Big step for Ravens, but no giant leap yet

January 02, 2000|By JOHN EISENBERG

The Ravens would love to beat the Patriots today at Foxboro Stadium and finish with a winning record for the first time since they moved to Baltimore. But the headline on their season is the same, win or lose.

It was a big success.

They finally broke their close-loss bugaboo, developed an identity, grew some confidence and raised a blip on the NFL's national radar this year.

They found out Brian Billick can coach, which is a good thing since he signed a six-year contract.

They found out their defense is good enough to dominate even playoff- caliber offenses, which few teams can say.

They didn't necessarily find their long-range answer at quarterback -- Tony Banks still needs to make fewer mistakes and become more consistent -- but he's probably going to sign a contract entrenching him as the starter and there's plenty of upside potential, which is all you can ask for given the sorry state of NFL quarterbacking.

Basically, after never winning more than six games in a season, the Ravens finally earned some respect this season. From the city. From the rest of the NFL.

A huge step.

But it doesn't mean they're assured of coming back as good or better next season.

It doesn't mean they're on the verge of becoming an elite team that motors right through the season to the playoffs.

Remember, the Ravens were just 1-6 against opponents with winning records this season, so let's not get too carried away with the positive spin.

They didn't make the playoffs. They mostly beat bad teams. Maybe it constituted a big step for them, but it wasn't in the grand scheme of NFL things. The league is full of teams that play well about half the time.

And though the fans certainly want to believe that the team's second-half surge is a steppingstone to better things and the team certainly is going to sell the idea heading into 2000, the reality is that things don't always work that way in NFL. Not anymore.

Not with free agency and the salary cap forcing teams to make a bundle of hard decisions every year and basically reinvent themselves every season.

If there's any lesson to take from this strangest of NFL seasons, it's that little remains constant from year to year in today's pro game. The Broncos, Falcons and Jets were on top a year ago. The Rams were on the bottom. Now, the opposite is true.

The Ravens had a terrific defense and a passable offense this season, but there's no telling what next season's reality will be, especially with almost two dozen free agents on the roster and all sorts of decisions, big and small, needing to be made.

Oh, sure, the nucleus of young Pro Bowl talent will be back, giving the Ravens as much right as any team to think playoffs.

And there's no denying that the progress made this season gives the Ravens a chance to do even better next season, which is better than having no chance, which was pretty much the case until now.

But the team is going to experience major changes before kicking off next season, major changes that will matter. Who knows how they'll play out?

What if another team gives Banks an offer he can't refuse? What if defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis gets hired as a head coach somewhere? What if there's a key injury?

The possibilities are so limitless that the only real lock for 2000 is that somehow, in some way -- in many more ways than one, actually -- the Ravens are going to change. The team you know now will vanish, replaced by a new incarnation with different chemistry, different issues, different positives, different negatives.

And the good things that happened this year will slowly dwindle into history.

In the long run, how the front office fares in the coming months will have a greater impact on 2000 than anything that happened in 1999. Can Billick, David Modell and Ozzie Newsome juggle the money, the draft picks and the delicate balance of subtraction and addition?

That's a more devilish question. Billick is a good coach, certainly, but his skills as a talent evaluator aren't as proven (Scott Mitchell?). Newsome's drafts have delivered little below the top rounds. And, of course, there's no GM with long-range vision. Yeah, remember that problem?

Strong, young talent and quality coaching enabled the Ravens to overcome any institutional shortcomings this season, and Steve Bisciotti's bailout of Art Modell certainly gives the front office more money to work with at last.

After an upbeat season such as the one that ends today, it's impossible not to look to the future and see what the Ravens could become: a contender instead of a pretender.

But don't be fooled. Getting there isn't nearly as easy as it looks.

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