Ravens coach Ted Marchibroda sees a tough, balanced offense taking the field in 1998. He sees a diverse attack feeding off an improved running game -- bolstered by a proven fullback -- that will make play-action passes more effective and big plays more frequent.
If only Marchibroda held the pieces that will fit the puzzle.
With unrestricted free agents across the league set to begin shopping their skills on Feb. 13, and with the NFL draft on tap two months later, the Ravens are studying both areas to fill the many empty spaces in their backfield.
Wednesday's announcement that veterans Earnest Byner and Bam Morris would no longer be in Ravens uniforms leaves the team with only four backs, with a combined five years of experience. Among them, only second-year man Jay Graham (299 yards, two touchdowns) played a noticeable role in 1997, and Graham missed most of the last five games with an ankle injury.
Besides Graham, fullback Kenyon Cotton had two carries, and Priest Holmes and Tony Vinson did not touch the ball.
"We've got one guy [Graham] who has been here for about 30 seconds, and three other guys who have been here for about two seconds," Ravens running backs coach Al Lavan said. "We're turning over all the rocks in the country, looking to see who has played well enough to help us with our situation. We need players who we're not guessing about."
The Ravens would like to start by bringing some stability to their backfield. They would like to stop the backfield turnover that has seen the likes of Leroy Hoard, Earnest Hunter, Carwell Gardner, Morris and Byner come and go since the franchise moved to Baltimore in 1996.
They also would like to decide on an identity -- a passing team or a smash-mouth team, a one-back or a two-back outfit, power or finesse? Then, they would like to improve on a running game that was inconsistent at best in 1997, when the Ravens ranked 22nd in the league, averaged 3.8 yards per rush and scored only seven touchdowns on the ground.
"Our philosophy is to play good, sound football, go for the big play, and gamble," Marchibroda said. "You have to be strong enough to run or pass, but if you have a choice, you would rather run first."
The Ravens figure to incorporate much more two-back offense into their routine. That means an established fullback will be among the club's highest priorities on the free-agent market, with the most prominent names to watch being the New England Patriots' Sam Gash and Miami Dolphins' Roosevelt Potts.
"You need an organized street fighter [at fullback]," Lavan said.
At running back, the Ravens love Graham's potential. They haven't forgotten his coming-out party on Nov. 16, when he shredded the Philadelphia Eagles for 154 rushing yards. And they are pleased to see him working diligently at their Owings Mills facility to rehabilitate the ankle he injured in that game, which pretty much ended his season.
But given the chance to land a big-name back, the Ravens, armed with an estimated $13 million increase in the salary cap and rid of the $7 million in cap funds charged to past players last season, could pull the trigger in an expensive way.
Among the most attractive names on the market are Philadelphia's Ricky Watters, the Green Bay Packers' Dorsey Levens and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Errict Rhett. The Ravens likely will pass on Watters, given his disruptive 'u reputation, and they don't expect the Packers to allow Levens to escape. Then again, Levens reportedly has told Pro Bowl teammates in Honolulu this week that the right price will take him away from Lambeau Field.
As for Rhett, a restricted free agent, the Ravens might be interested in acquiring him through a trade. Rhett rushed for more than 1,000 yards in 1994 and 1995, before holding out for most of the 1996 season in a contract dispute. The addition of Warrick Dunn has made Rhett expendable.
As for the draft, the Ravens are quite fond of Penn State's Curtis Enis, although if Enis is selected ahead of them, they could turn to Georgia back Robert Edwards with their first pick at No. 10 in the first round.
"Edwards really looked good in the Senior Bowl," said Marchibroda, whose staff coached the North Squad in that game two weeks ago.
Pub Date: 1/31/98