THE CIRCUS is coming to town in 28 days.
That's when the Ravens open training camp at Western Maryland College, and the national media will descend upon Westminster to see if one of the NFL's most hated teams can win a second straight Super Bowl title.
But unlike previous years, the most pressing question about the Ravens won't have to do with position battles or game-day strategies.
It's about distractions, both external and internal. Can the ringmaster, "P. T." Billick, still allow his players to have certain liberties without turning the 2001 season into disaster?
During the off-season, the Ravens have been as entertaining as they were on the field in 2000. They've taken care of business, signing free agents such as quarterback Elvis Grbac and offensive tackle Leon Searcy, and re-signing such key players as fullback Sam Gash and linebackers Jamie Sharper and Cornell Brown. The team also picked up college football's top tight end - Arizona State's Todd Heap - with its No. 1 selection in the April draft.
But the Ravens can't get their coach off TV long enough to take a fishing trip, and their top run-stopping defensive tackle can find more time to negotiate a TV deal than to work out. The team's Owings Mills training complex has turned into a landing strip for players and coaches.
The Air National Guard doesn't have as many helicopters as the Ravens.
Did you hear about the team's new singing group, the Prima Donnas, starring Rod Woodson, Ray Lewis and Shannon Sharpe? Don't buy a ticket, though. They keep canceling performances.
Maybe I'm a little overly concerned. After all, coach Brian Billick's two major assets are organization and leadership. Billick was not around to ease my concerns yesterday.
As a matter of fact, the last time I saw Billick, ESPN's Andrea Kremer and cameras were following him, New York Giants coach Jim Fassel and their families around on board a boat in the New York Harbor.
Isn't anything private anymore?
So now I'm wondering if the Compu-Coach can't handle this success thing, either.
Billick is possibly the most accessible coach in professional sports and deserves everything he has gotten out of winning the Super Bowl: his book, the $25,000-a-pop speaking engagements and at least $1 million a season because of fulfilled incentives.
But allowing HBO into the training camp locker rooms to film a documentary?
That raised a few eyebrows a couple of weeks ago, when it was announced. Players often consider the locker room a refuge, and what goes on inside is supposed to stay inside. Now it's going to be shown nationwide.
Secondly, HBO might not have enough microphones for these chirping Ravens. Goose. Shannon. Billick. They've never met a notebook they couldn't fill. But extensive air time also can cause jealousy, especially for young players such as cornerback Chris McAlister, a time bomb who could explode at any moment. Tick, tick, tick, tick ...
"Brian is going to have to be careful with this thing, because if we start losing early, he is going to hear from all ends of the earth," said one Ravens official.
The national media can't wait to stick it to Billick. Put a bull's-eye on his back. They've been salivating on their notebooks since January, when Billick called them "ambulance chasers" and lectured them about how to do their jobs at the Super Bowl.
Great stuff, but the media never forget.
They have already been loading the ammunition. Two of the Prima Donnas showed up late, and one didn't appear at all, for a recent minicamp. Rod showed up late because of a previous business engagement. Ray came a day late but didn't practice because a toe hurt. Shannon didn't post at all because he is Shannon.
Meanwhile, Billick allowed Goose to leave minicamp early because of a business trip that included bear hunting in Nova Scotia.
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Greatest Show on Earth ...
Seriously, though, you know the Prima Donnas and Goose will deliver on game day, but their absences irritated several coaches and players. It wasn't a positive message to the younger guys.
In a way, it's kind of fun stuff. It just adds to the team's bad-boy image. On a franchise that has had one of the most vocal owners ever, Art Modell is now the choirboy. Imagine that. Art Modell. Quiet.
It will be interesting to see what happens in training camp. There are questions about Grbac putting some zip into the offense and how long will it take for second-year receiver Travis Taylor (great minicamp) to replace starter Qadry Ismail. And how much will the offensive line improve with Searcy? Who will emerge as the No. 2 running back behind Jamal Lewis? How long can Sharpe hold off Heap?
But first of all, Billick has to tighten the reins, get this team refocused. The Ravens are still one of the most talented teams in the NFL, and just because this season will start out as a circus doesn't mean the team can't win another Super Bowl.
Or does it?