Rhett bids to rise from '98's ashes

August 03, 1999|By Ken Rosenthal

Errict Rhett likes to play chess with Priest Holmes, "five hours a day, five hours a night." He never imagined that his younger teammate would checkmate him last season, both on and off the field.

Former coach Ted Marchibroda held all the pieces, making Holmes his knight and Rhett his pawn. Rhett started the Ravens' first two games, then was unable to make a move.

Standing shirtless in the end zone at Western Maryland College after yesterday's morning practice, the six-year veteran recalled his failure to connect with Marchibroda, and spoke of a new beginning under Brian Billick.

"I don't have a tear left to cry," Rhett said.

He is more subdued in this camp, no longer holding out the ball to reporters and shouting, "I'm the best damn running back in the NFL!" At this point, all Rhett wants is a chance to be the best running back on his team.

A year ago, Rhett, Jim Harbaugh and Roosevelt Potts were the Ravens' major off-season acquisitions on offense. Only Rhett remains, and he's second to Holmes -- the Ravens' first 1,000-yard rusher -- on the depth chart.

He's still only 28. He has carried the ball only 75 times the past two seasons. As Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens' vice president of player personnel, said: "He should have a lot of football left in him."

That is, if he can prove himself to Billick.

He never did to Marchibroda.

Rhett beat out Jay Graham in training camp, accounted for 92 all-purpose yards against Pittsburgh, then was benched in the second quarter against the New York Jets, finishing with 24 carries in his final 14 games.

What happened?

"We play in a division with two teams that have sophisticated blitz packages," Newsome said, referring to Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. "According to the people that were responsible for him, he did not have a clear understanding of who his pickups were."

Rhett disputes that assessment.

"I never gave up a sack -- never," he said. "I never let a linebacker beat me. Believe me, it was nothing but excuses. I heard [Marchibroda] didn't like the way I talk, that he really wasn't into loud people, getting the team hyped. I heard plenty of things, so many excuses."

Well, Billick offers Rhett a fresh start. But the new coach warned yesterday that all of his backs will need to be complete players, proficient not just at running, but at blocking and receiving, too.

"Errict has to show that he can manipulate the offense, that he can do it all, not only run the ball, but catch the ball out of the backfield, be a sound protection guy, if not overly physically, then mentally, knowing who it is he's supposed to take care of," Billick said.

"All of our backs are at that level where they have to be complete backs. We don't have anybody -- and very few teams do -- that you can put in and say, `Hey, this guy is such an incredible runner, I don't care what else he does.' "

Rhett certainly isn't at that level, but he was a 1,000-yard rusher in his first two seasons with Tampa Bay. It appeared that he had a solid future. But a 94-day contract holdout in 1996 sent his career into a downward spiral.

Everything was supposed to change with the Ravens, who acquired him for a third-round pick on Feb. 17, 1998. But Holmes took over as the starter in Week 4, and Rhett described his season of inactivity as "devastating."

"There were plenty of days I broke down and cried about it. I didn't understand why. I just prayed about the situation, that hopefully it would get better," Rhett said.

"I just wanted some kind of justification [from Marchibroda], but I never got it. Nobody really knew. I just heard poor excuse after poor excuse.

"I really wasn't his type -- mentally, physically, I don't know. But I stayed ready. And I thank him. Maybe he saved my career. I look at it that way. I take the positive out of it, not the negative. Who knows what can happen in this sport?"

Not Rhett, and certainly not Holmes, the undrafted free agent who rose from a special teams player to a No. 1 back in the same division as Jerome Bettis, Eddie George, Corey Dillon and Fred Taylor.

"It's like a pendulum. And it swings. At any given moment, it can be right back on his side, or right back on my side," Holmes said. "But that's life. The pendulum is constantly swinging. The times it's with you, you've got to take advantage of it."

Holmes did and Rhett didn't, so here they are, Nos. 1 and 2 in the Ravens' plans. Rhett no longer is referring to his "heart of gold and mind of steel," no longer proclaiming, "I'm like a thoroughbred in a barn. You can't hold me back!"

But he still believes.

The first line of his biography in the Ravens' media guide -- " [Rhett] hopes to see more action after just starting two games last season" -- might be the understatement of training camp.

"I'm just trying to take a new approach, concentrate on what I have to do, stay focused," Rhett said. "I still have the same energy. I'm always ready to go."

Camp update

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