For Ravens, a question of management

December 22, 1996|By JOHN EISENBERG

The team didn't win enough and the fans didn't care enough, but that's not what matters as the Ravens end their inaugural season today at Memorial Stadium against the Oilers.

What matters is where they go from here.

Their 4-11 record and the surprising absence of passion among their fans are this year's headlines, but really, who cares?

Those are short-range, disposable issues, as opposed to the one long-range issue that is all that really matters with this team: the front office's ability, or inability, to consistently put together a winner.

This year didn't matter. It was a honeymoon year. The Ravens were a disappointment, but their games were almost always high-scoring, close and entertaining, and there was a ghoulish fascination in watching them find a new way to blow a lead every week.

Watching them wasn't as much fun as, say, a vacation in Paris, but it was fun just to have a team again, regardless of what happened. After 12 seasons of silent Sundays, it was enough that they had a "B'' on their helmets and didn't put everyone to sleep.

As for the fans, they had their reasons for not going wild with support. The players' hearts obviously still were in Cleveland. (They cheered for the Indians against the Orioles in the playoffs.)

And the team's habit of blowing second-half leads amounted to a bucket of cold water thrown on the city every Sunday. Who could get too fired up?

Memorial Stadium was shaking from the noise when the Ravens beat the Raiders in their opener, but bad losses in Pittsburgh and Houston the next two weeks crystallized the reality that the team was average at best.

The fans will get more fired up when the Ravens are Baltimore's team and no longer Cleveland's team. That will take a few more years of roster turnover.

And the fans certainly will get fired up if the Ravens ever start winning more than occasionally, particularly at a new stadium.

But will the Ravens ever win more than occasionally? Can their front office field a winner? Consistently?

Those are the only important issues with this team.

There are reasons not to be encouraged. The Ravens have a sizable debt, salary-cap problems and a recent history of failure. Art Modell hasn't won a championship since 1964. Ozzie Newsome, the vice president of personnel, is new to his role. There is no general manager. Last week's admission that they might trade down in the draft to take a more economical pick was hardly comforting.

This is a blueprint for success?

On the other hand, Newsome scored with his first draft last spring; Jonathan Ogden is a Pro Bowl lineman in the making, and Ray Lewis is going to anchor the defense for many years. Cornerback DeRon Jenkins wasn't worth trading up for, but Jermaine Lewis has become an asset. It was a productive draft overall.

Now, Newsome needs to find help for the defense, either through the draft or free agency. It won't be easy with the salary cap and Modell's debt restricting him, but it's his job to find a way.

The team isn't that far away from .500 and playoff contention, despite the financial constraints and defensive holes. The Ravens had the Jaguars beaten twice before blowing late leads, and the Jaguars are 8-7 and driving for the playoffs. This isn't that complicated. The two teams might be four games apart in the standings, but they're pretty even.

As lousy as their record is, the Ravens don't need to improve too much to trade places with such teams as the Jags. Their offense is fine, one of the best in the league. Their kicking game is fine. It's their defense, stupid.

The company line is that injuries destroyed the defense's chances of stopping anyone consistently, and there were, indeed, a lot of injuries, so many that defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis had to junk his original 4-3 scheme because of a lack of linemen.

But it's not clear that the defense would have been adequate even if it had stayed healthy. Of the original 11 starters, only Eric Turner and Rob Burnett had been to the Pro Bowl.

Regardless, the front office needs to find players who can improve the pass rush and pass coverage; defensive stars who can make big, game-winning plays. With any such improvement, and more of the same production from the offense, the Ravens can challenge for the playoffs next season.

Not that it's difficult to challenge for the playoffs in the watered-down NFL.

In the end, the Ravens were able to get away with losing this year. They probably can get away with it again next year, too. Most fans are still going to be happy just to have a hometown team again.

But at some point, particularly at the prices the Ravens are charging, the fans are going to want to see a winning team.

Whether the front office can build such a team, with any consistency, is issue No. 1 with the Ravens.

Pub Date: 12/22/96

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