While I am all for the team getting younger and faster, and thus am not nearly as upset to see Todd Heap leave at this point in his career as many of my fellow Ravens fans seem to be, I still feel that the franchise’s #2 all-time leading receiver deserves a post of his own here as he departs Charm City to finish out his career in his home state of Arizona.
We were first introduced to big #86 on NFL Draft day 2001. Fresh off their Super Bowl victory, the Baltimore Ravens selected the tight end from Arizona State with the final pick in the first round. Interestingly, the very next player off the board was a quarterback who you may have heard of – Drew Brees was chosen 32nd overall, the first pick of the second round, by the San Diego Chargers. The “what ifs” are an exercise in futility, obviously, but are fun nonetheless.
The team had been solid at tight end the previous season with future Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe, but Sharpe was approaching the end of his career and Heap’s selection cemented him as the heir apparent. We then got a glimpse into Todd Heap’s personal life before we ever saw him catch a pass, thanks to the HBO series “Hard Knocks” which featured the 2001 Ravens in its very first season. We watched as Todd and his new bride Ashley transitioned from their college lives to the lives of an NFL player and and NFL wife, shopping for a home in Owings Mills and struggling to put together their new furniture in the same way that however many millions of young couples do every day in America.
Maybe that’s one of the reasons that many fans feel such a strong emotional connection to Heap. We were, thanks to HBO’s cameras, literally in the Heaps’ living room as they started their lives in Baltimore.
Ravens fans witnessed as Heap blossomed from Sharpe’s understudy to star in his own right, making the Pro Bowl in both his second and third seasons. He was a favorite target of Brian Billick’s famous “jump ball” pass patterns, and back in 2002 and 2003, we were shocked if Heap didn’t come down with those ugly lobs from the likes of Chris Redman, Jeff Blake, and Kyle Boller. Boller, it should be noted, likely took a few years off of Heap’s career, hanging him out to dry and leading him directly into waiting linebackers and safeties more times than Todd likely cares to remember. Still, Heap absorbed the hits and held onto the ball, fumbling just twice total through his first four years in the league.
From 2002-2006, Heap played in all 16 of the teams games four times. His 2004 and 2007 campaigns were both cut down to just six games each due to injury, though, and it was around this time that Heap developed – however undeservedly – a reputation among some Ravens fans as being injury-prone. This sentiment is generally misguided though, as the numbers simply do not support it. In Heap’s 10 seasons in Baltimore, he played in at least 13 games seven times, and all 16 games six times. To compare with one of his contemporaries, Jeremy Shockey has missed at least one game in EVERY SINGLE ONE of his nine NFL seasons. From 2008-2010, Heap played in 45 of the Ravens’ 48 games.
Despite his statistical lack of fumbles, Heap does have one of the most painful fumbles in team history. After the team’s 13-3 run in 2006, they had earned the AFC’s #2 seed and the first-round playoff bye and second-round home game that go along with it. The Indianapolis Colts were coming to town, and the entire city was ready to exorcise the Colts demon once and for all. On the team’s second drive, already trailing 3-0, Heap caught a 3-yard pass from Steve McNair at the Ravens’ 26, was popped by Nick Harper, and coughed it up. The play was ruled down, but the Colts challenged it and it was overturned. Four plays later, the Colts took a 6-0 lead…which unfortunately would prove to be plenty on that day.
Earlier that season though, Heap had produced what may be his most memorable play in purple. In Week 4, the San Diego Chargers had brought their 2-0 record to Baltimore to face the 3-0 Ravens. The two teams that would finish the season atop the AFC produced a spectacular battle for 60 minutes, and it was Heap who had the last word. Putting the final touches on what proved to be a game-winning 60-yard touchdown drive in the final minutes, with the team trailing 13-9, Heap caught a Steve McNair pass at the two yard line, turned and dove for the end zone, dragging Chargers’ All-Pro linebacker Shawne Merriman with him. Heap crossed the goal line with 10 seconds remaining. That play produced one of the iconic images in Ravens’ lore, a picture that every Ravens fan immediately recognizes.
Heap was, along with Ed Reed, the Raven you most felt for following the playoff losses these past three seasons. While it seems like they’ve both been with the team since the inception, the unfortunate fact is that these guys got here a year (two, in Ed’s case) after the franchise’s lone Lombardi Trophy to date. We’ve cheered our heads off for Heap for a full decade, and we wished so much for him to experience the thrill of a Super Bowl victory. If only he’d been just a year older…
Obviously, not every great player will reach the nadir of his or her sport, and many lesser players do get to take part in championship celebrations. That’s just the way sports work. We wanted to watch “The Stormin’ Mormon” ride down Pratt Street in a victory parade. Damn, did we want to see that. Alas, it was not to be. And at this point, it looks very much like it never will be. Should the Ravens hoist the Lombardi again in the years to come, Heap won’t be in Baltimore taking place in the celebration. But his contributions to this team and this city will have nonetheless paved the way for what we hope are those future successes.
Ten years, 467 receptions, 5,492 yards, 41 touchdowns, countless jaw-dropping grabs, and hundreds of HEEEEEEEEEEEEEAP chants later, Todd has been released by the Ravens and has decided to finish up his NFL career for his home town team, the Arizona Cardinals. Heap was born in Mesa, Arizona, and is still loved there from his days as a Sun Devil. While he will likely never win a Super Bowl ring out there in the desert, it’s obvious that going home was more important to him than the chance to get to Indianapolis in February. He was being heavily courted by the New York Jets on Sunday – a team that is sure to be a Super Bowl favorite yet again – and the Ravens had reportedly offered him a new, lesser deal. Still, Heap chose a team that finished 2010 with a 5-11 mark, good for last place in the worst division in football, the NFC West. Sure, they acquired quarterback Kevin Kolb from Philadelphia, but the Cards still seem like quite a long shot to even sniff the postseason any time soon.
I can’t help but chuckle thinking of Heap interrupting Rex Ryan’s long-winded bombastic blubbering about how great the Jets are going to be with his soft-spoken declaration of “Sorry Coach, I’m going to the Cardinals.” I’d imagine Rex’s jaw dropped like it does every time he gets ready to down a triple whopper snake-style.
Ravens fans will undoubtedly struggle to get used to watching our team without Todd Heap on the field. His absence at M&T Bank Stadium this fall will linger in the air like so many Joe Flacco back-foot floaters. However, in a bit of a serendipitous scheduling quirk, the Arizona Cardinals – despite coming to Baltimore the last time the teams played in 2007 – again come to Baltimore in 2011. Todd Heap will play in B’More for what is likely to be the last time on October 30. He’ll be wearing a red and white uniform instead of a purple and black one, but that won’t stop the familiar HEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEAP chorus from Ravens fans from echoing just as loud as it ever has.
Farewell, Tood Heap. Thanks for the memories, and best of luck with the Cards. After October 30, we’ll see you in a few years for your Ring of Honor induction.