Time has come for Ravens to show R. Lewis the money

April 19, 2002|By MIKE PRESTON

THE RAVENS' front office has fumbled more times this off-season than Tony Banks during his two-year stay in Baltimore.

Oops, there goes another one.

Oops, not again.

Since the playoff loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in January, the team has lost its defensive coordinator, linebackers coach, seven defensive starters and its two top receivers. The Ravens reneged on a contract promise to quarterback Elvis Grbac and had to backpedal faster than Deion Sanders about re-signing 50 percent of the players who were either free agents or released from their roster.

They have not signed a free agent, and were embarrassed by a report last week stating they had to free up $850,000 under the salary cap or they couldn't select their 10 picks in tomorrow's draft. That ultimately forced them into restructuring a contract that resulted in a six-year, $24 million deal with a 31-year-old defensive end who has had four knee operations. Michael McCrary was seen smiling last week as he wheelbarrowed money from owners Art Modell and Steve Bisciotti into his bank.

Enough is enough.

The Ravens need to restructure the contract of middle linebacker Ray Lewis soon, or risk losing some of the confidence of their fan base. The franchise is taking a foolish posture. Last week, the Ravens offered Lewis, 26, a $12 million signing bonus, the same they paid two years ago to offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden, who is certainly an important Raven - just not nearly as important as Lewis.

They should make Lewis a realistic offer. It can't be that hard.

Lewis, who will be paid $4.7 million this season in the final year of his contract, is one of the top five players in the NFL, up there with Brett Favre, Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk and Randy Moss. Before the 2001 season, Moss signed an eight-year deal worth $75 million, which included an NFL-record $18 million signing bonus. Favre signed a 10-year, $100 million contract with an $11 million signing bonus, and had another $5 million in incentives and bonuses.

Faulk averages $7.2 million a season, and linebackers Junior Seau and Hardy Nickerson each average about $7.5 million. In summer 2000, Ogden signed a six-year contract worth $7.3 million a season, with that $12 million signing bonus.

Ogden is one of two players the Ravens can't afford to lose. The other is Lewis. The Ravens should lure Lewis in with a signing bonus of about $18 million-$20 million and a seven-year contract backloaded in the last two years, money he will never see, but pushing up the average per season to $8 million or $8.5 million, in Moss and Favre territory.

Such a deal would make Lewis feel good, pacify the ego of his agents and, if properly constructed, would create immediate salary cap room for the team. According to a league source, Lewis and the Ravens are scheduled to meet Monday.

"We've had ongoing discussions," said Ozzie Newsome, Ravens senior vice president of football operations. "Yes, there has been progress made."

Not only is Lewis the team's best and most recognizable player, but it also would be a public relations nightmare if he held out of training camp.

Look at the Ravens.

They aren't just in salary cap jail, but cap hell. There are only 35 players on the roster. This will be a team composed of Kmart special players. The Ravens might as well break out those plain black and white uniforms from 1996, the ones that had no logos or names on the jerseys because the team was involved in litigation in the move from Cleveland.

But they have Lewis. Good, old No. 52. A five-time Pro Bowl player who has led the team in tackles every season since his rookie year in 1996. He personifies energy, and is the spiritual leader of this team. Lewis was the second player ever drafted by the Ravens, a first-round pick along with Ogden.

Ogden and Lewis. They are the cornerstones of this franchise. If the Ravens can't get this deal done, there will be a lot of swearing and gnashing of teeth. A season without Lewis would be like Christmas without gifts.

"I want to be here, I want to be a Raven for life," said Lewis.

There has been speculation Lewis is unhappy and wants to be traded.

"There has been no such demand," said Newsome.

But neither Lewis nor his agents were happy with the Ravens' offer last week. Members of his negotiating team have been shopping his name around the league in possible trade rumors for the past two weeks.

"I'm not mad, not really," said Lewis. Then he thought for a second. "Not yet, anyway.

"It's too long of a summer. They said I would be done before the season started, so we'll see."

But the Ravens make you a little nervous these days. Coach Brian Billick said the team would honor Grbac's contract, and then they asked him to take a $3 million pay cut.

Elvis left the building and the state and went to a retirement home. Billick said the team would re-sign half of the team's 26 free agents or players waived at the end of the season, and eight have already signed with other teams.

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