By looking at Pernell McPhee’s expressions, it wasn't easy to detect his troubles.
His leg stayed in bandages because of knee and groin issues. He couldn't win his battles at the line of scrimmage to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks. But his smile never disappeared.
After getting 6 sacks as a rookie a year ago as a reserve defensive end, this was supposed to be a breakout for McPhee, who won the starting job.
The Ravens rushed out to win nine of their first 11 games, but each week McPhee faced the questions about his lackluster play. He voiced disappointment in himself, but never lashed out. Understanding his physical and personal battles, however, put his travails into clearer focus.
“I had a couple of losses early this year, dealing with my sister, my dad, cousin,” McPhee said of their deaths. “It was just like I was home when I came back in. Guys put smiles on my face. That’s the most important thing when you got guys who love you besides just football. They love you off the field and try to help you out the best way they can.”
Coach John Harbaugh held him out for a month as he missed five games. McPhee said at the time he could play, creating an awkward situation where the player and coach disagreed publicly. Looking back, McPhee agrees it was the best decision.
“Hands down because now I’m healthier and I got a chance to help the team out on 3rd-and-long and come out and show some of them pass rushing skills I got,” he said of being used almost exclusively in pass situations.
That he did. McPhee returned in December, getting his first full sack in a Week 15 loss to the Denver Broncos.
Going into the Super Bowl vs. the San Francisco 49ers on Feb. 3, McPhee has been replaced in the starting lineup by Arthur Jones, who had a career-high 4.5 sacks in his third season.
“Coach is doing a good job with how he rotates me in as far as certain packages. That’s keeping me fresh, keeping me healthy,” McPhee said. “I just got this routine I’m sticking with and it’s just helping me out a lot.”
McPhee has played a major role in the Ravens’ last two playoff games. He sacked Peyton Manning late in the third quarter, forcing a fumble that was recovered by Paul Kruger at the Broncos’ 37. Five plays later, Ray Rice ran in the ball from 1 yard out to tie the score at 28 in what eventually became a 38-35 double-overtime victory.
With Tom Brady trying to lead the New England Patriots to a fourth-quarter comeback in the AFC championship last week, McPhee deflected a pass that was intercepted by Dannell Ellerbe to seal a 28-13 victory.
“This guy plays with a lot of injuries. He’s one of the toughest people that I've ever been around in my life. And then now, at the end of the year, he had these two huge plays in these two huge games that really made the difference. It’s just so rewarding,” Harbaugh said. “And as a teacher, as a coach, that’s what makes it for you. … When you see these guys fight through that and have that kind of success, that’s everything.”
McPhee never doubted his ability to bounce back.
“It’s all about your personality,” he said. “I’m built Ford tough.”