Best choice: Keep faith with Billick

February 09, 1999|By KEN ROSENTHAL

The Ravens don't want to trade their first-round draft pick for Brad Johnson. In fact, they've given the Minnesota Vikings three different proposals, none of which includes the 10th overall selection.

It's worth a shot.

But if the Ravens are forced to meet the Vikings' price, so be it.

They need to get new head coach Brian Billick the quarterback he wants. And brittle or not, Johnson might be less of a risk than the player who would be selected with the 10th overall pick.

Landing Johnson and drafting a wide receiver such as Torry Holt would be your basic dream scenario. But looking at this from Minnesota's perspective, you begin to understand why the Ravens can't have it both ways.

Just as the Ravens couldn't justify trading Michael McCrary for Johnson, the Vikings can't justify losing their former starting quarterback without gaining a 1999 first-round pick.

Jacksonville's price for Rob Johnson a year ago was a No. 1 and a No. 4 -- and Johnson had started only one game in the NFL, building his entire reputation against a feeble Ravens secondary.

The Jaguars acquired Buffalo's No. 1 pick -- the ninth selection overall -- and landed running back Fred Taylor. Surely, the Vikings want similar value, if not better. Brad Johnson, while injury-prone, is 15-8 as a starter.

The Ravens would love to get away with giving Minnesota their second-round pick in April's draft and their No. 1 pick next year. But the Vikings hold all the cards, and they can always turn to another team for a '99 first-rounder.

That said, the Ravens still are in terrific position to complete this trade -- the teams above them at No. 10 are in position to draft a quarterback, and the teams below don't have as much to offer Minnesota.

In the end, they probably will need to part with at least one more pick and possibly quarterback Jim Harbaugh, especially if the Vikings lose third-string QB Todd Bouman to Cleveland in today's expansion draft.

The Ravens should do everything they can to save Harbaugh for another trade. He might not bring the third-rounder he cost the team initially. But even a fourth-rounder would be a solid return, and make the Johnson deal more palatable.

The skepticism with which some fans view Johnson is understandable -- he'll be 31 in September, and his pattern of injuries is disturbing. But if he isn't the Ravens' quarterback next season, who will be?

Harbaugh is close to finished. Eric Zeier isn't a 16-game answer. And even if the Ravens stay at No. 10, they might not get a quarterback -- Tim Couch, Donovan McNabb, Daunte Culpepper and Akili Smith could be gone by then.

Scott Mitchell if he becomes a free agent?

Stop the madness!

Granted, the Ravens could always trade up for McNabb, Culpepper or Smith. But even if they lucked out and landed a future star, it probably would be three seasons before he was ready to win.

That would take us to Year Six of Team Modell's Baltimore run.

Can the owner wait that long?

Can the fans?

Actually, those are two of the least important reasons to make this trade. Art Modell's impatience helped put the Ravens in this position. And the fans would be satisfied if they saw progress, with or without Johnson.

No, the reason to make this trade is Billick.

The issue is not one of control, but faith. The Ravens hired Billick for his vision. And if his vision includes Johnson, team officials should do everything they can to implement it.

Put another way, if the Ravens allowed Ted Marchibroda to pick his quarterback in the final season of a three-year contract, they certainly should allow Billick to pick his in the first season of a six-year contract.

Billick, the Vikings' former offensive coordinator, knows Johnson better than anyone. And if he isn't scared off by Johnson's injury history, maybe fans shouldn't be, either.

Yes, the trade would look horrible if Johnson went down in Week 6 next season, but such is life in the NFL. The Ravens should protect Johnson by signing free-agent offensive linemen Wally Williams and Orlando Brown. And they should protect themselves by keeping Zeier as their backup and using a late-round pick on a quarterback.

None of Johnson's injuries appear chronic -- he tore ankle ligaments and underwent neck surgery in '97, suffered a broken leg and broken thumb in '98. The Ravens need to investigate him thoroughly -- no Brock Marion shenanigans -- then embrace him.

Think about the chance Billick would be taking. With a six-year deal, he has enough security to draft and develop a quarterback. But he apparently believes that Johnson gives him the best chance to win, and he can groom another quarterback in the interim.

Most of last season's quarterback success stories -- Vinny Testaverde, Randall Cunningham, Chris Chandler -- were produced by players acquired on the cheap. The price for Johnson is considerable. The pressure would be greater. But with no risk, there's no reward.

The Ravens should offer Harbaugh, offer draft choices, offer everything reasonable short of the first-round pick. Then, when push comes to shove, they should take the necessary leap of faith.

Close their eyes, cross their fingers and give up the 10th overall pick for Brad Johnson.

Pub Date: 2/09/99

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