Ravens' cash can be put to better use

February 14, 1999|By KEN ROSENTHAL

If the Ravens had given Wally Williams the same landmark deal he received from the New Orleans Saints, owner Art Modell would have been laughed out of town.

Williams' five-year, $18.5 million contract includes a $7 million signing bonus, the largest ever given to an offensive lineman. His $3.7 million average salary will be the highest in the league for an offensive guard or center.

Happy Valentine's Day, Wally.

And don't forget to send the Ravens a thank-you note.

The team again could have slapped Williams with a transition tag, and he would have been "stuck" with another one-year deal, earning the average of the five highest salaries at his position.

Instead, the Ravens allowed Williams and right tackle Orlando Brown to become unrestricted free agents, and Brown could receive a deal even more lucrative than Williams, ankle problems and all.

Wonderful world, isn't it?

Here are two guys who performed far below expectations last season -- two guys the Ravens don't seem particularly upset to lose -- and they're hitting the free-agent jackpot, anyway.

We all want to see the Ravens put their PSL and PSINet money back into the team. But no one wants to see them turn into the Carolina Panthers or Washington Redskins, two teams burned by free agency last season.

"He's a proven outstanding player in the league," New Orleans coach Mike Ditka said last night. "He can play more than one position, but we don't want that. We want to solidify the left side of the line."

The Saints will use Williams at left guard -- "All I wanted was the opportunity to come in and solidify a position and perfect it," said the six-year veteran, who alternated between left guard and center with the Ravens.

Of course, the oppressed Williams might have gotten the chance to play one position if he hadn't held out in training camp last season. But in sports, no free-agent signing is complete without a little revisionist history from the player or club.

The belief here was that the Ravens needed to keep either Williams or Brown to provide adequate protection for their next quarterback, particularly if it is brittle Brad Johnson.

But if they can't figure out a better way to make use of nearly $8 million a season -- the likely combined salaries of Williams and Brown -- then they're hopeless.

"For us, that's a commitment of resources that we think can be better spent," said coach Brian Billick, referring to the Williams deal. "We think we can utilize our money a little bit better than that."

A little bit?

The Ravens can use their savings on a lineman, fullback, tight end and cornerback -- and still offer a rebate to their PSL holders, not that they would ever consider such a thing.

Once they lose Brown, they'll be down to Jonathan Ogden at left tackle, Jeff Mitchell at center and Jeff Blackshear at right guard, plus reserves James Atkins, Spencer Folau and Mike Flynn.

They should sign at least one lineman, and possibly two -- guard Chris Villarrial (Bears) and tackle Roman Oben (Giants) are the leading restricted free agents, and tackle Blake Brockermeyer (Panthers) is unrestricted.

Billick has spent the last two weeks evaluating film. Without commenting directly on Brown and Williams, he stated bluntly, "I think we can put a line together that will perform better than the one did last year."

Let's see it.

Let's see the Ravens make the Brad Johnson deal. Let's see them keep James Jones. Let's see them land a big-time receiver, sign a fullback (Minnesota's Chuck Evans) and add a cornerback (Kansas City's Dale Carter? Cincinnati's Ashley Ambrose?)

With the money they're saving, that isn't too much to ask.

Certainly, Billick will have some explaining to do if he trades for Johnson and then can't protect him. But the franchise's strained relationship with its offensive linemen preceded him -- preceded the Ravens' arrival in Baltimore, frankly.

Fairly or not, the linemen believe that they are routinely disrespected by the organization. We saw it in Tony Jones' reaction after the Ravens drafted Ogden. We saw it in Steve Everitt's departure for Philadelphia. And we saw it in Williams when the team failed to keep its promise to sign him long-term.

Williams and Brown both were undrafted free agents, self-made players who spent their entire careers with the organization. It took them each six years to move into position for major paydays. They wanted their due, that's all.

That said, there was no excuse for their unprofessional approach after Williams failed to get the deal he wanted. And so the exodus of former Cleveland Browns continues -- Michael Jackson and Williams are gone, and Brown and Jones could follow.

It's ridiculous for anyone to think that the former Browns are the root of the Ravens' problems -- Jones and Bennie Thompson are two of the team's leaders, and Williams was once viewed in a similar light.

Still, 16-31-1 is a mandate for sweeping change, and the outrageous sums that Williams and Brown will end up with in free agency make the Ravens' decisions easier to accept.

Williams got his wish -- he exceeded the five-year, $16.25 million deal that free-agent center Kevin Mawae received last summer from the New York Jets.

Did he earn that money?

There was simply no way the Ravens could answer yes.

Pub Date: 2/14/99

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