Outside a movie theater in La Place, La., a middle-aged white woman was ranting at a police officer, inching closer and closer as if bent on getting arrested. Jeanne Hall rarely exploded in rage, but she'd had it. First the cashier declined to sell tickets to Hall for the six children going to the movie with her. Recent rowdiness, the cashier explained, had prompted the theater to place restrictions on unaccompanied children entering the establishment after 7 p.m. Then the officer, called over by the cashier after Hall protested, told her she could take her daughter and two sons into the theater, but the three teenage black males could not be admitted because Hall was not their parent or guardian.
Never mind that the officer was upholding a theater rule, Hall was cursing him for refusing to accept her explanation that those three boys were around her house so much they might as well have been family. She was digging in for a fight, causing a commotion that startled other customers as they passed by. Then one of the boys, 16-year-old Ed Reed, stepped in. "Let's go," he calmly said to Hall. "We can rent a movie at home."
Even at that age Reed could read a situation and react deftly. He could see that the officer would never understand the relationship he had with this woman he called Mama as easily as she called him Son. It was time to move on. There were bigger obstacles to get past in life.
Ten years have gone by since that night, but here's one thing that hasn't changed about Ed Reed: When he senses trouble--or opportunity--his instincts take over, and he reacts quickly and smartly. What's different now is that he's a two-time All-Pro for the Baltimore Ravens and those decisions occur on the field. In fact, he's the poster boy for the NFL's newest breed: the playmaking safety. The Dallas Cowboys' Roy Williams may hit harder, the Philadelphia Eagles' Brian Dawkins might be a better cover guy, and the New England Patriots' Rodney Harrison might have more championship rings, but no safety is drawing more raves than the 26-year-old Reed.
New York Jets coach Herm Edwards says Reed "should be a 60-interception guy before his career ends." Patriots coach Bill Belichick says Reed "has every quality you'd want in a football player." One NFC scout insists that Reed means as much to the Ravens as linebacker Ray Lewis, the two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year. "Ray is going to be steadier on every down," the scout says, "but Ed Reed makes more plays."
"He's the best safety in the league," says an AFC personnel director. "His instincts, the way he positions himself, his ability to close on the ball--all those qualities are unusual for a safety. And he's a terrific runner after an interception."
There was a time not long ago when free safeties roamed the deep middle like centerfielders, and strong safeties were known primarily as headhunters. With more teams using three- and four-wideout sets and big, athletic tight ends, safeties are expected to be more physical and versatile than ever before. Some play like linebackers, bullying their man in the box. Others have cover skills once only associated with cornerbacks.
Then there's Reed, whose skills are so numerous and varied that the Ravens don't even bother to label him as a free or strong safety. With his uncanny ability to anticipate plays, Reed makes all the coverage calls. Though only 5'11" and 200 pounds, he can light up a ballcarrier, but his specialty is frustrating quarterbacks.
Last year Reed turned in one of the best seasons ever by a safety. He intercepted a league-high nine passes, returning them an NFL-record 358 yards, and made 89 tackles; for all that he was named the league's Defensive Player of the Year, only the third safety to win the award in its 34-year history. Expect more of the same from Reed in 2005, especially with Baltimore's switch to a 46 defense, which will mean more blitzing, more man coverage and, consequently, more chances for Reed to make big plays. "Teams might beat me sometimes," Reed says, "but if I get my hands on the football, they're in trouble."
Reed's instincts baffle not only opposing teams, but his own coaches as well. On one play in a win over the Buffalo Bills last season, he abandoned his coverage zone in the middle of the field and lined up over the tight end. A flustered Drew Bledsoe threw an incomplete pass in the tight end's direction anyway. After the game Ravens secondary coach Johnnie Lynn asked Reed why he had improvised, an especially risky move with Buffalo in the red zone. "It just felt right," Reed replied.