Ravens have super model to follow

January 25, 2000|By Ken Rosenthal

Now the Ravens can see how close they are. The St. Louis Rams were 4-12 last season. The Tennessee Titans were 8-8 each of the previous three years.

A series of shrewd off-season moves can dramatically alter a team's fortunes, and the Ravens finally appear in a favorable position coming off the best season in team history.

The question now is whether the management team headed by vice president of player personnel Ozzie Newsome can navigate through uncharted territory to lift the Ravens into the playoffs.

The Ravens believe that they've got the proper structure in place, with Newsome serving as the principal decision-maker, and coach Brian Billick helping frame the organization's vision.

Owner Art Modell appears less involved with personnel decisions. Team president David Modell appears comfortable allowing the football men more latitude. Newsome and Billick meet over breakfast each morning and appear to have forged an effective working relationship.

"I could not have imagined Ozzie Newsome and I working as well together as quickly as we have," Billick said. "It would have been unrealistic to think that could come together as quickly as it did."

But now comes the test.

The Ravens own two of the top 15 draft picks for the first time in their history. Once Stephen Bisciotti is approved as a minority investor, they also expect to compete on a level financial playing field for the first time.

Bisciotti will have the option to purchase the rest of the team in four years, and he has said that he plans to exercise it. If the Ravens succeed, he probably will retain Newsome and Billick. But if they do not, he could restructure the entire football operation.

Such is life in the NFL -- Newsome has experienced it as a player and executive, Billick as a coach and in various other capacities. The difference now is that they soon might be accountable to an owner other than Modell, whose management style has yet to land him in the Super Bowl.

Modell has operated without a general manager ever since Ernie Accorsi left the Cleveland Browns in 1992. Modell granted former coach Bill Belichick and personnel director Mike Lombardi wide- ranging power over personnel, but since coming to Baltimore in 1996, he has gradually shifted that control to Newsome.

"If you look at our situation, I don't carry the so-called general manager's title," Newsome said. "But when it comes to the acquisition of talent, putting value on what the talent is worth, all of that falls under me."

Newsome does not possess a classic GM's authority. He and David Modell made the joint decision to hire Billick. Like Ted Marchibroda before him, Billick appears to have significant input on personnel decisions. But under David Modell, the Ravens seem to be moving closer to a standard NFL model.

"What we do -- and frankly, what other teams do -- is a team effort," David Modell said. "Ozzie is obviously a very valuable member of that team. The composition of this football team is his responsibility. Even though Art and I might sit around and talk about it -- say, `Are you sure about this? Are you sure about that?' -- it's Ozzie's call."

But by design, Billick has influence.

"The head coach is not bashful," Modell said. "Nor is he quiet in his decibel volume or word volume. I say that very affectionately. If the head coach feels appropriately compelled about an individual, you can be sure there will be a spirited discussion. I think that's very healthy. It's a vital part of the process."

Billick said that absolute control is "not something that would necessarily intrigue me." But he doesn't necessarily advocate a strong GM like Tennessee's Floyd Reese or Green Bay's Ron Wolf. He likes the Ravens' middle ground.

"People have the concept that there has to be a singular guy, an all-encompassing power that has unilateral control of every aspect," Billick said. "For us, I like these checks and balances. That's exactly what we have -- a checks-and-balances system, so we're not arbitrary about what we do."

Still, Billick said there are certain instances when time constraints do not allow for extended discussions. A case in point occurred last draft day, when defending NFC champion Atlanta offered its first-round pick in 2000 for the Ravens' second-rounder in 1999.

Billick and director of college scouting Phil Savage wanted to use the pick. Newsome decided to trade it, and the move turned out to be more brilliant than even he could have imagined. The Falcons collapsed, and their first-rounder turned into the No. 5 pick in the draft.

That incident was the exception. With most player decisions, Newsome and Billick reach a consensus. If they can not, the Modells would cast a deciding vote. But that has yet to happen, Billick said.

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