Ravens choose to save now, but may have to pay later

July 10, 1996|By Ken Rosenthal

Think they're laughing in Cleveland?

Art Modell went to five banks last year before finally securing a loan to cover Andre Rison's $5 million signing bonus.

He cited that example as proof of his financial difficulties in Cleveland and need for a high-revenue stadium.

But yesterday he released Rison, the one player who openly supported his decision to move to Baltimore.

Oh, they're loving this in Cleveland, all right.

Art and Andre, married in their lust for greener pastures, divorcing over dollars.

"If Art says move to Alaska, I'm moving to Alaska," Rison said last November.

His reward for the ensuing boos and death threats?

A request by the Ravens to cut his pay by $1 million, and then his release.

Don't cry for Rison -- he earned $5.7 million for catching a career-low 47 passes last season, and now gets another crack at free agency.

The true losers are the Ravens, and it's mostly their own fault.

Only a system as absurd as the NFL salary cap could allow a team to make a player the highest-paid receiver in the league one year, and release him the next.

And only a team as mismanaged as the Ravens could get such little production from a player who appeared in four straight Pro Bowls, then decide that he's not worth his five-year, $17 million contract after all.

There's a logical explanation for how the Ravens got from Point A to Point B, but that doesn't mean there's an excuse. Team vice president Ozzie Newsome likened the team's predicament to an exorbitant credit-card bill.

"Eventually," he said, "you have to pay it."

The Ravens paid yesterday by releasing not only a gifted receiver, but also their leading tackler, linebacker Pepper Johnson. Another casualty, starting cornerback Don Griffin, is expected today.

Newsome swiftly implemented Plan B, agreeing to terms with free-agent receivers Floyd Turner and Calvin Williams, and moving to sign free-agent linebackers Gerald Williams and Mike Croel.

But will the Ravens be better for their troubles?

They needed Rison for their new, pass-oriented offense, and now they must give added responsibility to rookie linebacker Ray Lewis and cornerback DeRon Jenkins.

As if that's not troubling enough, they still will be charged $1 million against the cap this season and $3 million the next to account for the prorated portion of Rison's signing bonus.

Embarrassing?

It sure seems that way, but not to Modell.

"I'm not embarrassed at all," he said yesterday. "In fact, I think it's a credit to the organization, and a credit to me, that we're willing to own up to a mistake that might have been made."

Modell talked about "cutting his losses," and that's possible in the NFL, because most contracts are not guaranteed. The Orioles would love to be in the same position with Chris Hoiles. The difference is, everyone still believes Rison can play.

So, who's to blame?

Start with former coach Bill Belichick and personnel director Mike Lombardi, who signed too many veterans to bloated contracts, then insisted they had to have a "home-run hitter" to overcome Pittsburgh in the AFC Central.

But don't forget Modell, who approved the last-minute increase of Rison's signing bonus from $3 million to $5 million, and triggered the team's collapse when news of his move to Baltimore leaked at mid-season.

Granted, the Browns lost to Jacksonville at home even before the move was announced, but would they have fallen to 5-11 and earned the fourth overall draft pick if no disruption had occurred?

Doubtful.

Coming off an 11-5 season, the Browns thought they were a Super Bowl contender. They never expected to draft in such a high position.

Yet, they wound up with two first-round choices, acquiring the No. 26 pick from San Francisco in a draft-day trade shortly after they signed Rison.

"You can't foresee that," Modell said.

Indeed, the signing bonus Jonathan Ogden receives at No. 4 figures to be nearly $5 million higher than the signing bonus awarded to the No. 24 or 25 pick the Ravens expected their record to warrant.

Modell often is criticized for interfering with his football people, but in this case, he probably trusted them too much.

Running back Leroy Hoard will count $1.875 million against the cap this season -- he didn't score a touchdown last season. Is defensive end Rob Burnett worth $2.510 million, offensive lineman Tony Jones $2.415 million?

They are to the Ravens.

Rison amounted to the final spending splurge, and Belichick didn't even use him properly in a two-tight-end offense. Yet Modell refused to blame the previous regime yesterday, saying, "I don't want to indict the past."

Instead, Modell said he accepted "full responsibility," and Newsome added, "I was a big part of us signing Andre." To be sure, there was plenty of blame for all.

"Whether it was his fault or not . . . the fact remains that Andre was not a productive player," Modell said. "Maybe it's the fault of the coaches, the game plans, [Vinny] Testaverde not hooking up with him. But whatever the reason, it did not produce results."

And so Art and Andre must part. It's divorce, NFL style.

Cleveland gets the last laugh.

Pub Date: 7/10/96

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