OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- On the day he was traded to the Baltimore Ravens in March, former Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Anquan Boldin got a call from perennial Pro Bowl linebacker Ray Lewis, the spiritual leader of his new team.
"Ray said to me, ‘You know, it’s in Dallas this year,’" said Boldin, who knew immediately what Lewis was referring to: Super Bowl XLV in Jerry Jones’ gaudy $1.2 billion playhouse in Arlington, Texas.
Boldin’s response: "I’m ahead of you. I’m already there."
At 29, Boldin has finally achieved his freedom and is already promising big things. Unshackled from Arizona, where he played in the shadow of uber-receiver Larry Fitzgerald and felt underappreciated, Boldin is ready to provide the final piece of the puzzle in a Ravens offense that appears to be one big-play wide receiver from a shot at another NFL championship.
"Everything about this move feels right," Boldin said. And make no mistake about it, Boldin is happy to have exited Arizona, where, he says, it was not a question of being misunderstood but mishandled.
"I would say that I was misled," Boldin said. Money was a big part of that. After taking care of Fitzgerald, the Cardinals couldn’t have two wide receivers paid as a No. 1.
After the trade to the Ravens, Boldin signed a four-year, $28 million contract. Now comes the hard part: living up to it.
Baltimore has not had a true No. 1 wide receiver since a guy named Raymond Berry was catching passes from a guy named Johnny Unitas. In fact, in the brilliant front-office career of general manager Ozzie Newsome, it’s worth pointing out that the Ravens have never had a wide receiver selected to the Pro Bowl. That’s the only offensive or defensive positional grouping at which they have never had a player earn that honor, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
And though the Ravens reached the second round of the AFC playoffs last year, their passing game -- which finished 18th in the league -- proved to be a liability against the Colts, who beat them 20-3 in an embarrassing divisional round loss. But an anemic passing game has plagued this franchise since its rebirth in 1996.
Make no mistake about it, Boldin knows what’s at stake here, even if he’s downplaying his role. He understands there will be a serious adjustment from the multi-dimensional, pinball wizard, wide-open Cardinals offense with veteran Kurt Warner in the shotgun to the run-first, inside-out offense run by classic dropback quarterback Joe Flacco, who is entering his third year.
In Arizona, Boldin developed a special pitch-and-catch bond with Warner. "He always knew what I was doing -- we didn’t have to say anything to each other," said Boldin, who said he will stay in the Baltimore area to work out with Flacco for four weeks before the start of training camp in late July.
But will there be enough footballs to go around? Last season, the Cardinals’ offense lined up in a four-wide receiver set 314 times, by far the most in the league. The Ravens lined up four-wide just 16 times last year, fewest in the league.
And Boldin, who does not demand a double-team, needs a strong receiver on his opposite side to help occupy coverage. That means veteran Derrick Mason, who led the team with 1,028 receiving yards last year, Mark Clayton and newcomer Donte' Stallworth will be fighting for playing time. And don’t forget halfback Ray Rice, who led the Ravens with 78 catches last season.
"As long as we are winning, there are enough footballs," Boldin said. "Ray Rice is going to get his carries -- and his catches. Todd Heap will control the middle of the field from the tight end position. And Donte' and Mason, they are going to stretch the field and I am just going to do what I do -- catch the ball and break tackles."
But the rap on Boldin is he’s brittle. He has had one injury-free season since 2003 and last season missed both of Arizona's playoff games with ankle and knee injuries.
And Boldin knows what people are saying: "Let’s see how he does without Larry Fitzgerald demanding the double-team." What does he say when he hears that?
"I didn’t play with Larry my rookie year , and all I did was catch 101 balls for over 1,300 yards," he said. "But don’t get it wrong, Larry is a great guy, he is a great football player. He definitely made my job easier. But at the same time, I went out and did the same for him."
The Ravens hope he produces similar results in Baltimore.
Sal Paolantonio covers the NFL for ESPN. His latest book is "How Football Explains America." (Chicago: Triumph Books.)