Loss of Williams would hurt down the line

November 12, 1998|By John Eisenberg

The Ravens are mad at Wally Williams. Williams isn't thrilled with the Ravens.

How will their simmering contract dispute be resolved after this season?

"I really can't tell you," Williams said yesterday. "I do know that I want to be here next year. A lot of things have been said both ways. But I want to finish my career with the Ravens.

"To be honest, I can't picture myself playing anywhere else."

If the Ravens are smart, they'll adopt the same conciliatory tone and work out a long-term deal with their starting center and franchise player.

If they're not so smart, they'll let their hard feelings continue to get in the way, they'll lose Williams to free agency and they'll face the unappetizing prospect of rebuilding their offensive line.

How dumb would that be?

No, the line hasn't played anywhere close to its lofty reputation this season. But keeping it intact still makes much more sense than blowing it up, a move that would set the team back years.

It's not as if the Ravens don't already have enough problems.

Williams, 27, is the key figure in the mechanism. He isn't an All-Pro or even a Pro Bowl player, but he's a solid veteran who ranks in the top third of the league's centers. He's in the prime of his career and has played well over the past month after a slow start.

There's little doubt that he'd be in high demand on the free-agent market. In other words, the Ravens need him a lot more than he needs them.

Re-signing such players is the way you build continuity and win in today's NFL. It's up to the Ravens to recognize that and endeavor to keep Williams.

His loss probably would lead to the departure of tackle Orlando Brown, Williams' close friend, who has closely monitored Williams' contract situation.

And if those two were to leave, what kind of signal would that send to Jonathan Ogden, who can void his contract after next season? Wouldn't the Ravens' All-Pro tackle begin to wonder about his team's commitment to winning if Williams and Brown leave?

That's a doomsday scenario, but it becomes more realistic if Williams leaves.

Yes, the Ravens have a fallback position for that possibility -- Jeff Mitchell could return to the starting lineup at center -- but let's face it, they don't have enough depth to withstand many defections in their line without suffering in a big way.

Their best move would be to sign Williams and strive to help the line reach its potential, not just give up and start over because some bad blood spilled last summer.

"I hope it works out like that," Williams said.

He insisted he isn't bitter about what happened last summer, when the Ravens backed out of a pledge to sign him to a long-term deal, resulting in a lengthy training camp holdout.

The Ravens felt betrayed because they'd helped him develop into a player capable of earning a big salary. And Williams was mad because, well, he thought he had a promise.

Who was right? Who cares? Williams certainly didn't gain any leverage by holding out. In fact, he probably hurt himself because his play suffered for the practices he missed.

But regardless, it's time to forget about all that and think about what's going to happen, not what already happened.

Williams has done that.

"Yes, I was under the impression that [a long-term deal] was going to get done," he said. "But all that was over with when I reported to camp, because I understand the business aspect of this game. The Ravens weren't obligated to pay me anything other than what I make this year. I wish it had worked out, but it didn't."

So he isn't disgruntled?

"I'm fine," he said. "I'm not disgruntled at all. I keep hearing and reading that I am, but it's not true. It's unfortunate the way things happened, but that's the way it goes. I'm having fun playing. My teammates are my second family. I want to be here."

So he isn't set on playing next season in Cleveland, where he spent his early career?

"That's another one I keep hearing, that I'm interested in going to Cleveland," he said. "But I'm interested in keeping my career going, period. Cleveland was a great city, and I had a great time playing there. But I'm playing for different reasons now. I have a wife and three kids. I'm going to do what's best for them."

In other words, he's going to take the best deal, regardless of which team offers it.

"That's the upshot of what happened [last summer]," he said. "I'm going to do what's best for me."

The Ravens should also do what's best for them. They should sign Williams. They should keep their line intact.

They shouldn't go and create a new headache when so many old ones are still pounding.

Pub Date: 11/12/98

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