Packing punch at crunch time

Football: When the game is on the line, Ravens tight end Shannon Sharpe is a good bet to come up big.

November 30, 2001|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,SUN STAFF

Speaking on the same topic in separate areas and without any prodding, Ravens coach Brian Billick and tight end Shannon Sharpe both made references to Michael Jordan.

Billick directly compared what Sharpe does for the Ravens to what Jordan used to do for the Chicago Bulls, while Sharpe gingerly put himself in the same sentence with Jordan.

"All you have to do is see what he's done for us in the playoffs last year," Billick said. "If there was a play to be made, you knew who it was going to be. It's not like the defenses don't know it.

"You better put somebody on Jordan at the end of the game. You find that best player, and Shannon is that player for us."

The Jacksonville Jaguars could not find Sharpe on Sunday and paid for it by watching the seven-time Pro Bowler haul in the game-winning touchdown with 14 seconds left. Working from a spread formation, the Ravens matched Sharpe one-on-one with a safety, then watched anxiously as he outran his man to the back of the end zone, pulled down the pass, kept his feet in and proceeded to celebrate.

Going to Sharpe with the game on the line was as expected as it was seemingly unstoppable, a characteristic that marked Jordan's career - one in which he hit the final shot to win his last NBA title in 1998 before coming out of retirement this year.

And if the situation calls for it in Sunday's game against the Indianapolis Colts at PSINet Stadium, expect Sharpe to be calling for and getting the ball again.

"Ultimately, that is what made Michael Jordan," Sharpe said. "I'll never classify myself with Jordan, but he scored 30 points and when the game was on the line, he was not afraid to take the last shot, and not afraid to fail. That's how I am. I'm not afraid to say I want the ball in my hands."

The Ravens love getting it to him. In the 31 games he has played since signing as a free agent before the 2000 season, Sharpe has either scored the winning touchdown or come up with the biggest impact play eight times.

Remember, he is a 33-year-old tight end in the twilight of his career.

"That does not happen often," tight ends coach Wade Harman said. "Usually in the league, there are only one or two tight ends like that who can make a difference."

After playing in Denver for 10 seasons, Sharpe already had the reputation of being a money player before he signed with the Ravens. But he was admittedly in the shadow of quarterback John Elway and later running back Terrell Davis.

Now he is the most recognizable offensive name and undoubtedly the Ravens' go-to guy, taking everything he learned in Denver and manifesting it in his play today.

Looking back over his career, two incidents in particular stand out in making Sharpe the player he is for the Ravens. First, the good.

"The biggest play I made was in the [1997] AFC championship game against the [Pittsburgh] Steelers," Sharpe said. "We're on are own 20-yard line and it's third-and-6. We're up 24-21 [with under two minutes left], but the Steelers had clearly gained momentum. [Broncos quarterback] John [Elway] tells me to just go get open. If I dropped that pass, everything I would have accomplished up until that point is out. I caught 80, 90 balls that season, but the one that really mattered the most I was able to pull it down. Once you make that one big play, you feel you can make them all. And that's what's happened with me here."

Sharpe did not want a repeat of the feeling he felt six years ago when Elway looked to go to him.

"You have to fail sometimes in order to succeed, to get an appreciation of what it is like to be on the other side," he said. "I remember in 1991, I dropped a touchdown against the Raiders that would have given us home-field advantage throughout the playoffs [the Broncos eventually lost in Buffalo in the AFC championship game]. I can remember going home, saying, `If I ever get put in that situation again, I won't let that happen.' "

Sharpe still has to pause and compose himself before relaying that story - quite a reaction to something that happened 10 years ago. But such a perfectionist nature may help explain why he is the league-leader at his position in catches (56) and yards (623).

"He just knows the offense, the detail of the route and concept of the route that when we need a play, he knows how to set up guys, and he has the experience and know-how to get open," quarterback Elvis Grbac said. "You can say he's lucky in making big plays, but he visualizes that and understands that when a play is needed, he can make it because of the amount of time he puts in it and the experience he has."

Next for Ravens

Opponent: Indianapolis Colts

Site: PSINet Stadium

When: Sunday, 1 p.m.

TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WJFK (1300 AM), WQSR (102.7 FM)

Line: Ravens by 7

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