Ravens.
Now relocated thousands of miles away in Southern California, the Maryland native has literally and figuratively moved onward.
"Not at all, they're a great organization," Gaither said. "Ozzie gave me my start, and I'm very appreciative for it. I'm blessed each and every day I wake up and I'm able to play this game at a high level. I'm blessed with that and very thankful to be in the best business in football, which is the NFL."
Ravens notebook: Lardarius Webb in a walking boot
OWINGS MILLS -- Due to a turf toe injury suffered against the Indianapolis Colts, the Baltimore Ravens' top cornerback is getting around in a protective walking boot.
Lardarius Webb is regarded as a question mark due to a left turf toe for Sunday night's game against the San Diego Chargers and didn't practice Wednesday.
Under a worst-case scenario, Webb could be sidelined for as long as the remainder of the regular season.
"I hope not, I don't want to," Webb said when asked if he thought he would miss this game. "I'm doing everything I can do to get back on the field. I'm going to treatment right now. It would hurt me if I'm on the sidelines and somebody else is playing.
"The last time I did that was my rookie year when I had an ACL and I couldn't get back on the field. This isn't an ACL. It's really going to take a lot to keep me off the field right now. I'm feeling good, I'm feeling better. A little precautionary thing, I want to take it day by day, take care of a little soreness while I can."
If Webb is out, the Ravens would have to start rookie cornerback Jimmy Smith against the Chargers' seventh-ranked passing game that's headlined by quarterback Philip Rivers, wide receiver Vincent Jackson and tight end Antonio Gates.
The 6-foot-5, 230-pound Jackson leads the Chargers with 53 receptions for 952 yards and eight touchdowns.
A first-round draft pick from Colorado with the size to match up with big receivers like Jackson at 6-2, 210 pounds, Smith has started the past two games in the Ravens' nickel package. He has two interceptions.
"I know Jimmy is going to do great," Webb said. "We've done a great job of preparing him up to now. He's an NFL cornerback. He knows what he has to do. He'll have to do the preparation. So far, he's doing well."
Webb expressed hope that he won't be sidelined for a long time like teammates Ray Lewis and Ben Grubbs have been with turf toe injuries
"I can't worry about it," he said. "All I can do is all the treatment I can. I hope I don't have to be out like those guys."
R. LEWIS LIMITED: Five players were held out of practice Wednesday as All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis returned from his right turf toe injury on a limited basis.
Besides Webb,Pro Bowl kicker Billy Cundiff (left calf), offensive guard Ben Grubbs (right toe), defensive tackle Haloti Ngata (back) and defensive end Cory Redding (ankle) all didn't practice.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh predicted Monday that everyone who played against the Colts would play Sunday night against the Chargers.
Webb, Ngata and Redding are all new additions to the injury report. Cundiff, Grubbs, Ngata and Redding are all expected to play Sunday
Cornerback Chris Carr (back) was limited.
He has missed the past three games, but is expected to fill in on the nickel package and possibly on returns with Webb sidelined.
Rookie running back Anthony Allen (hamstring) participated fully.
The following players didn't practice today for the Chargers: center Colin Baxter (ankle), linebacker Donald Butler (foot), defensive end Jacques Cesaire (ankle), linebacker
Takeo Spikes (back) and safety Darrell Stuckey (groin).
NO COMPLAINTS: Ray Rice is heading into the final games of his original rookie contract, a four-year, $3.16 million deal that included a $1.1 million signing bonus.
Now, the Pro Bowl running back is heading toward a larger payday as that deal expires. Whether that comes in the form of a major contract extension or he's named the franchise player, Rice is a lock to be back with the Ravens next season.
"I don't think I'll be going anywhere, that I can almost assure," Rice said. "Obviously when you're in this situation, there's nothing that would make me think that I would be anywhere else. I love it here. The city, the team, the organization, they all feel the same way."
With three games left in the regular season, Rice has rushed for 1,029 yards and 10 touchdowns. He's also hauled in 62 catches for 593 yards and two scores.
And he has compartmentalized his pending offseason business, putting it aside from his thoughts while concentrating on his football activities.
"It's hard to think about it now, and I'm just being honest," Rice said. "I've had the ability to not even think about it because, No. 1, I respect my teammates and I didn't want to bring my contract, my personal decisions or my personal life in here into this locker room. I have enough respect for my teammates, the organization to keep it that way."
After holding out last summer, Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson was eventually given a six-year, $55.26 million contract.
Paid a $600,000 base salary this season, Rice has generated 1,622 yards from scrimmage and is the only NFL player with 1,000 rushing yards and 500 receiving yards.
"We're winning," Rice said. "If you love the game enough, you enjoy winning and you appreciate it, and you just live by it. If you take care of the game, the game will take care of you. I'll just let my numbers and everything else pan out, and in the offseason, I'm sure it'll be dealt with."
RIVERS FLOWING: Rivers has passed for 3,745 yards and 22 touchdowns this season.
He's also been sacked 30 times and tends to play the game with up-and-down emotions.
"I think he is a quarterback that hates to get hit and loves to win," Ngata said. "I think if we can get in front of his face and hit him often, I think it gets him a little frustrated. He doesn't really like getting hit.
"I think you can see that he really starts to get on his linemen and into the refs and talking about some hits. Once we can do that to him, get him frustrated, it's going to be a better game for us."
DAD IN WAITING: Quarterback Joe Flacco has been amused by the attention stemming from his announcement to the Times on Sunday that his wife, Dana, is expecting their
The baby is due in the middle of June.
"It's a little funny," Flacco said. "It's not even close to being here yet. It's exciting for us, though. We're really excited about it."
QUICK HITS: Offensive tackle Michael Oher has noticeably cut down on his penalties after struggling with false starts earlier this year.
"I think Michael's gotten better, too," Harbaugh said. "I think he's grown into the right tackle spot again. We've cleaned up a lot of the pre-snap stuff, across the board on our offensive line. Our whole offensive line has gotten better."
The last time the Ravens played the Chargers two years, Baltimore won 31-26 as Lewis made a dramatic fourth-down tackle on running back Darren Sproles late in the game. "I remember being very happy about it," Harbaugh said. "It was just a great play, and maybe one of Ray's signature plays probably in his career." ... Flacco hasn't been sacked in the first quarter this season "I hadn't realized that," Flacco said. "To get in a rhythm as an offense and get your confidence going and get everybody's confidence going can be important. I think we just play well when we do get off to a good start and can get in that rhythm early. So, it definitely helps us out."
Chargers safety Eric Weddle has already intercepted seven passes this season. "He's just got good ball skills," Flacco said. "He's back there at safety, and he's got the skills. When the ball goes in the air, he does a good job of being a guy that can go get it and judge the ball and catch it and do all those things."
Ray Lewis returns to practice
OWINGS MILLS -- As he returned to practice for the first time in weeks, Ray Lewis was greeted by a slow clap from his teammates and joking from rambunctious outside linebacker Terrell Suggs.
The Baltimore Ravens' All-Pro middle linebacker has missed the past four games with a right turf toe injury suffered against the Seattle Seahawks and is expected to play Sunday night against the San Diego Chargers.
"Whenever he does return, we're going to be back to a really great defense," Suggs said. "We get him back in there, we get the greatest player to ever play this football game."
Lewis was listed as practicing on a limited basis before the Ravens' Thanksgiving game against the San Francisco 49ers, but didn't actually do much on the field during an abbreviated work week. He was limited again Wednesday.
Prior to practice Wednesday, Ravens coach John Harbaugh indicated that Lewis wouldn't necessarily have to practice to be allowed to play Sunday night.
"Ray's different probably than most guys," Harbaugh said. "I think Ray could go out there and play without practicing. If he didn't practice, he could play on Sunday."
With the former NFL Defensive Player of the Year sidelined for the past month, the Ravens have gone undefeated in four games.
And the defense has thrived despite his absence, allowing only 12.5 points per contest, recording nine sacks against the 49ers and shutting down running backs Frank Gore, Peyton Hillis and Joseph Addai.
"Whenever it's time for me get back on the field, I'm definitely going to get back on there," Lewis said Tuesday during his annual holiday charity event. "I'm feeling way better, I'm feeling way better. And that's exciting news I thought I had a good chance the last four weeks to play, but the coaches are always going to make those decisions. I don't mind being smart. The warrior side of me, of course, is always going to want to get back out there."
During Lewis' absence, inside linebackers Jameel McClain and Dannell Ellerbe have contributed to the defense allowing just six, 10 and 10 points over the past three games.
After faltering against the Cincinnati Bengals and giving up 24 points in Lewis' first game after the injury, the Ravens have allowed just 170, 223 and 167 yards against the 49ers, Cleveland Browns and Indianapolis Colts.
"McClain and Ellerbe definitely stepped up for us and did a great job," defensive tackle Haloti Ngata said. "When Ray Lewis comes back, I think you'll see some of that excitement and leadership come back and that fire. It will be good for us."
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