Front-office follies push Ravens farther off course

March 24, 1997|By Ken Rosenthal

There is incompetence, there is gross incompetence and there is Ravens incompetence.

Only the Ravens could call a news conference to announce that a major free agent had flunked his physical.

Only the Ravens could restructure a contract with a salary-cap figure that is $1 million off.

Only the Ravens could lose two high-quality offensive linemen and a Pro Bowl safety and still believe they're going to improve on a 4-12 record.

Feel free to scream.

It's all in an off-season's work for Art Modell and Co.

The Ravens move too slowly on the free agents they want, overpay the free agents they get and consider it a coup when a potential signee doesn't require surgery.

The evidence is overwhelming:

Modell needs a general manager.

That statement doesn't exactly qualify as news, but it bears repeating. The Ravens' first full off-season in Baltimore is practically a case study in mismanagement.

Oh, they've done some good things, re-signing Michael Jackson, restructuring Vinny Testaverde's contract, acquiring a second-round draft pick for Tony Jones.

Even in the Brock Marion fiasco, they were prudent enough to take a closer look at the free-agent safety's injured left shoulder when he passed five other teams' physicals.

Still, look at where the Ravens stand.

Their defense was awful last season.

And right now, it might be even worse.

Imagine if the Orioles had signed a big-name free-agent center fielder with a sore arm. That's Marion -- a physical question who is expected to anchor the secondary.

The other defensive backs? Free agent Stevon Moore still figures to re-sign at safety. Antonio Langham and DeRon Jenkins will be the corners.

That's right, DeRon Jenkins.

The coaching staff apparently is convinced he can play.

At linebacker, there's Ray Lewis in the middle, a free agent (Lewis Bush?) on the right side and either Mike Caldwell or a draft pick on the left. Caldwell, a free agent, is recovering from knee surgery.

And then there's the front four.

Anthony Pleasant is a free agent. Rob Burnett also is recovering from knee surgery. James Jones is solid. But Larry Webster is one drug test away from being kicked out of the NFL -- that is, if he's reinstated.

The Ravens would have switched to the 3-4 preferred by defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis if they had signed free-agent defensive end Raylee Johnson. But they took their usual deliberate approach, and Johnson stayed in San Diego.

Why can't this team act more decisively?

Because everything it does is by committee.

And everything it does must be approved by Modell.

The Ravens are an agent's nightmare. Five different executives have negotiated player contracts since the team arrived in Baltimore. And none of them had the ultimate say.

Ozzie Newsome, the vice president of player personnel, is a talent evaluator, not a negotiator. Ideally, he should be the No. 2 man in the organization, learning from a Ron Wolf or a Bobby Beathard how to manage the cap, write contract language.

Instead, he's the front man.

And he's overmatched.

It's not Newsome's fault -- heck, he's probably the Ravens' brightest football mind, as evidenced by the Jones trade and last year's draft. It's just that he's in a near-impossible position, thanks to Modell.

Strapped for cash, squeezed by the cap, the Ravens operate with little margin for error. Yet, they keep making fundamental mistakes in a new-age NFL that requires attention to detail, as well as a larger vision.

Remember last year, when they failed to notify the league of the Floyd Turner signing by the proper deadline, and nearly had to send him back to Indianapolis?

That was nothing compared with this off-season's shenanigans -- the $1 million goof on Testaverde's cap number, and the now-you-see-him, now-you-don't news conference with Marion.

It's kind of sad, really.

The Ravens were so desperate to sign a free agent after losing out on Johnson, Ray Seals and Broderick Thomas, they embarrassed themselves trying to make something happen.

They'll end up with greater financial protection if Marion signs, but that just means they'll overpay another Leo Goeas. That's the thing about the Ravens. They're just as dangerous with money as without it.

Their failures in free agency make next month's draft even more critical, but even if they trade down from the No. 4 spot, how much will their defense improve with Marvin Lewis needing to break in so many young players?

Every NFL team makes mistakes. Almost every team faces cap problems. But the Ravens stand almost no chance of weaving through this tangled maze when their front office is a tangled mess.

Their honeymoon probably will last at least two more seasons, with the new downtown stadium scheduled to open in 1998. But for some fans, last week evoked disturbing memories of the Irsay era.

No question, Modell wants to win. The problem is, he doesn't know how.

There's incompetence, gross incompetence and Ravens incompetence.

And, worst of all, there's no end in sight.

Pub Date: 3/24/97

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