Fun in the pits again Ravens: Veteran defensive end Rob Burnett, now fully recovered from a brutal knee injury, is frolicking like a youngster.

August 21, 1998|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

The new Rob Burnett is looking like the old Rob Burnett. Just ask Ravens defensive tackle James Jones.

Jones, who lined up next to Burnett years ago in Cleveland, watched Burnett blossom into a Pro Bowl defensive end there in 1994. He also watched him go down with a devastating right knee injury as a Raven in October 1996. Based on what he has seen so far in 1998, Jones thinks his old friend's recovery is complete.

Burnett certainly has played lately with spring in his step. Through two preseason games -- playing time that amounts to one full game -- he has recorded six tackles and a team-high 2.5 sacks. The team's first unit has yet to give up a point.

"I'm seeing a rejuvenated player, a player who looks totally confident in his abilities and in himself," Jones said. "He's flashing the aggressiveness, that mean streak, that burst [of speed] that he's always had. He's out there having fun, not worrying about anything. Just playing football."

A clean bill of health will do that for a guy who makes his living in the trenches, battling 300-pound offensive tackles, hitting ball carriers and chasing quarterbacks.

No longer is Burnett dealing with the long, brutal hours of rehabilitation that followed surgery 21 months ago to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament. The persistent, achy joints and tendinitis that hindered him throughout the 1997 season? Gone. The body and mind are equally strong again.

"I'll never forget last year. It was the toughest challenge I've gone through since I started playing this game," said Burnett, 30. "It was the first time I ever questioned myself about whether I was physically able to do it.

"Now, I feel young at heart. I know how much work I've put into this. My body can do anything these 25-year-old kids can do. I want to compete and I want to win. And my window is closing."

Burnett hears the clock ticking on his advancing NFL career. Although he looks anything but old, Burnett, who is signed through next season, is actually the dean of the franchise.

Of all the players who moved here from Cleveland two years ago -- only a dozen remain -- Burnett has the most experience.

A fifth-round draft pick out of Syracuse in 1990, Burnett is heading into his ninth season. Will he return to the form that saw him emerge as a pass-rushing force with the Browns? From 1992 through 1995, Burnett racked up 35.5 sacks, including a career-high 10 in 1994.

"We're getting back to the point where we're playing naturally off each other on the field again," said Jones, who played in Cleveland from 1991-1994, then reunited with Burnett and the Ravens two years ago.

"I never doubted he would come back fully," Jones added. "I could tell he was unsure of his body last year. You're going to back off when you feel a twinge in your knee while you're coming back from an injury that serious. When you're injured, you see a gap [in the line] and you know you can get there, but your body won't push you there."

Fellow defensive end Michael McCrary, who also battled knee problems last year, sees a good competition developing this fall between himself and Burnett.

"Just because of the fact that he's healthy and I'm healthy, it's going to be a real good competition [for sack totals] between us," McCrary said. "Rob is going to draw more attention than he did last year."

From the opening day of training camp, Burnett looked like a new man. Not even a bout with bronchitis, which knocked him out of practice for nearly a week, kept him from spirited battles with offensive tackle Orlando Brown. And Burnett has carried over his rejuvenation into the preseason.

Forced to rehab his injured knee for extended stretches here, Burnett, a Long Island native who owns a home in northern New Jersey, has put down some roots in Baltimore. He has started a charitable foundation that donates $500 for every team sack to the Ravens' Courage House.

Burnett, who has an economics degree, also has his hands in some profitable ventures. He is part-owner of a telecommunications firm that sells blocks of long-distance time.

He also manages three professional boxers -- heavyweight Marcellus Brown (22-5), welterweight Sammy Garr (24-1-1) and middleweight Rhoshii Wells (9-0).

"But this [his football career] is still my baby," Burnett said. "I want to be part of a winner here. I want to help this franchise win again. I'm tired of losing. I feel good about myself and I feel good about this team."

Pub Date: 8/21/98

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