A smart Art would follow Angelos' lead

February 11, 1996|By KEN ROSENTHAL

If Art Modell is smart, he won't insult our intelligence. He won't shamelessly evoke the Colts' past trying to sell permanent seat licenses. He won't hire Don Shula to operate Baltimore's new NFL team.

No, if Modell is smart, he'll take a page from his new neighbor, Orioles owner Peter Angelos. He'll hire a strong coach and strong general manager, then step back while they rebuild the franchise.

Shula's time has passed -- he isn't the right man for either job, much less both. Besides, Modell doesn't need a publicity stunt to sell his PSLs. All he needs is to do this right, and long-term success won't be a problem.

Will it happen? Well, Modell's track record isn't encouraging. For 35 years, he acted as his own GM in Cleveland, and never went to the Super Bowl. If he didn't own the team, he would have been fired.

Modell, 70, should recognize that it didn't work, that it's time to start over. Such a concession will be difficult for an owner who craves the spotlight. But if Modell doesn't get his house in order, he's going to look awfully small next to Angelos.

First, he needs to hire a strong personnel man as GM. Then, the GM needs to hire the coach. The NFL is so watered down, the team can be rebuilt quickly -- certainly by the time it moves to Camden Yards in 1998.

Ray Rhodes won 10 games in his first season in Philadelphia. Carolina won seven in its first year in the league. Next season will be an uphill fight, but who'll notice amid all the hoopla? The team needs to focus on '97, and beyond.

That means trading malcontent receiver Andre Rison and taking a salary-cap hit, especially if the New York Jets are willing to part with the No. 1 draft pick for Rison and the No. 4 pick.

It also means finding a quarterback -- maybe not right away, but eventually -- because neither Vinny Testaverde nor Eric Zeier can take you to the Super Bowl.

Granted, Modell is getting a late start, and the pickings are slim, especially for coaches. But he should hire a behind-the-scenes type like San Diego director of player personnel Billy Devaney as his GM. And if the next Rhodes isn't out there, then Ted Marchibroda could be the coach.

Marchibroda, who turns 65 next month, isn't a long-term answer, but he did come within one play of reaching the Super Bowl last season. It helped that he had good coordinators -- Lindy Infante (offense) and Vince Tobin (defense). Surround him with similar types in Baltimore (Richie Petitbon, perhaps?) and he'd be fine.

If nothing else, Marchibroda would help improve the image of the franchise -- everyone loves him, which is more than can be said for Modell. Shula obviously would have the same effect, but he'd want total control, and the Dolphins were just as big a disaster in the free-agent market last season as the Browns were.

Control -- it's always the issue, especially for anyone who works for Modell. It took Angelos only two years to learn the lesson that has eluded Modell for 35. He hired baseball's best GM (Pat Gillick) and one of its best managers (Davey Johnson), and now the Orioles are going to be a force into the 21st century.

As if that's not enough, Angelos has another advantage -- he's a hometown owner of a team with a 42-year history in Baltimore. Modell reportedly bristled at the Indians' return to prominence in Cleveland. Now he's competing with an even more popular franchise in an even more frenzied baseball town.

Then again, Baltimore -- like Cleveland -- was a football town first. Baltimore will accept Modell if he structures his PSL package as reasonably as possible. And Baltimore will love Modell if he puts a winning team on the field.

PSLs are a necessary evil, but there are ways to make them palatable. Modell can reduce their number if he charges a higher average price, putting the burden on the wealthy. He also can leave some choice seats available for regular purchase between the 40-yard lines.

They'll probably sell out regardless, but if this team's next five seasons are as bad as its previous five, and the Orioles remain a strong club, then Modell will be in trouble. He's the out-of-towner getting a free stadium. He can't mess around.

Remember Modell's threat to unload high-priced talent and stockpile draft picks if forced to stay in Cleveland? Though extreme, it might not have been such a crazy idea, even now that the team is in Baltimore.

The Browns had an absurdly high payroll last season -- $45.3 million by the union's estimate, $51 million to $52 million by Modell's. And there's nothing Baltimore despises more than an overpriced, underachieving team.

The fans are loyal -- 50,000 of them turned out to welcome home a 1-23 baseball team in 1988. They're also patient -- witness their support of the Orioles in lean times. But they know a meddling owner when they see one. And Modell, considering the circumstances surrounding his arrival, must earn the city's trust.

Fix the team, Art.

Everything else will follow.

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