Sharpe hits Ravens on his way out

Team tells tight end he'll be cut this week in salary cap move

Expansion losses criticized

He also questions Billick's handling of Grbac situation

Pro Football

February 19, 2002|By Brent Jones and Mike Preston | Brent Jones and Mike Preston,SUN STAFF

The Ravens mixed a little of the unexpected with the expected yesterday.

The club informed tight end Shannon Sharpe that he will be cut this week, two seasons into a four-year, $13.2 million contract that included a $4.5 million signing bonus.

While his seemingly sudden release may come as a surprise to many, Sharpe said he expected it to happen, and expressed more dismay about the departures of linebacker Jamie Sharper and return specialist Jermaine Lewis. The Ravens left Sharper and Lewis exposed for yesterday's expansion draft, and the Houston Texans, as anticipated, selected them with the fifth and sixth picks, respectively.

In his typical style, Sharpe did not go quietly, as he criticized the Ravens for losing Sharper and Lewis and questioned coach Brian Billick's handling of quarterback Elvis Grbac last season.

"I had a long conversation with Ozzie," said Sharpe, referring to Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens' senior vice president of football operations, "and I don't have a problem with being waived. I can see where they are headed when they take a linebacker like Jamie Sharper, who is 27 and one of the three best in the league outside of Ray Lewis, and put him on expansion. I can see where they are headed when they take a player like Jermaine Lewis and put him out there.

"I don't agree with them. I don't care what Sharper's [salary] cap number is. When you have a player that young, with so many good years remaining, you pay him. Jermaine is about the same age, and when our offense stalled last season, he was the only one to give us a spark. He is the only player on the team who can turn the game around with one touch. But Ozzie Newsome was executive of the year and Brian Billick is able to write books. What do I know? That's why they make the big bucks."

Sharpe's release comes on the heels of his eighth Pro Bowl appearance less than two weeks ago. Sharpe joined Jermaine Lewis, Ray Lewis, offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden and safety Rod Woodson in Hawaii, where he said the players had a meeting to discuss the problems of last season and the team's future. One of the concerns was Grbac and whether Billick should have switched to backup Randall Cunningham.

"When you look back on the season and ask if Brian should have made the change, you say yes, but that's hindsight," Sharpe said. "But nobody, not people walking the street, guys in the league, Hall of Famers, not one person said the guy [Grbac] did all right. If Pittsburgh had won the Super Bowl, everything would have been all right. But when you watch the Patriots win, well, we knew we could have beat that team.

"Brian could have made the move," Sharpe said about Cunningham replacing Grbac. "I just feel that when a guy wins a Super Bowl like Brian Billick did last year, in his first season, you give the guy some time to work things out. If Brian didn't have Lombardi Trophy after his name, he would have been more apt to change.

"My goal after a while was to give the situation time, for us to get into the playoffs, and if we won a championship, people would forget about the quarterback situation. But we gave the situation time, and you see where it got us, don't you?"

The Ravens shaved more than $7 million off their payroll with the loss of Sharper and Lewis, and will shed an additional $2 million by cutting Sharpe. That would leave the team roughly $12 million over the $71.8 million cap for next season, with the March 1 deadline looming for teams to get under the cap.

Sharpe, meanwhile, said he will look to sign with another team.

"I'm going to play," he said. "I told Ozzie I felt I can still play and make a contribution to another club. ... After 13 years, I can still work the field, still work the slot, stretch defenses and create mismatches.

"Tampa Bay looks good. There is a possibility I could be back in Denver. I can catch 80 balls over the next two years."

Aside from yesterday's moves, the Ravens also will restructure Grbac's contract later this week, and there is speculation that the team will be forced to release defensive end Rob Burnett and Woodson.

"This is just the beginning of some good players that will not be on our team in 2002," Newsome said of the three players lost yesterday. "It is just the beginning of the transition that this team is going to go through."

Sharpe's release is not a complete shock considering the Ravens drafted tight end Todd Heap in the first round last year. But Sharpe, 33, tied Kansas City's Tony Gonzalez for most catches by a tight end (73) this past season.

The Ravens would welcome him back at a reduced salary.

"He indicated a desire to continue to play," Newsome said. "I told him if we are able to clear up some cap room after June, and he is still available, that we could submit an offer to him to come back and play for us."

Sharpe spent 10 years with the Broncos, where he also was a salary cap casualty, before signing with the Ravens in February 2000.

In his two seasons, Sharpe was the Ravens' primary receiving threat, totaling 140 catches for 1,621 yards and seven touchdowns. This year, he became the NFL's all-time leader for tight ends in catches (692) and yards (8,604), surpassing Newsome.

The Ravens are hoping for the same result they had last year after releasing another probable future Hall of Famer in Woodson, who later re-signed with the team.

"We've been down this road before last year if you remember with Rod Woodson," Billick said. "We'd love to have Shannon back because this is more of a procedural thing.

"The limitations [with the salary cap] are very real. We would like to have him back but we would understand if he jumped at another opportunity that arises. He still is a very productive player, as evidenced by his 70-plus catches last season.

"You just never know about the free-agent market. It is also a question of whether he wants to play, and it looks as though he is leaning in that direction."

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