The NFL has suspended Ravens starting defensive tackle Larry Webster indefinitely pending an appeal for violation of the league's substance and alcohol abuse policy, according to league sources. Webster, who has tested positive on at least three other occasions, could be suspended for more than a year if he loses the appeal.
Webster, 31, did not return phone calls to his home yesterday. A league source said had been prohibited from working out at the team's training facility in Owings Mills until his case is heard at a yet-to-be determined date in New York. Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle Leon Lett received an eight-game suspension for his fifth violation last fall, but the league is expected to come down harder on its next offender.
"With the current problems facing the league involving players such as Ray Lewis and Rae Carruth, it would be fair to assume that unless he wins the appeal, he will probably face a very harsh penalty," said the league source.
Both Ravens coach Brian Billick and Ozzie Newsome, the team's vice president of player personnel, declined to comment about Webster but a long-term suspension could have major effects on the team that had the No. 2-ranked defense in the league last season.
Webster has a troubled history in the league. His last suspension was for the entire 1996 season after he admitted to consuming a beer at his bachelor party two nights before he was married. Players are not allowed to drink any alcohol after one violation.
Twice before he reportedly tested positive for marijuana when he was with the Miami Dolphins and later during the 1995 season with the Cleveland Browns, when he was suspended for six games. According to league policy, Webster was subject to up to 10 urine tests a month at the direction of the NFL medical adviser.
Despite his clean record the last three seasons, several sources close to Webster believed his past problems caused teams not to pursue the former University of Maryland star and Elkton native when free agency opened in February.
The Ravens, though, signed Webster to a three-year deal worth $5 million on Feb. 15, which was to include a $1.5 million signing bonus. According to a team source, Webster already has received $400,000 of the signing bonus, which he'll have to repay if he doesn't play during the 2000 season. If Webster cannot repay the money, then the Ravens will be allowed the $400,000 in additional salary cap room.
The team also will retain Webster's rights if he is suspended, but the team will release him if he loses the appeal, according to a league source. Webster, 6 feet 5 and 305 pounds, was one of the team's unsung heroes last season. He became a full-time starter for the first time in his seven-year career and finished with 44 tackles. More importantly, he combined with defensive tackle Tony Siragusa to keep offensive linemen off Pro Bowl middle linebacker Ray Lewis, who came to Webster's defense in contract negotiations with the team last winter.
But now the run defense, ranked No. 2 in the league allowing 76.9 yards a game, is suspect. Besides Webster, Lewis' status is questionable stemming from two murder charges he faces in connection with the stabbing deaths of two men outside an Atlanta nightclub the morning after the Super Bowl in January.
Siragusa still has a year left on his contract but wants an extension before the 2000 season begins. There is the possibility he might hold out of training and he would gain some leverage if Webster gets suspended.
If the Ravens had to play today, Siragusa and third-year player Lional Dalton would be the starters with third-year player Martin Chase as the top reserve. Dalton showed progress last season, has solid potential and has been active in the team's off-season workout program, but the Ravens are not sure he can survive a full 16-game schedule.
Dalton had 32 tackles last season while Chase was inactive in all but three games.
The Ravens, apparently aware of Webster's situation last week, have been in contact with Seattle Seahawks unrestricted free-agent defensive tackle Sam Adams and are expecting a visit from the six-year veteran this week.
Adams, 6-3, 300 pounds, had an outstanding start last season but sprained his knee in the seventh game and then missed the next 3 1/2 contests. Adams finished with 38 tackles, including two sacks and two batted-down passes. Adams has spent his entire career with the Seahawks, and seemed to have a breakout year in 1996 when he started 15 of 16 games and had 5.5 sacks. Adams had seven sacks in 1997 when he started all 16 games.
According to published reports, Adams has had visits to Cincinnati and Green Bay canceled after the clubs learned of his contract demands. Adams initially wanted a five- to seven-year contract worth $5 million per season. The Ravens won't be willing to pay that much, according to a team source, but would have Webster's salary available if he gets suspended.