Ravens lost roll of dice

Analysis

March 02, 2002|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

Fourteen months ago, having won the 35th Super Bowl in grand fashion, the Ravens had no place to go but down.

They had an intimidating swagger, but an equally imposing payroll.

They had a defense for the ages, but contract bonuses that were piling up.

They had a plan to elude the NFL's salary cap police, but no options when injuries began to mount.

Down?

No one could have guessed how quickly this Super Bowl team could be disassembled just one playoff season later, or fathom how far it might yet fall.

The jolting departure of quarterback Elvis Grbac yesterday was the latest chapter in a brutal off-season purge. That makes 11 starters gone from the 2001 Ravens' roster, and at least one more - defensive end Michael McCrary - is due to disappear in June.

Since the advent of free agency in 1993, no Super Bowl champion has turned over its roster so dramatically so soon after winning the title.

It took five years for the salary cap-challenged San Francisco 49ers to crash after winning the Super Bowl in the 1994 season. They went 4-12 in 1999. Five years after the Dallas Cowboys won the 1995 Super Bowl, they bottomed out at 5-11.

Next season, the Ravens will try to avoid becoming the third team in the free agency era to miss the playoffs within two years of winning the Super Bowl. Dallas dipped to 6-10 in 1997 and the Denver Broncos bombed at 6-10 in 1998 after winning consecutive Super Bowls.

Denver's demise was tied to two factors - the retirement of quarterback John Elway and a season-ending knee injury to running back Terrell Davis.

The Ravens have no such convenient excuses.

They clearly mismanaged the salary cap, coming in nearly $22 million over the $71.1 million limit this year. How did it happen? The Ravens gambled and lost.

Rather than attempt to dig out of the salary cap hole they created, they gambled they could win back-to-back Super Bowls this season. They awarded big-ticket contracts to right tackle Leon Searcy and Grbac, and re-signed free-agent linebacker Jamie Sharper.

Searcy couldn't make it through a training camp practice before hurting his arm and missing the season. Grbac played down to every bad scouting report that preceded him and lost the confidence of his teammates. Sharper was the only one of the three who earned his money, and he was sent packing in the expansion draft.

Adding injury to insult, the Ravens' biggest setback of the 2001 season came when running back Jamal Lewis blew out a knee in camp. It was an injury that effectively took them out of the repeat mode and placed the burden on Grbac to deliver a dynamic offense when he wasn't up to it.

But this crisis didn't start with the post-Super Bowl glow. It started much earlier, when the Ravens started collecting first-round draft picks like jewelry. Left tackle Jonathan Ogden and middle linebacker Ray Lewis arrived in 1996. Linebackers Peter Boulware and Sharper came in 1997.

By 1998, the Ravens could glimpse their future and brought in veteran safety Rod Woodson as the voice of playoff experience. In 1999, they awarded McCrary a new contract with a $12.25 million signing bonus. Then they gave free-agent tackle Harry Swayne a $5 million signing bonus, and the salary cap clock was ticking.

In 2000, the Ravens went the extra mile. They brought in tight end Shannon Sharpe with a four-year, $13.2 million contract that included a $4.5 million signing bonus. They added defensive tackle Sam Adams to that intimidating defense, and then had to give defensive tackle Tony Siragusa a new deal, too.

By the time the Ravens made Ogden the highest-paid offensive lineman in NFL history in training camp - a reported six-year, $44.69 million contract with $16 million in signing and option bonuses - the salary cap police were swarming.

All that spending produced a Super Bowl championship. But the price of success was high. And it's those reverberations the Ravens have to deal with now.

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