Tom Brady once said that when you play Ed Reed, you are watching him at all times once you break the huddle. He was not alone; if you were watching a Ravens game, you couldn’t go long without watching Reed, who was as dominant a safety as there could possibly be in a pass-happy era. One of the more remarkable notes about Reed is that he dominated as the league seemed increasingly designed to neutralize a player like him. NFL teams passed for a combined 12,000 yards more in the last year he played, 2013, than they did in his rookie year, 2002. Brady and Patriots head coach Bill Belichick have raved about Reed’s ability to understand what was about to happen. And that’s why there’s no better person to talk football with than Ed Reed. The Ringer spoke with Reed, who was promoting Crown Royal’s Water Break campaign, and here are some highlights. (This interview has been condensed and edited.)
I want to ask you about the safety position and specifically how defenses can play in 2018 with all of the rule changes—the helmet rule, among many others—that have opened up the middle of the field. What’s the main difference between now and even just a few years ago, when you played?
You know, you’ve got to deal with coaching. You’ve got to deal with the players studying. Yes, the implementation of the rule, too, because that affects how guys play for the most part, but it can have them thinking a lot out there. And you’ve got guys thinking a lot. You don’t see guys making plays as much. The middle of the field can be wide open because that’s how these coaches are calling plays. [Laughs.] That can be a schematic thing. It’s a helluva lot that goes into it, but those rules definitely affect the game, as you’ve seen, because guys gotta be smarter and they’re a little tentative now, and I think that’s part of slowing the defense down and letting offenses make plays. But guys gotta play fast. Guys play fast, they train fast—and, like I said, this is an instinctive game, so it’s gonna be hard to combat those rules so long as it’s not a guy trying to do some targeting or some vicious act. We’ve gotta be able to police this the right way.
Do you think that you would play differently now if you were born in, say, 1990, and you were coming up in a different era?
Not really. I always kind of kept my eyes on the rules for the most part. I know my training wouldn’t have been different because I know what I wanted from myself and my family. And I know what I wanted for my team. So, nah, I don’t see me playing the game differently, though I always try to play with brotherhood in mind. You know what I mean by that? Taking care of the guy on the other side of the field just as much as I’m taking care of myself and my teammates. Though I played against guys like Hines Ward, I never took it upon myself to just go after him or hurt him. … I think just as football players, that brotherhood in the NFL, brotherhood in college football, brotherhood of high school football, recreational football for these kids—and how we train them, and how we talk to them, and how we want them to play the game, how we coach them—makes a huge difference. I’m big on how we’re coaching and how we’re talking to our kids as much as we’re talking to those same kids when they get to the NFL. I don’t know if you guys watched a bit of the Hard Knocks. You’re like, “Why are they talking to these guys like that?” These are grown men. If you want them to perform, you’re not just gonna be dog-cursing them out and talking to them like they’re nothing. I don’t care if he was first- or second-round pick. He’s still a man and you want to get his ultimate effort. So all that plays a part in that.
What are your thoughts on Lamar Jackson and when he should play with your old team, the Ravens?
I’m sure you can work Lamar in there. You can run plays because you can cause problems that weaker teams hadn’t prepared for. If I’m a coach, I’m doing that, but, at the same time, Joe is my quarterback. Not just because I won a Super Bowl with Joe and that’s my quarterback, but Joe is the quarterback of the Ravens right now and he’s healthy. [Lamar has to] develop little things like sliding. ... Yeah, you can make those plays, but you’re a quarterback, and you’re more important on the field than off the field. So I know for a fact Joe’s the quarterback, and I would think RG3 is behind him. Because Lamar is young. But I’m not the coach over there. I’m just saying what I think and what I would do. Because, like I said, this is a professional league, and guys do read the clips.
You were so in tune with the sport and with opponents’ tendencies. Now that you’re out of the sport and you’re not preparing for it as a player every week, how do you keep up? Do you watch tape?
I don’t watch the tape as I did when I studied it because it was a different format and I used my coach’s station. … I’ve been trying to get to the point where I can still be that, being an alumni of the NFL, and I would love to just be able to break film down. But then I’d probably want to be able to coach or be a consultant, which I do aspire to. [Ed. note: Reed was a Bills assistant in 2016.] I do aspire to be a head coach, have my staff, and go win some championships, but no, I don’t watch [tape] the same because you can’t see all 22 players at the same time. But I [found] myself calling plays out. I still see myself calling plays out when there’s run-pass. What pass it is, what people should do. Take, for instance, Cleveland. I’m watching Cleveland in the preseason. They got to the 1-yard line, 2-yard line, first-and-goal, and then they throw the ball. Second-and-goal, they throw the ball. Third-and-goal, you throw the ball. Fourth-and-goal, you throw the ball and you get your quarterback hurt. Now, meanwhile, I’m sitting down like, “OK, this is crazy.” As a coach, as an organization, if I’m trying to implement a winning attitude, I’m gonna put the ball in the end zone. I’m going to coach properly. I’m not about to be trying shit. I’m about to score this football. I’m gonna run the football knowing I’ll pass it on second. I’m gonna run the football knowing I’ll pass it on third down. I’m gonna run the football knowing that I’ll go for it on fourth down. It wasn’t just those guys that did the same thing. There’s other countless amounts of teams going for it. Like a team not too long ago. You’re on the goal line, and you know you’re going for it on fourth down, but you throw it on third down. Run the football. It’s just little stuff like that I see. I can still break down situations and stuff like that. But not the same as when I played.
You said your aspiration is to coach again at some point. What steps do you plan on taking in the future to try to get back on that track?
I hope to consult. I’d like to get coaches I admire and see how they run things. ... Coaches like Bill Belichick. Guys like that who I would love to just be around and hear how they talk football. The Ravens, if ever, because I know how that organization works, and I know what that organization has done for me. Maybe in college football, but I would have to be in consulting right now. I’ve got my kids and I have to be around them more now than ever.
What are your days like now? Do you get to watch a lot more TV? Do you get to hang out? What’s life like for Ed Reed now?
Drinking a lot of water and smoking cigars. I’m working on a lot of investments—business stuff. My job is my foundation. I’m building a park in my old neighborhood. We’re just to the fundraising part, and it’s getting fun to do this for the neighborhood: helping kids out, mentoring kids, talking to kids, building communities, helping communities in any way I can without putting too much on my plate. There are so many people who need help. So my foundation is my job. That’s what I do right now.
I spent training camp talking to current NFL players about what they would do if they were Roger Goodell—what steps would they take to fix the league. If you were commissioner for a day or commissioner forever, what are some things you would do to improve the league?
I would make it more for the players. I would figure out how can I help the players. … Because ultimately they’re the ones who make it go. It’s not us who are on the sidelines now. It’s not us, the people who are upstairs. It’s the guys in between the lines who truly make it go. So how can I help guys and educate guys on the game to make it better without taking away from their natural abilities and instincts. So that would educate them on what can happen if you play this game. If you play in this game, you need to know what comes with it. You need to know things physically, mentally, can happen to you if you don’t take care of your body.
What would you do with the political aspect of it all, if anything?
This is America, man. So there’s a lot that entails. We’ve got a long way to go, but my honest answer would be to work together. That’s what I would say about that.