Not glorious team, but good one

January 22, 2002|By Mike Preston

NOW THAT the season is complete and the emotion has started to subside from the Ravens' second-round playoff loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, it's time to put the 2001 season in perspective.

The Ravens had a successful season.

They finished 11-7, and lost to the team that will probably play the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI in New Orleans in about two weeks.

Oh, the Ravens had lots of luck, but with the exception of the dominating Steelers, which team didn't in the AFC playoffs? Is there any team luckier than the New England Patriots, who will play the Steelers on Sunday in the conference championship game?

But when you take into consideration that the Ravens lost numerous starters because of injuries, including star running back Jamal Lewis and right offensive tackle Leon Searcy before the season, and combine that with a tougher schedule and the challenge of being the defending champions, it was a good year.

Another glorious chapter in Baltimore sports history has come to a close because quite a few players who have been with the team during the past couple of seasons won't be on the 2002 roster, and one of the NFL's best defenses ever will be dismantled.

In the era of the salary cap, today's heroes are tomorrow's free agents.

The Ravens, with only 30 players under contract, are about $21 million over the salary cap, and that means some quality players will have to go. Even proven veterans such as safety Rod Woodson and defensive ends Rob Burnett and Michael McCrary might become salary cap casualties.

A top free agent such as cornerback Duane Starks will hit the open market, and aging players such as tight end Shannon Sharpe are contemplating retirement. Defensive tackle Tony Siragusa announced his retirement weeks ago.

"We will regroup, plain and simple," said Ravens coach Brian Billick. "We extended ourselves with a Super Bowl team thinking we could make another run. We got close, but not close enough.

"We are in a situation where clearly we are going to have to regroup a little as everyone does in one form or another. Clearly, there are going to be some changes."

Said Siragusa: "I think pretty much from what happened to us this year, we had a lot of injuries. It seemed like we struggled to keep going. It's not an easy road when you have injuries."

They played a big part. When Lewis went down with a knee injury five days after Searcy was declared out for the season with an arm injury, I wrote that Ravens fans should cancel their reservations to New Orleans. You can't replace a Lewis, the centerpiece of the offense, with waiver-wire fodder. You can't replace a Pro Bowl player like Searcy, no matter how old, with nomads like Kipp Vickers and Sammy Williams, even though Williams still has a large upside.

No one can say for sure that Lewis or Searcy would have led the Ravens to another Super Bowl appearance, but they would have made the offense more efficient and taken pressure off quarterback Elvis Grbac. Searcy and Lewis were just the beginning of the injury parade that included McCrary, Siragusa, Burnett, defensive tackle Sam Adams, running backs Terry Allen and Jason Brookins and Grbac.

According to a survey compiled by the Sun-Sentinel of South Florida, Ravens starters missed a total of 54 games during the regular season. The only other team to reach the 50 mark was the Miami Dolphins.

A year ago, the Ravens were basically injury-free.

But injuries were just part of the problem. The Ravens got fat heads during the off-season. Almost everyone on the team seemed to have a radio or TV show, including Lional Dalton, a backup defensive tackle.

A backup?

Siragusa became a walking billboard for himself. HBO took the nation inside the Ravens' training camp with the Hard Knocks series.

That should have never happened, but overcoming distractions is part of being the defending world champions.

On the field, Billick never found an identity for the offense. Let's call it MIA. Grbac crumpled like aluminum foil under pressure, and the right side of the offensive line was a carousel. Allen ran hard, but the disgruntled one was one-dimensional, only being able to run inside.

Defensively, the Ravens weren't as dominant as a season ago, but that was to be expected. Opposing teams used the off-season to tear apart the champs; they came out in spread formations, basically to neutralize the strengths of Siragusa, Adams and middle linebacker Ray Lewis. The Ravens still played well against the run, but the cornerback play was disappointing. Big plays were given up almost every week.

But despite the problems, distractions and injuries, the Ravens still made it to the conference semifinals, a step further than America's new team, the Rams, did a year after winning the Super Bowl.

If you look at this organization, the "regrouping," as Billick calls it, won't take very long. The Ravens have solid ownership in majority owner Art Modell and future owner Steve Bisciotti. They have bright football minds in the front office with Ozzie Newsome, James Harris and Phil Savage. They have one of the best scouting departments around; it helped build one of the league's best defenses.

And then there is Billick.

Question his strategies and his arrogance, but you can't question his passion for the game. He is combative, a competitor in every sense of the world. He has a new challenge now, and that's reshaping this team.

He'll get it done. It's hard to bet against him.

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