Rhett set to try again

RB likes new staff, signs one-year deal

April 25, 1999|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

Seeking his second fresh start in as many years with the Ravens, veteran running back Errict Rhett returned to Baltimore yesterday by signing a one-year contract.

The addition of Rhett, who joined the team's minicamp immediately, means a renewed competition among Rhett, second-year man Priest Holmes and three-year veteran Jay Graham for the starting tailback job.

Rhett, who will earn the league minimum salary of $400,000 plus incentives, said he had drawn interest from New England and Arizona. The Ravens were believed to be the only team seriously pursuing him.

"I have a whole new opportunity. This is where I wanted to come, all the while," said Rhett, 28. "It's a brand-new team with a brand-new coaching staff. I like their intensity. I'm glad to be back working with the fellas. It's going to be a lot of fun this year."

Rhett wishes he could say the same about the 1998 season.

Originally a second-round draft pick of Tampa Bay's in 1994, Rhett rushed for more than 1,000 yards in each of his first two seasons, before holding out for the majority of 1996 in a contract dispute with the Buccaneers. Eventually, he became expendable there, especially with the emergence of running back Warrick Dunn.

That led Rhett to sign with the Ravens last year. But soon after beating out Graham late in the preseason, Rhett pulled a hamstring in the season's second game, then missed the third game. Ted Marchibroda, then the team's head coach, benched Rhett in favor of Holmes before the season's fourth game.

And that was pretty much the end of

Rhett. While Holmes went on to rush for 1,008 yards -- 400 of which came in the two games against Cincinnati -- and Graham's season ended with a knee injury, Rhett watched a promising season dry up on the bench. He finished with 180 yards rushing on 44 carries, without scoring a touchdown. Seventy-two of those yards came in the season opener against Pittsburgh.

"I could only be the best player they allowed me to be, and that's what I'm going to do this year," said Rhett, who remains the all-time leading rusher at the University of Florida with 3,228 yards, but has produced just 815 yards in his last three NFL seasons. "I really can't worry about the past. Leave that where it is."

Team owner Art Modell said, "Errict Rhett was under-used. He never had a chance [in 1998] to produce what he can do on the football field, as he did down in Tampa Bay, when he had two, thousand-yard seasons."

Ravens coach Brian Billick, who met with Rhett several weeks before the draft, made it clear that, unless the Ravens landed a running back early in the draft, Rhett would have a chance to compete for significant playing time.

Billick envisions Rhett and Holmes combining forces to give the Ravens more production out of the position.

"It's great to have a veteran back in camp. You need them all. You can't be deep enough at the running back position," Billick said. "They [Holmes and Rhett] have similar running styles, but the best guy might not be the best at everything. One of the parts of coaching you have to address is putting people in the position to do what they do well.

"That may mean a bit of a rotation [at tailback]. I'm not a fan of running-back-by-committee, just for the sake of rolling people through. However we get the yardage -- I don't care if [the work is split] 50-50 or 70-30 -- we're going to play the best guy."

Billick saw Rhett at his best twice a year, back when Billick was beginning a seven-year run as an assistant coach in Minnesota. He said the idea of recapturing those productive years intrigues him.

"He was a workhorse [in Tampa Bay]. It was nothing extravagant, nothing explosive, but it certainly was workmanlike," Billick said.

"I think Errict understood as he looked around that, `Is there any other team that has so much potential in terms of an opportunity to play?' It's a new staff, so we have a whole new, clean slate. He likes the environment, so why not come here?"

NOTES: Defensive tackle Tony Siragusa missed yesterday's practices after suffering a sprained ankle on Friday. He is expected back on the field today. Left end Rob Burnett probably will miss the rest of this week's workouts. He suffered a thigh contusion on Friday in a collision with tackle Larry Webster. Right end Michael McCrary, recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery, will begin lifting weights in about six weeks to strengthen his legs. The team plans to work McCrary, a Pro Bowl player, lightly throughout training camp, so as to have him ready for the Sept. 12 season opener in St. Louis.

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