Teams facing tough call on RB Phillips in draft

ON THE NFL

March 31, 1996|By Vito Stellino

When the NFL recently started sending out the coveted invitations to the top players for the annual collegiate draft extravaganza in New York on April 20, a few players got automatic invites.

They included wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson of Southern California, linebacker Kevin Hardy of Illinois and offensive lineman Jonathan Ogden of UCLA, who may go 1-2-3 in this draft.

But the NFL still hasn't decided whether to invite the most talked-about player in this draft, running back Lawrence Phillips of Nebraska.

Like most NFL scouts, the league can't figure out where Phillips fits in.

If the decision were made solely on football talent, Phillips would be a top-five selection, maybe even the first pick.

He ran for 165 yards and three touchdowns in Nebraska's 62-24 rout of Florida in the Fiesta Bowl in January that wrapped up the national championship. He ran for 1,722 yards and 16 touchdowns as a sophomore.

But Phillips' off-field problems make him a huge question mark. He was suspended for six games by Nebraska last year after he was arrested Sept. 10 on charges of assaulting his former girlfriend, Kate McEwen. Phillips later was convicted of a misdemeanor charge of assault.

Teams are checking out a lot more about Phillips than his 40-yard-dash time, and his agent, Mitch Frankel, is trying to do damage control.

"Lawrence is a good human being who made a mistake. He is sorry he made a mistake," Frankel said. "I don't think he'll have any problem handling attention. He's a bright, articulate, funny guy, but it takes him a little while to warm up."

Frankel is turning down all media interview requests for Phillips, even one from Sports Illustrated, which might be a mistake because it gives the impression that Phillips will have trouble dealing with the spotlight.

It doesn't help that he was described as surly after the Fiesta Bowl, although he met with media members for an hour on media day before the game. "I need to find some way to control my anger, to talk about it," he said then. "I'm not used to talking to people. I'm used to keeping to myself. I found out if I talk to people, it will help me a lot. I'm still learning."

NFL teams have to decide how high to take Phillips as they ponder whether, like many domestic abusers, he's at risk to repeat his actions.

One team likely to have to make that decision is the Baltimore Ravens. They have the fourth pick and need a running back.

If Johnson, Hardy and Ogden go 1-2-3, he'll be on the board and probably would be the best running back available, but not the only good one. So will Eddie George, the Heisman Trophy winner from Ohio State, and Leeland McElroy, the speedster from Texas A&M.

Ravens officials say they're studying Phillips, but haven't made any decision.

For the Ravens, though, the risk is even higher than for other teams because Phillips would be in more of a spotlight here than in other cities. He would be the first true Baltimore Raven.

The team will be trying to sell $80 million worth of permanent seat licenses, and Baltimore fans like their athletes in the Cal Ripken mold. They virtually booed Eddie Murray out of town. Phillips might not be a popular choice here.

Although this is a decision that will first be made by coach Ted Marchibroda and director of football operations Ozzie Newsome, it eventually will be owner Art Modell's call. He'll have to decide how Baltimore fans would view Phillips and whether the upside of a player who could be a Pro Bowl pick is worth the risk.

Catching up

If it had been a few degrees colder Thursday night when it rained, it would have been the same kind of sleeting, snowy night it was March 28, 1984, when the Mayflower moving vans first pulled into Owings Mills.

That's why it was appropriate that March 29, a cold, chilly day 12 years later, Baltimore's new team got a nickname.

But getting a name was just the first step for a team that reopens the training facility tomorrow and plays its first exhibition game in four months.

The club has all kinds of work to do on and off the field, including getting a permanent training camp facility, negotiating local TV and radio contracts, selling PSLs and selling sign space at Memorial Stadium.

Doing all this in four months is a strain on an organization. The Colts dropped from 7-9 to 4-12 when they did it 12 years ago.

But Marchibroda won't use the move as an excuse. "We have to look at it as an inconvenience rather than a major problem," he said.

One of the most interesting decisions will be on the training camp. The Redskins' former camp at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., is available. It has excellent facilities and a staff that knows how to run a camp. And it's just a 90-minute drive from Baltimore, which is closer than the Redskins' new camp at Frostburg State.

But the Ravens probably will face pressure to train at a Maryland college.

Remembering Norman

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