Ravens can't afford to sacrifice offense

February 17, 1997|By John Eisenberg

The Ravens are intent on improving their defense during this off-season, a wise idea considering that last year's model was the worst in the NFL.

The Ravens also are intent on becoming more economically responsible during this off-season, another wise idea considering the hole they have dug themselves into the past few years by giving the wrong players too much money.

That their offense doesn't seem to be a priority is understandable, given how prolific the offense was last season.

But in their haste to accomplish their primary off-season goals as they point toward their second season in Baltimore, the Ravens shouldn't make the mistake of taking their offense for granted.

They shouldn't create new problems while trying to fix old ones.

They're on the road to doing that with their decisions to trade tackle Tony Jones to Denver and let center Steve Everitt and receiver Michael Jackson explore free agency.

That's three major contributors, including the guts of the offensive line and the quarterback's favorite target. Owner Art Modell said he still "expects" to re-sign Everitt and Jackson, and he had better. He is kidding himself if he thinks the Ravens can lose all three players and continue to score as many points as they did in 1996.

The only way that happens is if quarterback Vinny Testaverde has another career year regardless of who is catching his passes and who is blocking for him -- a dangerous assumption to make.

Yes, it is true that the Ravens' first order of business is to scare up some extra money and room under the salary cap, the better with which to bolster their defense.

And it also is true that their options are limited by their many previous mistakes, such as Andre Rison's big contract, which make it all but impossible for them to sign all the players they want.

"We have to make a lot of hard decisions now," Ravens vice president David Modell said last week. "We just can't chase every player [who is a free agent]."

With the defense so down, the offense is the place to make sacrifices.

But the Ravens are playing a dangerous game if they make those sacrifices too sweeping.

There is no guarantee that Testaverde will shine as brightly again, especially if his line is patched together and Jackson is gone.

Letting Jackson go would be a major error. At age 27, he was one of the game's best receivers last year, turning more than a few errant passes into key receptions. The option year of his contract, which the Ravens declined to pick up, called for a $2.5 million salary, which wasn't outrageous for a player entering the prime of his career.

The Ravens' desire is to sign him to a long-term contract, and they're confident of getting it done because they get along well with Jackson's agent, Marvin Demoff. But giving up the rights to any player, particularly one so valuable, is always a gamble.

"You never know what anyone else is going to do," David Modell said. "People do stupid things, give away money. Look at us. We gave Andre Rison $5 million."

If Jackson walks, it's a major management goof.

The situation with Everitt, Jones and the offensive line is more complicated.

Jones is already gone, of course, because his salary was high and Jonathan Ogden is ready to play his position, left tackle. Jones was a quality player, but Ogden and the salary cap squeezed him out of town. Getting a second-round pick for him, as opposed to nothing when his contract expired next year, was a solid piece of business.

That leaves Everitt, who is asking for too much money for a player who has never made the Pro Bowl, but who also becomes more valuable now that Jones is gone.

Think about it. Jones is a Bronco. Jeff Blackshear, who started 12 games at right guard last year, is an unrestricted free agent. Herman Arvie, the top reserve tackle, was released last week because of recurring injuries.

Everitt's departure would mean that as many as four of the team's top seven offensive linemen from a year ago could be gone. That's way too much turnover.

The running game survived without Everitt during the second half of last season, but it would struggle behind a line so shredded.

The Ravens still want Everitt -- want him badly -- but not at the high price he initially wanted. That leaves them in a precarious position. They don't want to overpay any more, but they're asking for trouble if they lose Everitt.

Let's see how the new team in town handles a situation this delicate.

Yes, there are places in the defense where sacrifices also could be made, most prominently safety Eric Turner and his $3.9 million contract, as well as several other high-salaried starters such as Dan Footman and Rob Burnett.

But the defense needs to add quality players, not subtract them.

The offense is the best place to find the necessary room underneath the salary cap.

But if they save their defense by watering down their fine offense, are the Ravens any better off?

Pub Date: 2/17/97

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