Deed to town comes with Ravens wins

September 06, 1998|By John Eisenberg

Suddenly, the Ravens are in position to get some religion.

Or, more accurately, to become a religion, in that insatiable way that local teams do.

All they have to do is win, starting with today's era-opener against the Steelers at the Big Orchid.

Remember winning?

It's a high art the Ravens have seldom practiced during the past decade, dating to their days in Cleveland.

But a dose of it now, at precisely the right time, would give them a chance to step out of the Orioles' shadow and start creating their own secular church.

The opening of a new stadium, an undefeated exhibition season and the Orioles' shameful collapse have combined to put the Ravens at this crossroads.

Regardless of Art Modell's merits as the beneficiary of blessed good fortune, there's no doubt his team has landed in one sweet spot as this season begins.

This is the Ravens' town now, for the first time since they arrived.

And it's their town for the taking all fall, with the Orioles out of mind and out of the playoffs for the first time since 1995.

The Orioles are still Topic A, win or lose, and the reality is there's plenty of room for both teams, even if there aren't enough parking spaces. It's not a war, or even a competition.

Despite what NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue believed during the rigged expansion debacle of the early '90s, this is a major-league city capable of floating a boat of teams.

But civic sporting priorities are fleeting, flammable and always subject to change, give or take a few playoff appearances and unwise free-agent signings. If the Patriots have caught and passed the Red Sox in New England, what isn't possible?

Yes, the Ravens still need to firm up their identity and broaden their support. But their sport, not baseball, is the raging national obsession. And their current circumstances are perfect for developing some of that old-fashioned religion.

Their new, purple home is the talk of the town.

Their players and controversies are becoming familiar.

Their team is better, or so it seems.

Their city is ready to loose some serious football whoop.

But they need to win some games.

Oh, yeah, that.

It could happen, sure. A needed change at quarterback, a 4-0 exhibition season and the effects of several strong drafts have raised expectations, seemingly with reason.

At the very least, this is the best of the three teams the Ravens have fielded. The defensive front seven is strong, as is the offensive line, if it ever wakes up. Those are places where games are won. And Vinny Testaverde is no longer around to turn those wins back into losses.

An 8-8 finish seems possible, even against a tough schedule, including five games against Jacksonville, Pittsburgh and Green Bay before Election Day.

But at the risk of sounding a dubious note on an otherwise splendid day for the city, there's still only one way to view the Ravens for now: skeptically.

Despite their apparent improvements and the excitement they have generated with four exhibition wins, they still have a sorry track record. Just one winning season in the '90s. Yuck.

In other words, for all they've done to better themselves, they still have to prove they're capable of drafting, signing, coaching and maintaining a capable team.

The entire organization, from Modell on down, still has to prove it has the vision, judgment, knowledge and talent to field a winner.

With a track record that poor, putting up the framework of a promising house isn't enough. You still have to nail the nails, too.

The Steelers offer a useful comparison. Winners of five of the past six AFC Central titles, they're opening 1998 with questions surrounding them. Their secondary and offensive line are patched together. More free-agent defections have hurt. Some observers have picked them to finish behind the Jaguars in the division.

But given their history under coach Bill Cowher, who has a 64-32 record, the Steelers have to prove they're not so good before anyone should believe it.

By the same token, the Ravens have to prove they're any good before anyone should believe it.

That's skepticism and not pessimism, by the way. There's reason to believe the Ravens are on the right track. But let's see.

If so, we're looking at a major shift in the city's sporting tides. The Ravens would gain real ground with a capable team filling a new stadium.

Yes, they'll gain ground even without a winning team, thanks to the stadium. But with the lure of the stadium so fresh, the Orioles out of contention and an on-field product seemingly bettered, the Ravens will have few better chances to turn their season into church.

=1 All they have to do is win. But that's a lot.

Pub Date: 9/06/98

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