Figure it out and Ravens add up to 8-8

August 30, 1996|By John Eisenberg

First, Sports Illustrated picked the Ravens to run last in the NFL, closer in caliber to, say, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats than the Buffalo Bills.

Then Bob Trumpy, suddenly and briefly relevant, told The Sun's Milton Kent that the Ravens had "one hell of a team."

Who is right?

How about neither?

The Ravens will go 8-8 in their first season in Baltimore.

They won't come close to finishing last, but they won't make the playoffs, either.

I understand that 8-8 sounds like a cop-out, and, admittedly, there are so many new and unusual factors in play with the Ravens that it's hard to make any grand pronouncements about them with any certainty.

But in a league that legislates mediocrity -- craves it, really -- a .500 prediction is a smart bet.

Fifteen of the 30 NFL teams won between seven and nine games last season.

The year before that, 13 of 28 did.

Basically, half the teams win half their games in the NFL, give or take a few fumbles.

The salary cap, revenue sharing, parity scheduling, free agency, expansion and the draft have so leveled the playing field that most teams are incapable of rising far above it or falling far below it.

There are a few good teams such as the Cowboys and 49ers, a few bad teams such as the Jets and Bucs, and everyone else is Cincinnati.

The league wants it that way, to keep as many teams in playoff contention for as long as possible and supposedly sustain interest.

Paul Tagliabue's perfect world would have half the teams at 8-7 and the other half at 7-8 going into the last Sunday of the season.

What a party animal.

If the Ravens go 8-8, they will contend well into December.

If they're going to do a lot better or worse, they'll probably do a lot worse.

They just don't have enough Pro Bowl players to do a lot better.

Tell the truth, how many starters did you know before they came to town?

Losing big actually would pay dividends; if they lost every game, they could draft Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning, the next Troy Aikman.

But it won't happen.

The Ravens lost 11 games in Cleveland last year, but their schedule alone is enough to pull them up considerably.

Only four of their 16 games are against teams that had winning records last season.

They're not really playing Jacksonville and Houston every Sunday, but it sure seems that way.

Good teams play good teams and bad teams play bad teams in the NFL, a sure-fire way to produce what statisticians call a "regression to the mean."

That's fancy talk for .500 all over the place.

The Ravens' easy schedule is, of course, far from the only factor involved in trying to predict their season. Here are the various popular premises being floated, followed by an idea of how much legitimacy to grant them:

The move from Cleveland to Baltimore blew the players' minds last year, resulting in their fall from 11-5 to 5-11.

True? Don't believe it. The Browns had only one winning season in their last six in Cleveland. They lost to the Patriots, Lions and Jaguars before the move was announced last season. The move only gave a crumbling team an excuse.

Firing Bill Belichick and hiring Ted Marchibroda will make a difference in the standings.

True? Absolutely. Marchibroda's presence all but assures the Ravens of a competitive team. He is coming off a four-year run with Robert Irsay's Colts in which he had only one losing season, which should qualify him for the Hall of Fame.

Meanwhile, the players wake up every day and offer prayers of thanks for the departure of the grim Belichick, whose game plans were as unpredictable as an episode of "Barney."

"At least now the fans won't know what plays we're going to run in certain situations," receiver Michael Jackson said during training camp.

Aided by the support of Marchibroda and quarterbacks coach Don Strock, Vinny Testaverde is set to break through with a Pro Bowl season.

True? Well, players generally don't have breakthrough seasons at age 32. Testaverde is more likely to raise his game a little than a lot.

The Ravens will be close in most games because they're sound in the right places, namely on defense and in the offensive line.

True? True.

The defense is weak at right cornerback, inexperienced at middle linebacker and questionable at outside linebacker, but solid in the line and dominant at safety.

The burly offensive line will give Testaverde time to throw, and also allow for a semblance of a running game.

Yet the offense still will suffer from the absence of a star back, as well as from the absence of a proven breakaway receiver and also Testaverde's inconsistency. And the defensive holes will matter from time to time.

Basically, it's a typical '90s NFL team, which means it has some strengths, some weaknesses and a lot of players who are on about the same level as their counterparts on other teams.

Add it all up and you get 8-8.

Get used to it.

This is the NFL.

Pub Date: 8/30/96

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