Fledgling Ravens have 4 years to fly

November 19, 1996|By John Eisenberg

That was just a layer of clouds hanging over the city yesterday, not a pall in the wake of the Ravens' latest defeat. It's too soon for that.

The Ravens have lost three in a row, six of seven and eight of 11 after Sunday's 38-20 loss in San Francisco, but is anyone outside of the organization really upset?

Not many, that's for sure. This is the definition of a honeymoon season; it's hard to get too upset with Baltimore back in the NFL for the first time since 1983.

Sure, a little more defense and a few more wins would have made things more exciting this fall, but most fans are just happy to have a team again. It beats cheering for the Redskins to lose.

How long will the honeymoon last? How long can the Ravens come home from losses to a public still willing to accept them without reservations?

The guess here is four years. That sounds long, but it makes sense.

Next year is another free year because the fans will be looking forward to the team moving into a new stadium at Camden Yards in '98. They'll endure losses with a smile.

The first year in the new stadium also will be free because the fans will be excited about the new stadium and its $5 nachos. That excitement should stretch into the second season at Camden Yards.

After that, the Ravens will be held more accountable for their product.

By then, fans who have paid all that money to watch football, and it's a lot of money, will start grumbling if they aren't watching some good football.

Maybe disenchantment will set in before that if the team should continue to find ways to lose, but nobody should count on it. The Ravens can expect a long honeymoon in a city that is still stinging from the Colts' departure and intent on not letting history repeat itself.

Ravens owner Art Modell said recently that he expected to have an "elite team" in place by the opening of the new stadium, which is 21 regular-season games and two off-seasons from now. Don't expect such a miracle. Teams don't go from the bottom to the top nearly that quickly.

A more realistic good-scenario wish is for the Ravens slowly to cobble together a solid, capable team over the next few years. There are reasons to believe that can happen.

The first is the head coach, Ted Marchibroda. He is the right man for the job, the best thing about the organization. The players are average and the front office has yet to prove it can build a winner, but Marchibroda is a proven commodity. That the Ravens are still playing hard for him, despite all the losses, is all you need to know.

He is in the first year of a three-year contract, but it's possible to envision Modell turning on him if next year's team also fails to deliver. That would be a mistake. Modell would be wise to give Marchibroda all the time he needs and wants to rebuild the team.

Marchibroda's staff also is an asset; quarterbacks coach Don Strock should get team MVP votes for what he has done with Vinny Testaverde.

Youth is another reason a turnaround is possible. The Ravens aren't babes, but they have several young building blocks in place.

On offense, Jonathon Ogden is 22, Bam Morris is 24, Derrick Alexander is 25 and Michael Jackson is 27. Morris is a 1,000-yard runner, Jackson and Alexander are thriving in Marchibroda's system and Ogden's rookie season has been brilliant.

(Age could become a problem at quarterback, where Testaverde just turned 33. That means he would turn 35 in the first year at Camden Yards. The team needs to start finding a replacement for him. Eric Zeier has hardly proven himself.)

The defense needs a lot more work, obviously, but Ray Lewis is set at middle linebacker, and a top-four pick in the upcoming draft should yield a defensive centerpiece around whom the team can build.

It's a critical draft pick that the Ravens can't afford to blow, and it's imperative that they use it to improve the defense.

Do they need a complete overhaul? No. It's easy to dismiss them as a total disaster with their 3-8 record, but they played the 49ers tough Sunday and they have competed as well as any team in the league over the past six weeks. Every game has been close in the fourth quarter.

"I see a tremendous amount of character," Marchibroda said yesterday. "That's indicative of good things to come."

Not this year. But that's fine as long as Marchibroda uses these last five games to see if cornerbacks Dorian Brew and DeRon Jenkins and several other young players belong in the blueprint.

"Brew plays a pretty good football game ," Marchibroda said. "He shows the game doesn't scare him."

It's certainly a good time to experiment with such talent. The fans are just happy to have a team again. They'll swallow losses with a smile, at least for now.

But not for too long.

Never for too long.

Pub Date: 11/19/96

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