Fans often swallow dose of bad news

April 11, 2000|By Ken Rosenthal

Heaven forbid a Baltimore sports fan become too excited over the Orioles' 5-1 start or the Ravens' potential to improve with two top 15 draft picks.

In every city across America, knowledgeable sports fans brace themselves whenever there is good news, knowing that bad news is never far behind.

The news isn't all bad on Ravens defensive tackle Larry Webster, not yet. He still could win his appeal, and avoid a third suspension for violating the NFL's substance- and alcohol-abuse policy.

But even if that happens, the decision won't come before Saturday, when the Ravens face a critical juncture in franchise history with the fifth and 15th picks in the NFL draft.

The potential loss of Webster probably won't deter the Ravens from selecting two players who could help upgrade their offense to the level of their defense, which last season ranked No. 2 in the NFL.

But now two players at the heart of the team's AFC-leading run defense -- Webster and middle linebacker Ray Lewis -- might not be with the team for part or all of next season.

A league source said Webster will be released if he loses his appeal -- he already has violated the NFL's drug policy three times, an unmistakable pattern that not even a forgiving owner like Art Modell can ignore.

Lewis, meanwhile, could face disciplinary action by the NFL even if he is found not guilty of assault and murder in connection with the stabbing deaths of Jacinth Baker and Richard Lollar on Jan. 31 in Atlanta.

The Ravens remain confident that Lewis will be exonerated, and that the league will refrain from further action. But there's no way to know for sure, and the draft is five days away.

Once upon a time, NFL personnel men tried to evaluate the best players. Now they must also evaluate who might get arrested and suspended, and how it might impact their roster.

The latest question for the Ravens is whether to take a closer look at Florida State defensive tackle Corey Simon, whose 41-inch vertical jump was better than any wide receiver showed at the NFL combine.

A source with the team said no, but the idea is at least legitimate now.

Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens' vice president of player personnel, has described the 6-foot-2, 297-pound Simon as one of the six best players in the country. Phil Savage, the team's scouting director, has called Simon and Virginia running back Thomas Jones the two best character players in the draft.

Drafting for character?

At this point, it would be a welcome move.

Simon wants to be the next Warren Sapp, and the Ravens could work him into a rotation with Tony Siragusa, Lional Dalton and Martin Chase. They then could add a receiver like Jackson State's Sylvester Morris at No. 15 and a running back in the second round, for this draft is deep at both positions.

Not a ridiculous scenario. But the Ravens have used four straight first-round picks on defensive players, and drafting Simon probably would be an overreaction.

Webster, 31, is a solid player who fits nicely in defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis' schemes, but it's not as if he dominates games. The Ravens could replace him with a veteran free agent like Sam Adams, and increase their defensive depth in the lower rounds.

If Webster loses his appeal, he could be suspended for more than a year, and would need to repay the Ravens $400,000 of the $1.5 million signing bonus he received under his new contract. If he couldn't repay the money, the Ravens will be allowed $400,000 in additional salary-cap room.

Still, the loss of Webster could prove costly in other ways.

It could force the Ravens into a contract extension for Siragusa, who turns 33 next month and has a history of weight and injury problems. It also could increase the price for Adams, who would look to benefit from his improved leverage.

To think, Webster has been perhaps the Ravens' biggest success story, a local kid who became a star at the University of Maryland, then put his life back together after being suspended by the NFL for the entire 1996 season.

He has traveled to schools in the off-season to talk about the problems associated with using drugs. He also has visited the Maryland Department of Corrections in Jessup, trying to serve as a positive example for prisoners.

"Some people talk about changing their ways and never do," Newsome said in November. "With Larry, we've seen a great deal of humility since the suspension. He's been a very heartwarming story."

Maybe Webster will win his appeal and come back stronger than ever. Or maybe this is the end of a career that appeared to leave him set for life when he signed his new, three-year, $5 million contract.

The Ravens feature other players worthy of emulation -- Peter Boulware, Priest Holmes and Qadry Ismail, to name three. At their best, professional sports can still leave fans entertained, thrilled, even inspired.

Still, it's always something, in Baltimore and every other city. A star player who might leave as a free agent. An arena or stadium that needs built. A police blotter littered with familiar names from local teams.

How do fans even take it anymore?

They can barely savor the good news.

The bad news is never far behind.

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