Going shopping, Ravens need blue-light specials

February 27, 2002|By MIKE PRESTON

IS ISSAC BOOTH STILL around? Anyone seen Carwell Gardner lately? How about Mike Croel?

The Ravens are back to bargain-basement hunting, and Ozzie Newsome, the team's senior vice president of football operations, was outside the team's complex yesterday carrying a large, black sign with blinking purple fluorescent letters that read: "Right player, right price."

That was the team's mantra in the early days in 1996 and 1997. But the new days are the same as the old ones. Because of salary cap concerns, the Ravens will be shopping at Kmart when the free-agency period opens Friday afternoon.

Justin Armour, Vashone Adams, come on down.

It was hard to argue with the team's philosophy of loading up and trying to win a second consecutive Super Bowl with high-salaried players last season. Just about everyone expected the team to cut veterans such as tight end Shannon Sharpe, defensive ends Michael McCrary and Rob Burnett, and safety Rod Woodson once the season ended.

But the Ravens are now saving mere pennies by cutting low-salaried players such as fullback Sam Gash, receiver Qadry Ismail and defensive tackle Larry Webster.

Is this team moving again? Didn't owner Art Modell get enough cash infusion from soon-to-be owner Steve "Money Store" Bisciotti?

The Ravens aren't in cap jail, but in solitary confinement.

Yesterday, the Ravens announced the termination of eight players' contracts, and then coach Brian Billick urged fans to be patient. That's the same advice some Enron executives gave employees and stockholders.

Be patient. Keep investing.

Boom. The bottom fell out.

Whenever a coach tells you to be patient, it's like waiting for a doctor to give you test results.

The last time Billick asked for similar patience was taking the leap of faith with quarterback Scott Mitchell three years ago. We all drowned after six quarters. At the end of this past season, Billick asked for fans to take another leap of faith with quarterback Elvis Grbac.

OK, enough. We'll be patient with the money issue, but don't ask for any more favors.

It's going to be tough next season. We're going to need medical records and birth certificates to identity this roster mesh of senior citizens and toddlers, and it might take three or four years for the Ravens to dig themselves out of this mess.

It might have been a little less painful in another year, but the Ravens need the room to re-sign or restructure the contracts of several key players, such as defensive tackle Sam Adams, cornerback Duane Starks, and linebackers Peter Boulware and Ray Lewis.

In the last year of his contract, Lewis might become the highest-paid player in the league. According to two league sources as well as one with the Ravens, Lewis has opened contract discussions wanting a seven-year deal worth between $90 million and $100 million.

"No player represents what Ray does as the emotional or physical leader of our defense," Billick said. "He understands we'll get it done. You can't let your best player get away. We got it done with Jonathan Ogden, we'll get it done with Ray. He understands the cap situation and is on board with us 100 percent.

"I know right now some people will panic because we're losing some really good people. But I'll put it at about 50 percent of the people we're pushing out right now will be back with us in June. I know it's tough for fans to see these players going out the door."

It's even tougher knowing that some of them will come back (please, not Kipp Vickers), and the free agents the Ravens probably will sign should be included in a two-for-one sale.

In the past two weeks, the Ravens allowed the Houston Texans to take one of the game's best linebackers, Jamie Sharper, and a Pro Bowl return specialist, Jermaine Lewis, in the expansion draft.

They have cut their two top receivers from last season in Sharpe and Ismail. If the Ravens had to play today, their two starting receivers would be Brandon Stokley and Travis Taylor.

Backups? There are none.

You can't feel very warm about a defensive line that could be minus all four starters from a year ago, or a secondary that has only cornerback Chris McAlister returning as a starter.

The team's top running back, Jamal Lewis, still hasn't shown he can return from a knee injury he suffered in training camp, and he is only a sip of a beer away from being suspended for an entire season for violating the league's substance abuse policy.

"We've always projected four years down the road, where we're going to be, what is the cap situation and what our latitude will be in free agency," Billick said. "Three years from now, we could be looking at another Super Bowl trophy, looking at Ogden, Todd Heap, Jamal Lewis, Travis Taylor, Mike Flynn and Casey Rabach on offense, all under 30. On defense, we would have Boulware, Ray Lewis, Ed Hartwell, Gary Baxter, Chris McAlister and maybe Starks, not a one of them over 30. That's why I'm excited."

Newsome said: "We've been through this before and we won. It's not about how many times you get knocked down, but about getting back up."

But the past teams were built on can't-miss, high-round draft picks. Because of recent success, the Ravens haven't drafted as high, and there are more questions surrounding selections such as Rabach, Baxter and Hartwell.

The Ravens also don't have that championship look, or the cap room, to lure quality free agents this season, and maybe next year as well. But that's what happens when you go for it all and mismanage the cap, too.

Billick said the Ravens will compete for free-agent players in June, which amounts to digging through the rubble. They'll re-sign Ismail and Webster, players no one else wants. And then they'll sign a refugee guard from NFL Europe or a running back from the arena league. It will work. It has to.

The bargain basement is the only option.

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