Ravens: rebound or rerun? Team starts anew, but questions lurk after 5-11 season

July 19, 1996|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

Beginning today, the road to recovery gets serious for the Ravens.

Since moving from Cleveland, the Ravens have conducted their first draft, run two minicamps and implemented offensive and defensive systems under a new coaching staff.

The coaches and players have talked about starting fresh in a city that clamored for the return of the NFL since 1984, and about the advantages those conditions should bring to a team that was battered as much psychologically as it was on the field during last year's 5-11 disaster.

It's easy to forget that the Cleveland Browns started 3-1, before beginning a downward spiral a month later when the move to Baltimore was announced. Throughout the season's second half, the games became secondary to the public relations war, as news of the move sparked a furious reaction in Cleveland and across the nation.

"A lot of things happened last year. The obvious thing is we didn't win," said Mike Sheppard, Baltimore's receivers coach. "I don't blame it on anything. I just say we didn't do a good enough job anywhere."

When veterans join rookies for the team's first full-squad training camp practices today at Western Maryland College, the Ravens begin anew, trying to erase last year's futility and move into playoff contention in the AFC Central.

Here are some key questions the team faces:

How good are the Ravens' linebackers?

That's difficult to say, especially since their only proven veteran, Pepper Johnson, was released in what team officials say was a salary cap decision.

Johnson's departure makes this unit the team's biggest question mark. It also puts tremendous pressure on rookie Ray ** Lewis, the late first-round draft pick who will be counted on to start in the middle of defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis' 4-3 base alignment.

The rest is a cast of virtual unknowns, except for fourth-year player Mike Caldwell and free agent Mike Croel, each of whom will be asked to contribute from the outside. Caldwell started six games last year and recorded 58 tackles -- third-best on the team -- in his first season of considerable playing time. Croel, the NFC's top defensive rookie five years ago, drew sparse interest after his release by the Denver Broncos.

Fourth-year veteran Ed Sutter has never started a game but has played well on special teams. Craig Powell, the team's No. 1 pick last year, missed nearly all of 1995 with a knee injury and has yet to practice. Sixth-round draft pick Dexter Daniels is a 240-pounder who played stoutly in the middle at Florida.

Who will carry the load on offense?

Veteran Leroy Hoard, 5 feet 11, 225 pounds, looks like a cross between a halfback and a fullback, and figures to be featured in coach Ted Marchibroda's one-back offense. And that might be good enough to keep opposing defenses honest. After all, Hoard is only two years removed from the Pro Bowl.

Still, Hoard, who ended last year on injured reserve (ribs) after averaging 4.0 yards on 136 carries, did not score a touchdown in 1995.

Earnest Byner brings 12 years of experience and savvy, not to mention that he caught a career-high 61 passes last year. He is mainly a third-down weapon.

The wild card in this scenario is second-year back Earnest

Hunter, who had a terrific preseason last year but was banished to former coach Bill Belichick's doghouse after fumbling too much early in the regular season. Hunter has explosive speed and can be tough to bring down. The Ravens like his potential so much that they passed on prospects like Karim Abdul-Jabbar and Chris Darkins in the middle rounds of the draft.

"We have good backs in Hoard and Byner, and Hunter has to show some dependability," Marchibroda said. "What we don't have is that big, lead-blocker type of back."

Will Marchibroda's style reap immediate success?

Marchibroda is the anti-Belichick. Whereas Belichick was perpetually tense, Marchibroda exudes calm. Belichick ruled with an autocratic hand; Marchibroda is the consummate delegator. Belichick's offense lacked fire and imagination; Marchibroda is recognized as one of league's sharpest offensive minds. Expect a variety of looks, including three- and four-receiver sets, and the no-huddle offense.

Since the team's first minicamp, Ravens players have marveled at the relaxed, confident tone set by Marchibroda. Whether that translates into improved performance is the question.

Will this be Vinny Testaverde's career year?

The quarterback enters his 10th season in a make-or-break situation. The 1986 Heisman Trophy winner from Miami suffered through horrendous seasons -- with horrendous offensive lines -- in Tampa Bay before signing with Cleveland in 1993. He was off to his best start last year, before Belichick inexplicably benched him to give the team a spark. Still, he completed 61.5 percent of his passes and threw 17 touchdowns and only 10 interceptions.

The time is ripe for Testaverde to blossom as an upper-echelon passer. With Marchibroda and new quarterback coach Don Strock, Testaverde has never had guidance like this.

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