Ravens just going with flow

June 17, 1999|By Ken Rosenthal

Admit the obvious. Is that so much to ask? Call a news conference, swallow your pride and admit that yes, the Ravens face cash-flow problems; yes, the team is suffering; and yes, the issue might take years to resolve.

That's what you should do if you're Ravens owner Art Modell, because no one is fooled anymore. Modell keeps insisting the franchise is not in financial distress. And his actions keep indicating otherwise.

Now comes the latest: Modell is seeking an investor to purchase a share of the team and a waiver of the $29 million relocation fee the NFL assessed the team in 1996 when it approved the move from Cleveland to Baltimore.

Meanwhile, the Ravens might require league assistance to help meet their $185 million debt, through either a loan or relaxation on revenues shared with visiting teams. They also might attempt to restructure part of the debt.

But, nah, none of this affects the way the team is run.

One thing has nothing to do with the other.

Really, everything is great.

On second thought, maybe Modell should hold off on that news conference. Because if he admits the obvious, he will need to face another set of questions, an even harsher set than he is facing now.

Why is he still scrambling financially now that the new stadium is open? Where is the PSL, PSINet and NFL television revenue going? How much is the debt service affecting the operation of the team?

The reality is that this team never would have moved to Baltimore if Modell hadn't been in financial trouble. The club was drowning in red ink then. The Ravens seem to be merely wallowing in it now.

Give them credit -- they do just enough to give the appearance of legitimacy, whether it's extending the contracts of Ray and Jermaine Lewis, hiring Brian Billick as coach or signing Harry Swayne as a free agent.

Still, the overall picture is damning.

Until the extensions for the two Lewises, the Ravens were one of only two teams, along with Philadelphia, that spent under the salary cap from 1994 to '98, according to the NFL Players Association. That means they were saving on the signing bonuses, which often are paid in a lump sum.

The Ravens are the total opposite of the Peter Angelos Orioles, a team that spends lavishly and at times incoherently. Indeed, they're more like the Eli Jacobs Orioles, seemingly restricted from operating the way their revenues should allow.

Go back to last year, when they mishandled the Wally Williams talks. If they had kept their promise to extend Williams' contract, the team might not have crumbled as dramatically as it did, finishing 6-10.

Williams sulked, fellow lineman Orlando Brown sulked and the team's biggest strength became a weakness. Williams and Brown then signed lucrative free-agent deals with New Orleans and Cleveland, respectively.

The Ravens' response was to sign Swayne to a four-year, $13.2 million free-agent contract with a $5 million signing bonus. It was the least they could do, considering they had the league's second-lowest payroll last season, and their four highest-paid players -- Michael Jackson, Williams, Jim Harbaugh and Brown -- are no longer with the team.

Again, no one is advocating that the Ravens spend haphazardly and return to salary-cap jail. But here's a team with severe offensive deficiencies and a new offensive-minded head coach. And many of its free-agent signings were for $400,000, the five-year veteran minimum.

The $400,000 Club includes running back Steve Broussard and receivers Webster Slaughter and Qadry Ismail. Receiver Billy Davis would become another member if he signs.

From there, the Ravens moved from studio apartments to two-bedrooms, while other teams continued building mansions around them.

Tight end Lovett Purnell got $500,000. Fullback Charles Evans received a three-year, $3 million deal. Quarterback Scott Mitchell signed a one-year deal for $3 million -- $500,000 more than Harbaugh received last season.

Creative as Billick might be, you can't win in this league without talent. The Ravens don't have enough on offense. And even on defense, they're probably not where they should be.

For a time, the Ravens talked about adding Marty Carter, a free-agent strong safety. But Carter, 29, wasn't going to accept $400,000. He signed a five-year, $15 million deal with Atlanta, receiving a $2.6 million signing bonus.

The Ravens eventually drafted cornerback Chris McAlister, enabling them to move Rod Woodson to safety. But that position is still a potential trouble spot -- Woodson is aging, Stevon Moore is nearly finished and Kim Herring has shoulder problems. Ah well, there's always Corey Harris, who signed for -- you guessed it -- $400,000.

The defensive line is another unit to watch. The Ravens lost defensive tackle James Jones to Detroit, and now face a critical negotiation with defensive end Michael McCrary, one of their most community-minded players and biggest stars.

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