Though many pull for Jones, Ravens' cap pushing him out

November 24, 1996|By Ken Rosenthal

OK, Tony Jones, on a scale of zero to 100, what are the chances you'll return to the Ravens next season?

"I won't say 50," Jones said.

Would you say 40? How 'bout 30? Maybe 20?

Jones paused.

"I would say," he sighed, "my chances ain't good."

Sadly, he's right.

Welcome to life under the NFL salary cap.

"If we were in 1990 or '91, we wouldn't even be talking about this," Ravens vice president of player personnel Ozzie Newsome said.

But one reason we are is because the previous regime mismanaged the cap, signing players to lucrative deals under the misguided belief that the Browns were headed for the Super Bowl.

Jones received one of those deals.

Now, it's haunting him.

He plays left tackle. He's in his ninth season. And his cap number next year is $2.915 million.

The Ravens didn't select Jonathan Ogden with the No. 4 pick in the draft intending to shift him to left guard permanently.

Left tackle is the most important position on the line, and coach Ted Marchibroda considers Ogden a future All-Pro, so Jones knows the score.

So do his teammates.

Asked about the possibility Jones might not return next season, center Steve Everitt stared at his inquisitor and replied, "Might not?"

"I wish there was some way it could work out, but from what I've seen and heard, it doesn't seem like it's going to happen," Everitt said.

Publicly, the Ravens say that Jones is playing as well as ever, that they'd love to have him back.

But privately, some team officials question whether he is slipping entering today's game against Jacksonville.

Jones, 30, gave up a crucial sack last week in San Francisco, missed a block on the final drive in Jacksonville and got beat on a play that resulted in a pivotal interception in Indianapolis.

He's a better pass blocker than run blocker, and Marchibroda prefers dominant, physical linemen. But none of this would be an issue if the Ravens didn't need to justify cutting one of their most popular and engaging players.

They probably will.

And nothing else matters.

Is Jones slipping? It would be understandable. He has battled knee and ankle injuries since early October, with his streak of 105 consecutive starts ending in Denver on Oct. 20.

He also has faced difficulties off the field -- his mother has been ill, his younger sister was injured in a car accident, and on Friday he learned that his cousin, Patrick Scott, 26, had been killed in another car wreck.

His uncertain future presents yet another burden. But, as one Raven put it, Jones is "still better than three-quarters of the left tackles in this league."

He's also the leader of the offensive line, and a community activist who on Dec. 10 will be co-host of a dinner with his wife, Kammy, to benefit Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Maryland.

In short, he's precisely the type of guy you'd want on your football team. But the Ravens will need to create room under the cap next season, and Ogden is the future.

"There's very little doubt," Jones said. "They haven't said anything to me yet. We haven't sat down and talked. I imagine soon, within the next four-five weeks, they'll tell me what their plans are.

"It's all about business. I understand that part of the game.

Everyone wants to play in one place, retire in that one place. Unfortunately, with free agency and the salary cap, you don't have that luxury anymore.

"My family is prepared for whatever happens. I'm mentally and physically prepared."

In a sense, Jones is a victim of the line's success. He's one of

the reasons the Ravens are so powerful up front. But the line is so deep and strong, it probably could survive without him.

Everitt, Ogden and right tackle Orlando Brown are considered the most indispensable members of the line. But Everitt will miss his fifth straight game today, and the offense just keeps rolling.

Wally Williams can play guard or center. Jeff Blackshear and Herman Arvie have proved capable backups at guard and tackle. It's quite a contrast from the defensive line, where injuries have been devastating.

Next season, the Ravens could start Ogden at left tackle, Blackshear at left guard, Everitt at center, Williams at right guard and Brown at right tackle. Arvie would be one backup. The Ravens would need to sign another.

Still, Marchibroda would prefer Jones to return.

"I certainly would. We haven't discussed anything to the contrary. Linemen are at a premium," he said.

Could Ogden play guard again next season?

"Sure. Sure."

Which is his best position?

"I would say probably tackle. But it's like, where do you bat Alomar?"

Good analogy, but the answer is, "Wherever he can help you most." And the position almost certainly is left tackle.

"Look at it realistically," Jones said. "They can't have me making the kind of money I make and Jonathan making the money he's making. We both should be at the same position. That's a lot of money for two players."

And a third, Everitt, is the Ravens' transition player, which means he will be paid among the top 10 offensive linemen in the league next season unless the team renegotiates his contract.

Probably the only way Jones can return is if he accepts a pay cut. He has given so much to this franchise. He would prefer to stay.

"If they come to me with a good figure to help them with the salary cap, yes, I'm up for that," he said. "It's got to be something me and my agent would go for.

"I see great things for this team. I feel I've built it, the offensive line. I want to be part of it."

Pub Date: 11/24/96

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