Gaining Phillips would throw Ravens for loss

July 12, 1999|By John Eisenberg

The Ravens aren't wrong to contemplate alternatives to Priest Holmes at running back, but Lawrence Phillips? Bringing him in would be a mistake. A bad idea instantly regretted. Are we making ourselves clear?

Given Phillips' troubled past and disappointing NFL career, it's more likely he'll become the Ravens' No. 1 headache than their No. 1 runner.

You'd think they'd understand, having barely survived the Bam Morris era.

Why they're even considering undertaking "Bam II: The Phantom Menace" is anyone's guess.

Actually, three other teams -- the Packers, 49ers and Bills -- also are eyeing Phillips, 24. It's an indication of how desperate teams can get when they feel they need a running back.

Maybe San Francisco, seeking a replacement for Garrison Hearst, will put enough cash on the table to save the Ravens from their own bad idea.

The Ravens saved themselves from Phillips once before when they passed over him to take Jonathan Ogden in the first round of the 1996 draft. It was a move that still ranks as one of the franchise's best decisions.

Bringing Phillips in now, three years hence, would be one of the worst.

A guy who constantly gets in trouble off the field is worth a gamble only if he is a superstar or shows signs of changing his ways -- and Phillips flunks both tests.

He's scheduled to meet with NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue later this week because of an incident last summer in which he pleaded no-contest to a misdemeanor battery charge after being accused of punching a woman at a nightclub in Miami.

Does that sound like someone who has cleaned up his act?

No, it sounds a lot like the same guy who dragged his college girlfriend down some stairs by the hair and later was convicted of driving under the influence, charged with disorderly conduct and sent to jail for 23 days for violating his probation. He also reportedly was fined 50 times in less than two seasons with the St. Louis Rams.

And the Ravens are talking about improving their overall team character?

As if that messy off-field history isn't enough, there's still no evidence that Phillips is anything other than one of the NFL's biggest on-field busts of the '90s.

Sure, he tore up the Big Eight while at Nebraska and recently tore up NFL Europe, a developmental league roughly equivalent to baseball's Double-A. But that just proves he can dominate inferior players.

Put him on the NFL's level playing field against athletes his equal, and he's mediocre. He gained only 3.3 yards a carry in his two seasons with the Rams and Dolphins, displaying little of the breakaway ability he had shown in college.

That Miami gave up on him was a particularly bad sign. Jimmy Johnson will put up with anyone's nonsense for a good performance in return. Obviously, he didn't get one with Phillips.

The spin on Phillips' latest comeback is that he's lost some bulk and regained his quickness. But anyone who buys that is chasing fool's gold.

The NFL as a whole doesn't make many glaring personnel mistakes; if you aren't in the league, you probably can't play. And Phillips hasn't played in the league since 1997. There's a reason.

Sure, there's always a chance, however slim, that he would turn himself around and become the 1,000-yard runner everyone expected. Knowing that, the gamble in giving him a minimum-salary, make-good contract would be fairly small and reasonable if you knew he wasn't going to give you headaches. But where has he not given his team headaches?

Of course, new Ravens coach Brian Billick, with his superior credentials as an offensive architect, believes he can resurrect careers. That's why Scott Mitchell and Tony Banks are his quarterbacks and veterans such as Eric Metcalf and Webster Slaughter were signed.

But those players have experienced relatively high peaks at some point in their careers, proving they belonged in the NFL. Phillips hasn't.

Signing him would be a counterpoint to the run of solid personnel moves the team has made lately.

Locking up guard Jeff Blackshear to a long-term contract was a good idea, as was the addition of free-agent receiver Billy Davis, who probably will start. Lovett Purnell, a tight end obtained in a trade from the Patriots, looks like a steal.

Between those players and other additions, such as Metcalf, Slaughter, Qadry Ismail and a handful of tight ends, at least Billick is giving himself options at the skill positions.

That he's even considering an alternative at running back is bad news for Holmes, who gained 1,008 yards as the starter in 1998, with some 40 percent coming in two games against the Bengals.

Holmes, entering his third pro season, is a quality person who works hard and deserves a chance, but he's small and still basically unproven, and Billick obviously is restless with the idea of handing him the ball-carrying load. Fair enough. Who knows if Holmes can become a consistently productive runner?

But the risks of bringing in Phillips as an alternative are far greater than any likely rewards. He's likely to become a headache for coaches, teammates, the front office -- everyone except opposition defenses. It's hard to imagine why the Ravens would bother.

Pub Date: 7/12/99

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