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."
Saunders joined the Ravens in 2016 as the team's director of performance and recovery. Before that, he was a private strength coach who built his Pennsylvania-based company, Power Train Sports Institute, from "a single unit to a 200-employee operation in 28 locations nationwide," according to the Ravens' website.
He built a long list of NFL clients, most famously Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison, who was known for maintaining remarkable strength and endurance into his late 30s.
"Steve will mix things up on you at the last minute," Harrison said in a 2011 interview for PennLive.com. "He has me doing some things that I've never heard of, or seen. And I'll ask other players about it, about how hard those (exercises) were for them, and they'll be like, 'I don't know what you're talking about. I didn't do that.' It's not a run-of-the-mill workout. He's always doing different things to work your muscles. Every year, he comes up with something new. And it works."
In the same article, Saunders said former Ravens coach Brian Billick invited him into the team's facility to work with Ravens clients. So his ties to the organization go back to the pre-Harbaugh era.
Saunders also worked with former Penn State star Aaron Maybin as he prepared for the 2009 NFL draft. Maybin moved into an apartment near Saunders' gym in Lancaster, Pa., and received all his meals from the trainer, according to a 2009 article on Lancasteronline.com. "I spoke with some people who worked out with Steve, and I knew this is what I needed," Maybin said, shortly before he became the No. 11 overall pick. "What he does is a lot different; he works muscles you never really worked before. It's a lot of football-specific stuff, designed to make you into a more explosive player."
Harbaugh emphasizes updating his operation so the Ravens remain on the cutting edge, and he has praised Saunders' creativity in re-imagining the team's approach to strength and fitness.
"I have a long drive in the morning, so I have a lot of time early to think about how I'm going to torture the guys in the morning," Saunders joked in 2018 as he explained his approach. "For me, it's all about intensity. ... They'll do a short sprint and back, they'll throw a med ball and get exertion, they'll do another short sprint. They have to jump — you can't cheat a jump; you're either getting off the ground or you're not. Then I'll make them do something else. I look for time and intensity. I'm not just worrying about running for the sake of running. I think that's a lot different and it's a lot safer."
Saunders generally speaks to Baltimore-area media once every offseason. In August, he described his approach to virtual workouts after the pandemic hit: "We need to be very creative, but I knew early on that we were going to be creative, and as soon as everything started going crazy, I said to (John Harbaugh) 'Harbs,' 'Look, no matter what happens, I want to train the guys. We'll do it virtually; we'll do whatever we need to do.' And we were on the same page very early. We were prepared and we had a fantastic spring and summer. I think we didn't miss a beat."
He also detailed COVID-19 precautions in the team's weight room: "We try to be careful with all of that. So, it is one of those things you have to be more careful with, with how you spot (for lifters). We try to get each guy their own station that they're at. We're cleaning in between sets way more frequently. Guys have their own water bottle. They're in their small groups. It definitely has an effect, but probably for us — more than any other team, because of how we do our small groups anyways — we probably feel the effect less of it than most organizations."(c)2020 The Baltimore Sun Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC