Lewis mess taints team's finest hour

February 18, 2000|By Ken Rosenthal

The shame of it is, this should be the Ravens' finest hour. They've signed Shannon Sharpe to the biggest free-agent contract in team history. They've re-signed Tony Banks, Larry Webster and Rob Burnett. ESPN The Magazine actually considers them a Super Bowl sleeper next season.

Finally, it appears the Ravens are on the verge of a breakthrough, the dawning of a new age. But their steady upward climb isn't what attracted live national television coverage yesterday from the team's practice facility in Owings Mills.

The cameras were there for Ray Lewis. And even as the Ravens announce signing after signing, displaying both football acumen and newfound financial muscle, they can't escape the reality that their best player is charged with double murder.

Lewis extended his sympathies to the victims' families, apologized to his family, friends and supporters, adamantly proclaimed his innocence. Team president David Modell nodded at him solemnly as he left the podium. Director of player development Earnest Byner tapped him on the shoulder.

It was a made-for-television event, but not quite a Ravens event, even with owner Art Modell, vice president of player personnel Ozzie Newsome and head coach Brian Billick in attendance. Lewis appeared before a stark purple backdrop. The team logo was nowhere to be found.

Lewis, 24, is innocent until proven guilty, and ultimately might be cleared of all six counts against him. But just when the taint surrounding this franchise's move from Cleveland appeared to be fading, along comes this other taint, one that could linger for some time, and cannot simply be spun away.

For the first time yesterday, the Ravens conceded they might need a middle linebacker to replace Lewis, who could be on trial when the season starts, or even back in jail. The team didn't announce its intentions directly, mind you. But Billick warned the media that the acquisition of a linebacker should not be interpreted as a judgment on Lewis -- a point so obvious, it barely needed to be stated.

As recently as last week, David Modell said, "Ray Lewis is our middle linebacker," as if that ended the discussion. But now that a timetable is starting to unfold, it's clear that Lewis might be unavailable, and that the Ravens need to protect themselves. They'd be foolish not to pursue a linebacker, especially when they've come this far.

Banks returned as the team's starting quarterback last night, signing a four-year, $18.6 million contract. The Ravens have committed at least $12.5 million in signing bonuses to four players in the first week of free agency -- a marked step forward for an organization that was busy assembling the $400,000 Club a year ago.

Is the addition of minority investor Steve Bisciotti making that much of a difference? Well, David Modell did not deny that the Bisciotti money creates greater financial flexibility. But Modell said the Ravens also are running their business better after reorganizing their front office last July, and starting their free-agent planning in November.

At last, it's all coming together -- the Ravens are in a sounder financial position, and they also seem to be following a plan. They haven't done anything reckless, like trading two first-round picks for the smallish Joey Galloway and paying him a $12 million signing bonus. Every move seems to make football, financial and salary-cap sense.

The Ravens' only loss to this point was backup offensive lineman Everett Lindsay to Cleveland, and they quickly replaced him with Kipp Vickers. They might next lose cornerback DeRon Jenkins, but he plays a position occupied by two first-round draft picks, Duane Starks and Chris McAllister.

It stands to reason that there will be other defections from the Ravens' initial list of 19 unrestricted and nine restricted free agents. But they've kept three starters and added another while virtually ensuring that two more -- restricted free agents Jamie Sharper and Jeff Mitchell -- will return.

The big question now is what will happen at running back, where the Ravens could lose either Errict Rhett and/or Priest Holmes. But should club officials even be concerned? Holmes is a restricted free agent who can be retained by matching any offer. And the Ravens could always take a running back with one of their two top 15 picks in the draft.

Several mock drafts project the Ravens selecting Michigan State wide receiver Plaxico Burress at No. 5, but what if Burress goes at No. 4 to Cincinnati or a team that trades up for the pick? The Ravens then would be left with Virginia running back Thomas Jones, who could merely turn out to be a superstar.

If the Ravens do get Burress, they probably will have a chance to draft a running back at either No. 14 or 15 -- either Alabama's Shaun Alexander or Wisconsin's Ron Dayne. If Alexander is gone and the Ravens aren't sold on Dayne as a breakaway threat, they could draft for another need or trade down to gain extra picks.

Whatever happens, they're in an enviable position, and if not for the uncertainty surrounding Lewis, the entire town would be electrified by the team's ever-brightening future.

Alas, it's impossible to separate one from the other.

This should be the Ravens' finest hour. And the moment is impossible to savor.

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