Breaking up Ravens not so hard to do

February 24, 1999|By JOHN EISENBERG

As of now, there will be six changes in the Ravens' starting lineup next season, some made by choice and some by chance. The total will go to seven if an expected change at quarterback is made, and it could rise even higher if the team makes a trade, dumps a salary or goodness knows what else in the coming months.

One way or another, close to 33 percent of the starting lineup will change. Minimum.

The mass exodus has upset not only fans, but also players such as Pro Bowl tackle Jonathan Ogden, who hinted last week that he wasn't happy with the team's direction and might opt to move on after next season.

Huh? With all due respect, what's all the fuss about?

What's happening isn't the least bit surprising, given the Ravens' poor record and that new coach Brian Billick signed a six-year contract. Sweeping changes were almost inevitable under such conditions. Players are never overly loyal to losing teams. And a new coach always reinvents what he inherits.

Nor is the exodus a calamity. To the contrary, it's a step in the right direction.

When you're coming off back-to-back 6-10 and 6-9-1 seasons, as are the Ravens, you need an overhaul. New blood. Different players.

You certainly don't stand pat.

What, you wanted the Ravens to bring everyone back after last year's disappointment? Come on.

The situation is mindful of the old joke about a college coach lamenting the return of 18 starters from a 2-9 team. You normally love having that many back, the coach says, but you know, maybe our guys aren't so good.

You know, maybe the Ravens' guys weren't so good either, at least in some cases.

As much as former coach Ted Marchibroda is getting blamed now for everything that went wrong short of Logogate, he and the players shared the responsibility. They were partners in a losing venture.

And just as Marchibroda had to go, so did some players.

No, that's not a justification for how the front office has conducted itself over the past few weeks. There have been problems. A stunning jump in the free-agent market blindsided the Ravens' decision-makers. They were indecisive, as usual. And they had no salary cap tricks up their sleeve.

Losing quarterback Brad Johnson to the Redskins was a setback, forcing the team to settle for deposed Lions starter Scott Mitchell as a likely replacement for Jim Harbaugh. And defensive tackle James Jones' defection to Lions was another blow they didn't see coming.

It's hardly the stuff that instills faith in management among fans. And we won't even get into the logo mess.

But hey, it's not as bad as it seems. When your biggest free-agent loss is Jones, a solid but faceless player who has never been to the Pro Bowl, you aren't losing too much.

Other than Jones, the outgoing starters are all players who disappointed last season. Wally Williams and Orlando Brown? They had their poorest seasons as starters. Eric Green? Let us count the fumbles. Michael Jackson? Disappeared. Roosevelt Potts? Did he even play?

Sorry, but the collective loss of those players, all of whom took heat on the talk shows, doesn't constitute a step backward.

Yes, their experience and leadership (in some cases) will be missed in the short term. And some might have thrived under the innovative Billick.

But breaking up a team going nowhere is hardly a tragedy.

Even if the Ravens didn't mean to get blown out in the free-agent market, they aren't the worse for it.

True, they still have to replace the players they lost, a process that could get ugly. Blocking back Charles Evans, formerly of the Vikings, was a nice addition, but there are still a lot of holes to fill.

But hey, Billick might not fill them all with long-term solutions this year. A coach who signs a six-year contract is going to take his time, because he has time. And that's fine. It'd be nice to see the Ravens build slowly for a change instead of scramble to win now.

Give Billick a chance. He just got here, for crying out loud.

Still, you can see why Ogden blew up. Those are his friends leaving, players he respected. And with Billick's blueprint not in place yet and the front office hardly inspiring confidence, what does any Raven have to believe in? The past was bleak, the future is unsettled, yuck.

But if Ogden were to step back and study the situation dispassionately, he'd see these are steps the Ravens had to take.

They had to bring in a new coach and experience the inevitable period of transition. And they had to make personnel changes.

They aren't wrong to replace every skill-position starter except Jermaine Lewis and Priest Holmes. That's what's supposed to happen when an offense is as benign as the Ravens' was last season.

Nor are they wrong to rebuild the offensive line, even though that's a painstaking process. Williams and Brown didn't play well enough a year ago to merit big money. It's time to try another direction.

That's true for the whole team, really. It's time for a new direction, a new blueprint, a new system. That's what Billick is here for, for better or worse.

A new direction means change, by definition. And while that change can be traumatic, it's warranted and needed in this case.

So, please, there's no need to cry.

Pub Date: 2/24/99

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