Next debate centers on Marchibroda

November 14, 1997|By JOHN EISENBERG

And you thought the end of the Johnson-Angelos brouhaha meant the sports pages finally would be free of front-office controversies involving local teams.

Better think again.

You can almost feel another controversy coming, much as you can feel snow coming in the air or another Testaverde turnover.

If the Ravens continue to bumble toward the finish of their second season, there is little doubt that owner Art Modell will think hard about giving coach Ted Marchibroda another shot in 1998.

That's not to say Marchibroda will lose his job, because he might not.

And that's not to say Marchibroda deserves to lose his job, because he doesn't.

But the Ravens have lost five of their past six games, culminating in a 37-0 embarrassment in Pittsburgh on Sunday night, a defeat so profound that Modell responded by saying no jobs were safe.

Another coaching controversy seems almost as inevitable as winter, so you might want to store up rations of outrage, frustration and all those staplesyou needed during the Orioles' soap opera.

It's as if we're trapped in a sporting version of "The Exorcist," and -- cue the ominous theme music -- we might be going back into the room. (Insert screams here.)

Marchibroda, who is under contract for next season, probably can escape trouble if the Ravens pull out of their funk. A split of their last six games, four of which are at home, would give them a 7-9 record and almost twice as many wins as they had in 1996.

It would be hard for Modell to make a change after a season of such improvement, particularly because it is clear the Ravens remain a developing team with holes in important places, such as cornerback.

Whether the Ravens can pull out of the funk is the issue, of course, and they're a mess in the wake of the Pittsburgh debacle. But fortunes turn quickly in today's watered-down NFL. Let's see what happens.

Either way, the statement was made in this space in August that nothing that happened in 1997 should cost Marchibroda his job, given the Ravens' shortcomings. That opinion hasn't changed.

Yes, the Ravens have had some tactical difficulties -- some of their play-calling has been weird, and they're running too much out of a one-back passing set -- but you just can't pin too much blame on the coach of a team so young and, well, so ordinary in places.

But these are strange times; the Panthers and Jaguars each came within one win of making the Super Bowl as second-year franchises a year ago, and now Bill Parcells has taken the Jets from worst to first, so owners are increasingly impatient.

"Building" has almost become a curse -- the B-word.

If you don't win now in such an environment, you're usually in trouble.

And even if Modell was in a patient mood when this season started, Marchibroda made the "mistake" of going 3-1 in September, raising expectations beyond his team's potential.

Not that Modell would be without grounds for considering

making a change. You can see his dilemma.

The Ravens are 8-18 under Marchibroda, which is no way to go about breaking the Orioles' grip on local sports interests.

As warm as their reception here has been -- only one regular-season game at Memorial Stadium hasn't sold out -- they still haven't made the breakthrough transforming them into a secular religion.

The perfect time for that to happen would be next season, when they'll get a huge boost in interest from the opening of Camden Yards II.

The last thing Modell wants is to blow that advantage with another middling season.

He wants to paint the new stadium with success, not stain it with more losses and a tired debate about his coach's future. That's no way to sell tickets.

Seeing as there's a chance he would make a change anyway after next season, why not make it sooner than later?

But again, giving up on Marchibroda simply wouldn't be fair or right.

Modell was fortunate to find a coach so able and stable 21 months ago, when the franchise was reeling from the controversial move from Cleveland.

The franchise hadn't even picked a nickname, for crying out loud, when Marchibroda signed on for three years.

Whether or not Modell realizes it, Marchibroda brought dignity and professionalism to an operation that was getting hammered across the country as an example of what's wrong with pro sports.

His offense also brought life back to a team that was astoundingly dull under former coach Bill Belichick.

For those good deeds alone, Modell owes Marchibroda the chance to fulfill the life of his contract.

There are some good, young players on board now after two strong drafts, and Marchibroda deserves a chance to develop them.

Defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis certainly deserves a chance install his beloved 3-4 scheme -- he hasn't had the personnel to do it yet -- before his days are up.

Still, none of that may matter if the Ravens stumble to the finish with a series of home losses.

As surely as snow is coming this winter, another coaching controversy will spill onto the sports pages and talk shows.

It can't possibly be as dramatic or emotional as l'affair de Johnson et Angelos, but it'll get hot, as such matters always do.

And you thought you were going to get to rest easy for a little while.

Pub Date: 11/14/97

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