It's official: Torch passes to Ravens

December 21, 1997|By John Eisenberg

CINCINNATI -- The Ravens' season-ender against the Bengals today carries little real weight, with no playoff berths at stake and few reputations on the line.

Symbolically, however, the game is a heavyweight, a major moment in the franchise's history.

It represents the end of the Ravens' two-year internship as the local football religion, a transition period made extra difficult by unavoidable obstacles.

They will take on a new incarnation after today's game at Cinergy Field, becoming a team with a glistening, new home (instead of a familiar, old dump) and also a team with room to maneuver under the salary cap (instead of being a prisoner of past mistakes).

No longer will they have to play so much in the shadow of the Colts, as they did every time they took the field at Memorial Stadium, inviting comparisons they were doomed to lose.

And no longer will they have to cut so many corners because they spent so unwisely in their last years in Cleveland.

The opening of their new stadium next season at Camden Yards will provide a swell in interest and revenues, giving them a chance to realize significant gains in personnel and popularity over the next year.

Whether they'll take advantage of those opportunities is another matter; their franchise has had just one winning season in the '90s, so they still have plenty of proving to do.

(For the sake of accountability alone, it would be nice to be able to identify the front-office member pulling the trigger on various moves. Ted Marchibroda? Ozzie Newsome? Art Modell?)

Still, there's no doubt their lot should improve in several ways once they put behind them the odd transition period ending today.

That's not to make excuses for their 10-20-1 record since leaving Cleveland. The lack of a new home stadium didn't cause that. The Ravens were good enough to keep most games close, but not good enough to win many. Period. End of analysis.

But those losses hurt the Ravens' ability to create a sustained buzz around town and cut into the Orioles' stranglehold; they sold a lot of tickets, but the crowds never seemed to develop a full-fledged pride in ownership.

Of course, that was always going to be a problem as long as the team called Memorial Stadium home. That's where the Colts played, and, as far as most local fans are concerned, that's always going to be where the Colts played.

For two years, the Ravens have taken the field there, fighting the Colts' popular and romantic legacy, and suffering mightily by comparison. It was their stadium now, but they could never own the place without Artie, Lenny or Johnny U.

At Memorial Stadium, the Ravens were always going to look slightly out of place in purple.

Not that it was a bad thing to have the games on 33rd Street for two years; after living through the loss of the Colts and the dozen years of silent Sundays that ensued, the fans surely relished one more dose of the game-day experience Robert Irsay took away.

But enough already.

Enough, enough, enough.

Time for a new home, a new history, a new life beyond the Colts' shadow.

Time for a stadium with purple seats, with the players looking at home in their colors.

If the Ravens are smart, they'll cease all references to the Colts and the way things used to be around here.

It's great that this is a sentimental town, but the Ravens will never go forward at full speed until everyone else stops looking back.

Winning more than occasionally would help that process immeasurably, of course, and the Ravens will have a better chance of doing that now that their internship is ending.

Having more room under the salary cap will give them the power to sign more free agents, and the arrival of a new revenue stream, courtesy of the new stadium, will keep them from having to cut corners with marginal players such as Mike Croel and Jerrol Williams.

Basically, today's game represents the pending arrival of economic freedom, and that's the playing field on which NFL games are won and lost these days.

Again, it's one thing to have these advantages and another thing altogether to make the most of them.

The Ravens need to make sure they don't lock up the wrong players to expensive, long-term deals, as they did in their final years in Cleveland.

They need to continue weeding out the players who came from Cleveland having accepted defeat, even if they don't realize it.

They need to continue drafting as well as they have in their first two years here, adding useful players not only in the first rounds, but also in those that follow.

For two years now, they have muddled along in tough circumstances of their own making, stuck in a compromised financial condition and a stadium haunted by ghosts, the result of a hurried departure from Cleveland.

Those Ravens will play for the last time today.

The next time you see them, they'll have a new look, a new life, a new and better set of circumstances by which to live.

Finally.

Pub Date: 12/21/97

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