Late start curbs Modell hopes for '96 New Baltimore owner says 1st season 'we're starting from scratch'

Over cap, shuns free agents

Vows to build team city 'will be proud of'

February 11, 1996|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,SUN STAFF

CHICAGO -- One day after signing the deal of a lifetime, Baltimore NFL owner Art Modell was optimistic, but at the same time realistic.

"I don't have a lot of high hopes for the upcoming season because we're starting so late. We're starting from scratch," said Modell, from his home in West Palm Beach, Fla. "But once we settle down, we'll build a team Baltimore will be proud of."

Modell said his former Cleveland Browns team won't be entering the free-agent derby that begins later this week because the Browns spent nearly $24 million in signing bonuses over the $37.1 million salary cap last season, most of which will be counted against future caps.

Modell said his decision has nothing to do with the $12 million the team has to pay Cleveland over the next four years, or the $29 million relocation fee he has to pay the league.

"We overspent last year, gearing up for that one big season," said Modell, whose lame-duck Browns finished 5-11 last season. "We still have a solid nucleus. Long before the move, I told my people we had to bring some order back to the balance sheet."

Modell plans to build through the annual April draft. The Baltimore team has two first-round picks, the Nos. 4 and 28 positions. Modell also hasn't totally ruled out free agency.

"I've always been a draftnik, and I believe that's the base for building a team," said Modell. "Our No. 4 pick has to be a blue-chipper, someone who can step in right away. And if there is a free agent out there who can make a big difference for us, I'll whip out the checkbook. I've got the fastest draw in the East."

Modell now has to make a decision on his coach and other front-office staff. He may meet with Browns coach Bill Belichick as early as tomorrow morning.

"My schedule right now is very unsettled, but I do plan to meet with some of my key people," he said.

Belichick, who has a 37-45 record in five years with the team, was in Cleveland yesterday and is expected to fly this morning to the scouting combine in Indianapolis.

Last week Modell met with former Miami coach Don Shula for several hours, but Modell says he doesn't expect Shula to replace Belichick as coach. The winningest coach in NFL history might take a front-office position, however.

If Belichick is fired, the short list of candidates includes Oakland assistant Joe Bugel, former Indianapolis coach Ted Marchibroda and San Francisco defensive coordinator Pete Carroll.

There could be other sweeping changes in the front office. Only team vice presidents Kevin Byrne, David Modell, Jim Bailey and director of pro personnel Ozzie Newsome appear to be secure.

Modell looks at Baltimore as a new beginning, and a chance to change an image that was tarnished nationally once he announced his team's move. Modell never expected such outrage.

He travels with bodyguards, and even has one with him for a daily walk in the morning.

Modell's son David said his father always stayed positive.

"Every day, someone seemed to take a cheap shot at him," said David Modell. "But one thing I have learned from my father is that he uses humor to lighten his load. He kept a very strong spirit."

Art Modell said: "I kid Bud Adams [Houston Oilers owner], a good friend of mine. They had 65 people downtown protesting the move to Nashville. Thirty were relatives looking for money.

"I never expected such an outcry, but it will go away with time. Time heals a lot of wounds."

A 75-minute plane ride and conversation with Parris N. Glendening and Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke on Friday night apparently have softened Modell on the idea of meeting with legislators about a proposal to force his franchise to absorb $24 million of the cost of building a $200 million stadium.

Modell will tour Memorial Stadium later this week and possibly attend a news conference with players in Baltimore tentatively scheduled for Tuesday. "It's a pretty good football stadium, a place filled with great memories," said Modell, whose Browns last played there in 1980.

"I told the governor I'll be glad to meet with the legislators any time he asks me," said Modell. "It's a great time for Maryland, with two NFL football teams and two new stadiums. Too many people have worked too hard to let this thing go down."

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