OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Terrell Suggs became a free agent for the first time in his 16-year NFL career, although no one really believed the seven-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker was going elsewhere.
Suggs idolized Ray Lewis and spoke often about how he wanted to join him as a "Raven for life." He talked about how the Ravens' DNA was in his blood.
So imagine the stunned faces when Suggs called members of the Ravens organization Monday to inform them that he was signing with another team.
"I am speechless," a Ravens official said.
Suggs was as much a part of the Ravens' storied defensive tradition as Lewis and Ed Reed. The best way to put it is this: Lewis was the heart, Reed was the soul and Suggs was the funny bone.
The biggest personality in team history, Suggs grew along with the franchise, playing in 16 of the Ravens' 23 years of existence. He went from being a pass-rush specialist as a rookie to the 2011 NFL Defensive Player of the Year. He went from being the locker room's class clown to being the last one to speak to the players after pregame warm-ups.
The Ravens will miss Eric Weddle's leadership, and there will be a void if C.J. Mosley and Za'Darius Smith leave for big deals. But no one's departure will be as painful this offseason as Suggs'.
Even though Suggs isn't the same consistent menace to quarterbacks these days, his exit signals the end of an era. Only two defensive players in NFL history (Redskins cornerback Darrell Green and Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis) have been with one team longer, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Suggs was the franchise's most dominant pass-rusher with 132.5 sacks, which are nearly double the number of the next-closest player (Peter Boulware had 70). He was the last starter remaining from the defense on the 2012 Super Bowl team. He was clutch when it mattered the most with the third-most sacks in NFL playoff history (12.5) and perhaps the most unusual turnover.
Suggs' best play came in the 2014 AFC wild-card win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in which he picked off Ben Roethlisberger and held on to the interception by pinning the ball between his legs while falling to the ground.
"You'll never see a greater catch," coach John Harbaugh said after the game. "We just gave him the game ball for the greatest catch in the history of football."
When Suggs took over as the face of the defense, he did so with a smirk. Suggs routinely hijacked owner Steve Bisciotti's golf cart and rode it across the fields before the start of practice, crashing it into the blocking dummies. He could always be heard on the field whether it was ribbing a teammate or singing the "Titanic" theme song.
Suggs' one-liners are just as memorable as his game-changing plays. In 2005, the Ravens were flagged for a team-record 21 penalties and Suggs was thrown out of the game by referee Mike Carey, who said the seven-time Pro Bowl player had "malice in his heart." Suggs later said, "How can I have malice in my heart when I don't even know what malice means?" After a 2011 season-opening win in Pittsburgh, Suggs said of Ben Roethlisberger, "God can have his soul, but his ass belongs to me."
Few players loved the rivalry with the Steelers more than Suggs, who once wore a T-shirt that featured a purple raven flipping the bird and the words "Hey Pittsburgh." Before the 2008 AFC Championship Game in Pittsburgh, Suggs wanted to play up an injury and put a brace on his shoulder. But a public relations staff member had to stop him before he stepped in front of reporters because he was wearing the harness on the wrong shoulder.
Suggs was the definition of durability, playing in more games than any other Ravens player (229). The only times he missed games were for Achilles injuries (two of them) and a torn biceps.
"I have Raven in my DNA," Suggs once said. "I only know one way to play."
The Ravens were a phone call away from never drafting Suggs. In 2003, Baltimore tried to move up three spots to No. 7 to select quarterback Byron Leftwich. But the Jacksonville Jaguars tied up the league's phone lines, so the Ravens' trade with the Minnesota Vikings couldn't be completed. The Jaguars ended up with Leftwich, and Baltimore "settled" with Suggs.
The rest is Ravens history.
"A lot of guys, before they’re done, get to play on two and three teams. To have the opportunity to play for one organization, it just goes to show the kind of organization we have, and it’s very flattering," Suggs said at training camp eight months ago. "We’ve seen a lot of Ravens that will always be known as Ravens not have the opportunity to finish their career here. I plan on being a Raven as long as I’m playing football."
This didn't wind up being the farewell for Suggs and the Ravens, even though both sides expressed a desire to have Suggs finish his career in Baltimore. Suggs won't play his entire career for the Ravens like Lewis did. He'll put on another uniform in his final seasons like Reed.
But Suggs' legacy will remain.
Said defensive tackle Brandon Williams: "He’s pretty much the blueprint of what a Raven is."