Lewis move puts Ravens out on limb

July 20, 1996|By JOHN EISENBERG

It is a stretch.

The Ravens know it is a stretch to start a rookie at middle linebacker.

If they didn't, they wouldn't admit that they still might crawl back to Pepper Johnson, the veteran middle linebacker they released last week.

"There is a chance we could get Pepper back," director of football operations Ozzie Newsome said yesterday. "I left the door open when I talked to Pepper."

But they won't go back to Johnson, Newsome said, until they determine that rookie Ray Lewis can't handle the job. Johnson might well have another employer by then. He already has worked out for the Eagles.

"Basically, Ray is going to get a chance to prove that he can't play the position," Newsome said.

It is the biggest risk of many confronting the Ravens, a move that has upset veterans and gone against conventional NFL thinking.

There is no doubt that asking Lewis to replace Johnson is asking too much.

Johnson had two Super Bowl rings from his days with the Giants and led the Browns in tackles in each of the past two seasons. He was the leader of the defense, a learned and dependable pro.

Lewis has a leader's manner and a promising future, but he doesn't even know the signals yet.

"We're exposed," Newsome admitted. "But you have to consider the individual."

Meaning Lewis, not Johnson.

"He has an aura about him," Newsome said. "He stepped right out of high school and became a starter at the University of Miami. He responds well to challenges. He would like nothing better than for people to say he can't handle this situation."

It was a situation that didn't have to exist. The Ravens could

have started Lewis at outside linebacker, a less stressful position, and let him slowly learn about life in the middle from watching Johnson.

Instead, they dumped Johnson. Their decision to cut receiver Andre Rison made bigger headlines, but Johnson's departure was more important.

"Pepper is the only guy who I could honestly say I would truly miss," safety Bennie Thompson said yesterday. "I don't think he missed a practice or a game with an injury in the two years I've been here. He's just been a heck of a football player. I hate to think that we lost Pepper for whatever reason."

The reason the Ravens gave was the salary cap, which, admittedly, forces all teams to make tough decisions on veterans. The Ravens did have to clear out some salary to pay for Jonathan Ogden.

But Johnson's release was about more than just the cap.

You just don't dump your leading tackler when there are a half-dozen other players who also make sense as candidates for release or restructured contracts.

The fact is that Johnson and the new front office weren't getting along that well.

Johnson missed the second week of spring minicamp to attend to business matters. Ravens coach Ted Marchibroda called it "an excused absence," but wasn't thrilled.

The team thought Johnson was overweight at minicamp. Johnson thought the new regime should have shown him more && respect as a player who had won two Super Bowls.

Blah, blah, blah.

In a new city, with a new name, new colors and new coaching staff, the team found it easy to decide to identify a new leader on defense.

It is one of those bold moves with natural appeal -- going with youth -- but it is a stretch.

The Ravens know it.

If they didn't, Newsome wouldn't admit that the team was "exposed."

Not that Newsome believes the move was a mistake, understand.

"Ray will have a good supporting cast with a strong defensive line in front of him," Newsome said. "People won't have an easy time getting to him. It's a good situation."

The Browns also started center Steve Everitt and cornerback Antonio Langham as rookies. Newsome himself started as a rookie tight end.

"And it's not like we're setting a precedent at linebacker," Newsome said. "Mike Singletary started as a rookie middle linebacker in Chicago. Chris Spielman did in Detroit. Ted Johnson did at New England."

Still, there is no guarantee that Lewis will jump in and handle playing and calling the signals just months removed from college ball.

"There are going to be growing pains," Newsome said. "But the end product will be more than sufficient."

The growing pains already are occurring in other corners of the locker room.

"The guys had grown accustomed to Pepper being the leader," running back Leroy Hoard said yesterday. "Somebody is going to have to take over and be that voice."

Lewis has the requisite personality and talent, but why expose him to so much pressure while he still is trying to feel his way in the NFL?

Many veteran Ravens are asking that question.

"I just hope some kind of a deal can be worked out to get Pepper back," Thompson said.

It would make sense, even if the Ravens have to swallow another salary to make room for Johnson.

Lewis has a terrific future; there is a chance he would be just fine this year. But asking too much of him as a rookie is a low-percentage play. The Ravens need fewer of those, not more.

Pub Date: 7/20/96

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