Legand of the fall

Football: New Ravens tight end Shannon Sharpe can talk trash on and off the field and he enjoys personal accolades, but make no mistake, he is about winning, as his two Super Bowl rings can attest.

July 28, 2000|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

At the height of the Denver Broncos' glory years, Shannon Sharpe, the best tight end of the 1990s, donned a white foam horsehead and galloped around a locker room filled with players and reporters.

That improbable scene unfolded two years ago, after the Broncos dismantled the New York Jets in the AFC championship game, en route to their second straight Super Bowl victory.

Few players would have celebrated in such a flamboyant manner. Fewer still would have gotten away with it.

It is a scene the Ravens hope to recreate in the next few years, only in feathered wings instead of horsehead.

It was for that end that the Ravens signed Sharpe, at age 32, to a four-year, $13.2 million contract last February.

Forget Ozzie Newsome's receiving records, although assuredly Sharpe wants to own those. Forget Sharpe's reputation as the game's pre-eminent trash talker, which most certainly he is.

Sharpe is about winning, first and foremost. And in Baltimore, he sees the chance to achieve a defining moment in a career bound for the Hall of Fame.

"I'm not here to go to another Pro Bowl, although that would be nice," he said. "I'm not here to make another All-Pro team, although that would be nice.

"I'm here to try to get the Baltimore Ravens to the playoffs and go from there. That's my sole purpose for being here. If I get to the Pro Bowl, that's fine. If I make All-Pro, that's fine. But if I get the Ravens into the playoffs, that would say more about who I am, the player that I am, than if I make it to the Pro Bowl."

This is a match made in Brian Billick's playbook utopia. The Ravens' coach lacked a tight end capable of catching a cold last season. This year, he's got the two best pass-catching tight ends of the past decade, albeit slightly past their prime.

Billick drools over the idea of getting Sharpe singled up on a linebacker, or split out wide - with Coates - in a four-wide-out look.

"I'm looking forward to that," Billick said. "The biggest thing coming out of training camp is for Tony Banks, and to a degree Trent Dilfer, getting to a comfort zone with what Shannon and Ben are about, and getting that kind of sixth sense that a quarterback has with his receivers. Particularly guys whose primary job is in the intermediate area."

Banks acknowledged his progression of reads has been revised.

"The tight end wasn't even involved in [the progression] last year," he said. "But now we start with Shannon."

They may finish with him, too. In 10 seasons, Sharpe caught 44 touchdown passes. He knows how to find the end zone. He knows his way in the red zone.

For 10 years in Denver, he knew John Elway's offense better than any other receiver.

"The thing that really helped in Denver, I knew where everybody was supposed to be," Sharpe said. "I knew when I took off if I'd get the ball or not. I want it to be the same way here."

His career at Denver ended in a shroud of suspicion. After breaking his collarbone in October, he went on injured reserve and never came off. At a time when the Elway-less Broncos were in retreat, there were whispers Sharpe was a distraction.

Worse yet, he was the only Bronco in the final year of his contract that the team didn't re-sign. In a bizarre twist, the loquacious Sharpe stopped speaking to the media. He knew it was time to go.

"Maybe some people did think I was a distraction," he says. "I stopped talking because I felt it was in the best interests of all parties. Was it hard? No, it wasn't hard. It was very easy, because I only played four games."

When it came time to pick a new team, Sharpe phoned Ravens right tackle Harry Swayne, a Super Bowl teammate in Denver. The scouting report he got passed Sharpe's test.

"Most of the conversation was about the organization," Swayne said. "He knew there were a lot of similarities between the two teams, how they do things. Even Denver knows this team is organized and goes about getting players ready for games much like we did there. It wasn't just the plays they ran, it was a system, a Wednesday through the day before the game day."

Sharpe wanted a system that didn't beat up its players through two-a-days in training camp.

"I'm going into my 11th year and I can't take the pounding like some team do every day with two practices," Sharpe said. "I could have gone somewhere, got some [more] money and do what? Be hurting all training camp because they pound me and beat me up.

"This was my first choice. I knew what type of [offensive] mind Brian had. I knew what he could do for the tight end position. And everything else just worked out well."

One week into camp, Sharpe provides the Ravens with veteran leadership they've lacked on offense, even if it's been unusually low-key. The man who is 111 catches away from breaking Newsome's all-time receiving record for tight ends, who can talk up a Super Bowl storm is leading with quiet wisdom.

"What I did the last 10 years was for the Broncos," Sharpe said. "I haven't done anything for the Ravens yet. Why should they listen to me? I think the thing for me to do is come out here and be as productive as I possibly can early on, and once the season starts go from there, let my actions speak."

His colorful, sometimes inflammatory words will follow.

"One thing I told Brian in the interview was I have to be me," Sharpe said. "My personality is part of who I am. I've got to have fun."

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