THE RAVENS ARE suggesting they took the high, moral ground on defensive tackle Larry Webster's return to the team, but they actually took the low road.
Coach Brian Billick announced Webster's return yesterday at the team's Owings Mills training facility after the former University of Maryland star's eight-game suspension for violation of the NFL's substance and alcohol abuse policy, his fourth offense.
Billick and owner Art Modell said that Webster had paid his debt and deserved another chance to make a living for his family in the NFL.
Nice try, fellas, but shame on both of you.
The truth is that the Ravens no longer wanted Webster, but sumo-wrestling type defensive tackles Tony Siragusa and Sam Adams, who are the best tandem in the league, have health problems that could become a major concern in the team's playoff bid down the stretch.
The Ravens needed another player to add depth, one who is better than No. 3 tackle Lional Dalton, and Webster was the perfect fit for the team's No. 1-ranked defense. He knows the Ravens' system from his days as a starter in 1999, and he came at the right financial price.
Last Feb. 15, the Ravens signed Webster to a three-year contract worth $5 million, including a $1.5 million signing bonus. He hasn't played a down yet for the Ravens, so the team figures to get its money's worth. They only have to pay Webster for the final six games, and if they didn't re-sign him, they would probably be out of the signing bonus.
Let's not kid ourselves. This is the team that gave Baltimore Bam Morris. This move is about economics and championships. In the era of free agency, the league has become a meat market for bargain-basement deals. The Ravens are getting one in Webster. If the Ravens didn't sign him, no one else in the league probably would have touched him unless it was in dire need of a defensive tackle. Like the Ravens.
"He paid the price, paid his fine and paid his debt to the NFL society by being inactive," Modell said yesterday. "I think we ought to be commended for giving him another chance."
You are wrong, Art, so very, very wrong.
Top Ravens officials were enraged when Webster tested positive for cocaine on Feb. 23, eight days after he received a partial payment of his signing bonus, and nearly a month after Pro Bowl linebacker Ray Lewis was indicted on double-murder charges. They felt he let down his teammates, the coaching staff and front-office personnel after they had allowed him to return from two previous suspensions.
But all that was forgotten yesterday. So was the marijuana that Webster twice tested positive for with the Miami Dolphins and the Cleveland Browns in the 1994 and 1995 seasons, and then the alcohol he consumed that led to a full year suspension in 1996.
All that mattered yesterday was that Webster, a fan and media favorite, was back in the locker room, and so was that giant, wall of a body that helped him register 44 tackles, including two sacks, in 1999.
"To have been through the stuff that I've been through, well, I just want to contribute to the team," said Webster, 31, a native of Elkton. "I want the fans that stuck with me to know I appreciate all their support and the letters they sent me. It feels good to be back."
Pardon me for not shedding tears of joy.
The average factory or construction worker wouldn't be allowed to test positive four times and keep his job.
Only in professional sports. If there is a need, everything else gets overlooked.
"Larry has made a mistake, he has paid a price for that mistake, to a degree that the league and the Baltimore Ravens are comfortable with," Billick said. "Hopefully, he has learned enough of life's lessons that he doesn't make this kind of mistake again."
Isn't four enough?
The Ravens gave Morris two more chances after he failed to learn life's lessons in Pittsburgh. Upon last check, he was serving time at a correctional institute in Kansas. The Ravens have had other players with off-the-field problems, including linebacker Cornell Brown and safety Ralph Staten.
When Billick cut Staten shortly after he was named coach here in February 1999, there was a belief that discipline had been restored. There was a belief that the Ravens were really serious about drafting high-character players.
But that doesn't seem to be the case. There was a sour taste left in the mouth of some fans after the Ray Lewis trial in the spring, and the return of Webster doesn't help the image of the Ravens or the league either.
This was a chance for the team to have taken the high road and waived Webster. Instead, Modell, Billick and Ozzie Newsome, the team's vice president of player personnel, all got their hands dirty on this one.
At least the Ravens are consistent with the motto of Newsome: "Right player, right price."
Yep, regardless of the circumstances.