BALTIMORE — Before he emerged as a potential link in the COVID-19 outbreak that has thrown the Ravens' season into uncertainty, head strength and conditioning coach Steve Saunders was widely praised as an underappreciated engine for the team's success.
In January, coach John Harbaugh credited Saunders and the team's training and nutrition staff for players' unusual good health throughout the 2019 season. "We were great," Harbaugh said at the time. "I'd like to find a way to try to replicate that next year."
Before that, former Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs lauded Saunders for giving him a late-career fitness boost. "He's been the best thing for me. In Year 15, Steve Saunders is the best thing to happen to me," Suggs said in 2017. "From Day One, he beat the (expletive) out me. I'm not going to lie to you. He had to make sure I wasn't on my way to the airport flying back to Arizona."
On Wednesday evening, the Ravens released a statement saying they had "disciplined" a staff member for conduct surrounding the recent COVID-19 cases that have affected players and staff at the Ravens. Thursday, multiple sources said Saunders was the staff member punished and that he had not routinely worn the proximity tracker required by the NFL for contact tracing or reported potential COVID-19 symptoms as he worked with players. A team spokesman said Friday the Ravens would offer no comment beyond their original statement.
Though it is unclear exactly how COVID-19 spread through the Ravens roster, Saunders has become a target of vitriol from fans in Baltimore and Pittsburgh, where the Ravens were supposed to play Thanksgiving night before the outbreak forced postponement.
Saunders could not be reached for comment.
The role of strength coaches has come under greater scrutiny in recent years, nowhere more so than at the University of Maryland, where football strength and conditioning coach Rick Court resigned in 2018 amid an investigation of circumstances leading to the death of offensive lineman Jordan McNair. Court was a central figure in reports detailing a toxic culture under football coach DJ Durkin.
By contrast, Ravens players have often praised Saunders as a creative taskmaster who pushes them to improve over the long offseason months. Several singled him out as a key resource in helping them maintain fitness through the early months of the pandemic.
"We have a great organization here," running back Mark Ingram II said in August. "Steve does a great job doing the necessary exercises, necessary conditioning, necessary movements that we need to be successful — that we need to improve (and) that we need to get better. I just believe in our organization. I believe in our coaching staff, and I think that we're in a good position to start the season off strong."
Added tight end Mark Andrews: "This offseason was, honestly, great. First of all, Steve Saunders and the staff, they did an incredible job with the Zoom workouts this year. I'm stronger than I've ever been. I have less fat on me than I've ever had, and I feel incredible. I think strength was a big thing. Just the way that they were able to handle it and get guys on the Zoom workouts and really work hard — it was incredible what the staff put together."