QB call is up next for Ravens Kelly will be starter over Testaverde if former Bill is signed

Byner won't return in '98

Veteran RB will get offer to work with staff

January 29, 1998|By Gary Lambrecht and Mike Preston | Gary Lambrecht and Mike Preston,SUN STAFF

One day after saying goodbye to troubled running back Bam Morris, the Ravens shook up their offensive backfield further by announcing that 14-year veteran back Earnest Byner will not play here in 1998, and that quarterback Jim Kelly will be named the starter if he decides to end his one-year retirement by playing in Baltimore.

Ravens coach Ted Marchibroda has been studying film of Kelly's final season in 1996 with the Buffalo Bills, where Marchibroda worked with Kelly from 1987-1991 as a quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator. Meanwhile, Ravens vice president of player personnel Ozzie Newsome has had preliminary discussions with Kelly's brother and agent, Dan, about the possibility of Kelly returning to the playing field.

"The question is, is his heart still in it? Does the fire burn that much [to play again]?" Marchibroda said. "If Jim Kelly comes back, you don't bring back a guy of Jim's stature to compete for the job. He would be the starter."

"In talking with Dan, if the situation is such that if [Kelly] feels he can win a Super Bowl, he'll [come back]," Newsome said. "We have not finished our evaluation of Jim. Part of that is we want to see him physically throw, and pass a physical. There are some hurdles."

If Kelly, 37, becomes a Raven, a major obstacle for the organization would become what to do with disgruntled veteran quarterback Vinny Testaverde.

Testaverde, an 11-year veteran who followed a Pro Bowl season in 1996 by struggling during much of last year, is still unhappy about being benched in favor of backup Eric Zeier for the final three games of 1997. Yesterday, Marchibroda and Newsome suggested Testaverde -- who is under contract through the 2000 season and is due to earn $4 million next year ($1.5 million guaranteed) -- could serve as a strong backup to Kelly.

"Vinny did a great job as a backup in Cleveland [under Bernie Kosar in 1993]," Newsome said.

Testaverde's reaction was an unequivocal thumbs-down. He even hinted that, if the Ravens sign Kelly, he might ask to be traded.

"I don't want to be a backup, and I know I can be a starter in this league," said Testaverde, 34. "This is not Cleveland, and there is no Bernie Kosar. It's an entirely different situation. I have assumed all along that if they signed Kelly, he would be the starter.

"I felt during the last few games [of 1997], they had plans to bring in Jim, and if I played well in those games, it would have made it a tougher decision for everyone to accept. If they don't sign Kelly, that means [the Ravens] are stuck with me. Unfortunately in this league, a player is obligated to his contract, but a team is not obligated. If they want to release a player from it, they can."

Testaverde has an eye on Feb. 13, which is the day unrestricted free agents can begin shopping their services around the league.

He said he wants the Ravens to contact him around that time to inform him of his status. If they decide not to retain him, the Ravens could attempt to trade Testaverde or they could release him. If they choose the waiver route, the Ravens would most likely wait until after June 1, since it would cost them $1.6 million in salary cap funds, as opposed to $4.3 million if they cut Testaverde before June 1.

"If I do [ask for a trade], it certainly would be a distraction to the team if they brought me back, but it's hard to say right now," Testaverde said. "I was hoping someone from the organization would call me today to let me know what's going on. That didn't happen. That's their prerogative, and the way they choose to do business."

Team owner Art Modell downplayed the controversy, saying he sensed "an ambivalence" in Kelly, regarding his desire to return to the playing field.

"We don't give commitments [regarding positions] to anybody on this team," Modell said. "As far as we're concerned, [Testaverde] is coming back. He's under contract. If he has other thoughts, he'll express them to us in due course. It would be a mistake to say that Vinny Testaverde is past news."

The Ravens officially made the 35-year-old Byner past news yesterday, although Modell said the team has invited Byner to work here in a coaching or personnel capacity. In the meantime, Byner, who did not return phone calls yesterday, is expected to talk with Kansas City about playing there.

Byner, reduced to a third-down specialist in recent years, rushed for 313 yards and had 128 receiving yards in 1997. He has 8,261 rushing yards in his career, which began in Cleveland in 1984 and included a Super Bowl victory with Washington seven years later.

"If [Byner] is helping us in a coaching capacity, that's a plus. If he's around our players in any way, that's a plus," Ravens running backs coach Al Lavan said. "He's going to help you. You name the task, he can do it."

The same couldn't be said for Morris, whose off-the-field problems during his two years in Baltimore landed him in a Rockwall County, Texas, jail, where he is serving a four-month sentence for violating his probation stemming from a marijuana possession conviction in 1996.

"I hope he lands on his feet," Modell said of Morris. "He's basically a good guy who needs some direction and discipline. I wish him the very best."

The loss of Byner and Morris leaves the Ravens with a young, thin backfield consisting of Jay Graham, Priest Holmes, Tony Vinson and fullback Kenyon Cotton. Of that group, only Graham (299 yards, two touchdowns) saw substantial playing time, while Holmes and Vinson did not carry the ball.

With the salary cap expected to rise some $13 million and into the $53 million range, the Ravens plan to focus heavily on signing a fullback and a running back through free agency.

Pub Date: 1/29/98

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