`Goose' not only Raven on way out

Cap puts Woodson, Burnett, Sharpe at risk

Pro Football

January 06, 2002|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

For three Ravens veterans, tomorrow night's focus is playoffs, not send-offs.

Heading into the regular-season finale - and perhaps their final game at PSINet Stadium - questions of retirement and the Ravens' pending salary cap crunch have clouded the futures of tight end Shannon Sharpe, safety Rod Woodson and defensive end Rob Burnett.

But their present goal is clear: look to repeat now and worry about returning later.

"I've tried not to think about it," Sharpe said, "because I don't want any distractions to take away from what the team ultimately wants to do."

With a playoff berth potentially on the line, the Ravens (9-6) play host to the crumbling Minnesota Vikings (5-10) in the city's first Monday Night Football game in more than two decades. Before a national television audience, only defensive tackle Tony Siragusa, who announced his retirement Thursday, is definitely taking his final regular-season bow.

Sharpe, 33, and Burnett, 34, will contemplate retirement after the season, and Woodson, 36, has put his fate in the Ravens' hands.

"I'm not going to retire," said Woodson, the team's third-leading tackler, who has three interceptions and 12 passes broken up. "If they cut me, then it's my last game here. I think I'm still being productive on the football field. Really, it's up to the team if they're going to keep me or not."

That decision will not be an easy one for the Ravens. The defending Super Bowl champions are reportedly $20 million over next season's salary cap and will need to cut players or restructure several contracts to get under that $72 million ceiling by March.

If all three veterans want to return, can the Ravens fit them under their cap?

"Potentially, yes," said Ozzie Newsome, the senior vice president of football operations. "But our cap situation is bigger than one or two individual players."

That imposing cap burden could be lessened if the Houston Texans select a couple of Ravens in February's expansion draft.

Ultimately, the Ravens will have to restructure deals, with Sharpe, Woodson and Burnett as likely targets. In addition to those veterans, the team has to determine which way it will go with high-priced defensive end Michael Mc- Crary, who is on injured reserve after knee surgery.

If those players choose not to have their contracts reworked, the Ravens may be forced to release them. Moving on to another team is an outcome that has begrudgingly crossed the mind of Sharpe.

"Obviously, if I'm not ready to hang it up and coming back here is not a possibility, maybe I would pursue another option," Sharpe said. "I've said that I really wanted to play for only two teams. Hopefully, it doesn't come down to a situation where I have to make a decision like that."

As far as possible retirement goes, Sharpe said he will make his decision a month after the Ravens' final game.

This season has taken a visible toll on Sharpe. In a year in which he broke the NFL record for receptions and receiving yards by a tight end, he has had more pains than triumphs, battling problems with both knees.

His injuries have kept him from practicing for most of the year and have limited him to 70 percent on game days. He likely will need surgery after the season.

"If I had been healthy this whole year, this conversation about retirement would not be happening," said Sharpe, who is tied with Kansas City's Tony Gonzalez for the most receptions in the league by a tight end this season.

"Because I've been injured and haven't been able to come back as fast I would have liked, I don't want to go through another year like I've gone through this year. But maybe I'm speaking more out of frustration right now."

The other factor is whether Sharpe is willing to maintain his extreme off-season training regimen.

Since 1993, he has cut his weight down 2 pounds every year to keep his speed as he gets older. That means Sharpe - who has been known to weigh as much as 260 pounds some off-seasons - will have to come into training camp next season at 226 pounds.

"When you're talking about somebody my size taking in 2,500 calories a day with the amount of energy I'm exerting out, it becomes pretty taxing on your body," Sharpe said. "Then you ask yourself, `Do you want to do this? Is it really worth putting your body through this?' "

While Sharpe is wavering on his return, his teammates are not.

"He's not going to retire," said Woodson, one of Sharpe's closest friends on the team. "Do you believe what he says every week?"

Injuries have wreaked havoc on Burnett, too. In a span of four months, he has strained his groin muscle, broken a hand and severely pulled his left calf muscle.

After 97 tackles and a team-high 10 1/2 sacks in last season's Super Bowl campaign, Burnett has seen the injuries decrease his production this season to 46 tackles and no sacks. His absence has allowed for the development of second-year end Adalius Thomas and increased the talk of retirement surrounding Burnett.

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