Change, but not in pocket

Grbac will return to Ravens

cast may be different

`Definite cap issues'

Team could lose as many as six defensive starters

January 22, 2002|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

A day after failing to repeat, the Ravens must begin their reconstruction.

Team officials confirmed the Ravens will pick up the $6 million signing option for maligned quarterback Elvis Grbac in March, but hinted the rest of the team could undergo a drastic transformation.

The Ravens are an imposing $20.5 million over the projected $72 million salary cap, with only 30 players signed for the 53-man roster. Just 51 weeks after hoisting up the Vince Lombardi Trophy, the Ravens could lose as many as six starters on their dominating defense while trying to retool a stagnant offense.

"Clearly, there is going to be some change," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "That's absolutely unavoidable. How much is conjecture at best. A lot of it we have no control over. We have definite cap issues.

"But we are going to have to regroup. It starts today. Next year we intend to be extremely competitive."

While still showing the emotional drain of Sunday's 27-10 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in an AFC divisional playoff game, the Ravens started to assess the possible coming changes.

Only two starters - cornerback Duane Starks and strong safety Corey Harris - are among the team's 13 unrestricted free agents, and neither defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis nor linebackers coach Jack Del Rio has yet been contacted about interviewing for coaching vacancies.

Lewis is still being mentioned for the Carolina Panthers' opening and Del Rio has been rumored as being a strong candidate for the Detroit Lions' defensive coordinator position.

When free agency begins in March, the Ravens' efforts may be concentrated on building a stronger supporting cast around Grbac, their barometer of success this season.

In his nine wins as a starter, he threw four interceptions. In his seven losses, he was picked off 17 times. Those career-worst 21 interceptions were converted into 55 points by opponents, including three returned for touchdowns.

By picking up his signing option, Grbac's contract will get extended through 2005.

"You're going to have to take a little bit of a leap of faith with me," Billick said.

A season removed from his first Pro Bowl, Grbac slumped in his first year with the Ravens, finishing as the league's 26th-rated passer. The offense produced one or fewer touchdowns in half of his 16 starts.

But the odds were stacked against Grbac once injuries altered the offensive plans.

Instead of having Jamal Lewis, the backfield consisted of a 33-year-old coming out of retirement (Terry Allen) and an undrafted free agent who played on three practice squads last season (Jason Brookins). Instead of having Leon Searcy, the right side of the offensive line was made up of a career backup (Kipp Vickers) and an XFL veteran (Bennie Anderson).

Grbac attended yesterday's final team meeting but was not available to the media.

"Organizationally, as a team, as a coaching staff, Elvis Grbac is our starting quarterback," Billick said. "We need to improve the athletic abilities around him in order to make more of an impact offensively. We have to improve what we do structurally for what we are asking him to operate within. And he has to improve in a number of fundamental things."

Jamal Lewis, who set the Ravens' single-season rushing record last year, blew out his knee in training camp and never played a down this season. He is on schedule to fully participate in April minicamp.

But can he come back and play at full strength?

"In his mind, he can, and it's very practical that he can," trainer Bill Tessendorf said. "He needs training camp, and that will be the final part of his rehab."

Searcy, the 10-year right tackle who has yet to play a down in two seasons because of leg and arm injuries, is expected to make a full recovery. He will likely be welcomed back at a discounted salary.

"It comes down to what his expectations are in terms of the investment we made and what he wants to do at this point of his career," Billick said.

The Ravens' biggest hurdle is whittling down that $20.5 million surplus.

Veterans such as tight end Shannon Sharpe, safety Rod Woodson, return specialist Jermaine Lewis, defensive ends Michael McCrary and Rob Burnett and defensive tackle Sam Adams all have salary cap numbers over $3.7 million.

Sharpe and Burnett are contemplating retirement, while the rest of this group intends to return next season. The Ravens, though, cannot realistically fit them all under the cap at their current price tag.

"Whether they come back here or not is truly going to be in their court," Billick said. "Some of the decisions they're going to have to make are: `Do I want to continue to play football for what I am going to be paid?' That's ultimately going to be their decision. We're going to keep together as much of a nucleus of this team as we can."

Ravens owner Art Modell indicated that the team won't bottom out from its current cap troubles and threw his complete support behind Billick.

"I have a great belief in him," Modell said. "He was a winner last year, he's a winner this year and he'll be a winner next year. I got to give him some help. We have to rearrange our arsenal and give him more help. I'm looking forward to next year with a high level of expectation, anticipation and desire to get back on top."

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