Ravens will need to brace up after about-face on Williams

July 24, 1998|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Wally Williams won't suffer. He'll receive a guaranteed $3.062 million this season, then the long-term contract he is seeking, as long as he stays healthy.

Who will suffer? The Ravens will suffer. They often fail to keep their own free agents, but the loss of Williams would be the worst blow yet.

Williams isn't Steve Everitt or Derrick Alexander or Antonio Langham. Williams is a gifted center, a team leader, an asset in the community. He wants to be in Baltimore, and the Ravens are chasing him away.

If they can't sign Williams, how can you trust them to sign his buddy, right tackle Orlando Brown? How can you trust them to secure extensions for young stars like Ray Lewis and Jermaine Lewis? How can you trust them to retain any important player again?

Owner Art Modell said yesterday that he wouldn't be "painted into a corner," but as usual, he's done it to himself. Williams will be a holdout when training camp opens today for veterans. He plans to miss two weeks, and possibly more.

The Ravens' position on Williams actually is quite logical: Before making a long-term commitment, they want him to prove he can keep his weight down, prove he is fully recovered from an Achilles' tendon injury.

But that's not what they told him initially.

On March 11, Ravens chief financial officer Pat Moriarty said: "Our main objective is to have Wally signed when camp opens." On April 29, Moriarty repeated: "We want to come to terms before the start of training camp."

What happened?

Negotiations happened.

And during that period, the New York Jets signed free-agent center Kevin Mawae to a five-year, $16.8 million contract, complete with a $5 million signing bonus.

Oops.

Williams, 27, was the top-rated free-agent center before the Ravens designated him their franchise player. His agent, Tom Condon, almost certainly is seeking a better deal than Mawae's. And suddenly Modell is asking, "Why the hurry? Why the hurry?"

"There's no obligation to enter into a long-term deal -- even [Williams] admits that," Modell said. "We've made proposals on a long-term contract. We got no response. He's got a guaranteed contract this year, a very good one, and the prospect of free agency. He's got the best of both worlds."

True enough, but the Ravens arrived at Plan B only after failing with Plan A. Williams said he would not be holding out if the Ravens had told him from the start that they wanted to hold off on a long-term deal.

"It wouldn't have been a problem. I'm in minicamp. I'm in camp. I'm in everything," Williams said yesterday during a surprise visit to training camp. "But that wasn't said."

Modell countered by charging that Williams "seems to have reneged" on an oral agreement with Ravens vice president of player personnel Ozzie Newsome to "get the season under way, see how the team is doing," before resuming talks.

"I have talked with Wally. I spoke with him again [yesterday]," Newsome said. "When he comes into training camp and he's playing at a level that I think is equal to the type of contract he wants to demand, then I will recommend to the owner to get it to him."

Again, that wasn't the original plan.

Of course, the Ravens could secure the money for Williams' signing bonus if they ever reach an agreement for the naming rights to their new stadium. But that's another story for another day.

It's difficult to sympathize with Williams, who will be one of the NFL's highest-paid centers this season. But it's even more difficult to sympathize with Modell, who's making an example of the wrong guy.

Doesn't Modell get it? Brown is a free agent after this season. He comes from South Carolina State, Williams from Florida A&M. Two undrafted free agents from small schools who worked hard to position themselves for their one big payday.

Brown almost certainly will be furious if his friend walks, and guess what? He, too, is represented by Condon. It would be unprofessional for the agent to link the two, but Brown likely will be in greater demand than Williams. Then what?

"There's no bad signal," Modell said. "These players know they'll be taken care of by this ownership. They know it full well. I've never shortchanged a player in my life. I'm not starting now."

If anything, Modell's problem in Cleveland was that he was too generous, putting the franchise in a salary-cap bind by awarding long-term contracts to several Browns veterans in 1994.

He has become more hard-line in Baltimore, routinely sniping at players and agents over contracts. He fought the good fight last summer against Peter Boulware's agent, Eugene Parker. But hTC Condon is a solid professional with whom he enjoyed a good relationship in the past.

Perhaps Modell was angered when Condon contested Williams' franchise tag, arguing unsuccessfully that the player should become an unrestricted free agent. Perhaps he's just too old-school to deal in today's NFL -- his No. 1 draft choice, Duane Starks, is another holdout.

Doesn't Modell recognize Williams' value?

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