Ravens' McAlister learns to play a teaching role

Fourth-year cornerback masters secondary lessons

September 02, 2002|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

Chris McAlister is a veteran by default.

The cornerback is three months past his 25th birthday. He's entering his fourth season in the NFL, but he has seen it all compared with the youngsters who will join him in the Ravens' secondary, where everyone else gets his inaugural start Sunday at the Carolina Panthers.

"It's hard for me to look at myself as an older guy," McAlister said. "I'm going into my fourth year. I've still got a lot to learn, myself, and I can only teach the guys what I know."

McAlister has packed plenty of experiences into his three seasons and 44 straight starts. Four games into his rookie year - after he was the 10th overall selection in the 1999 draft - McAlister beat out Duane Starks for a starting job. In year two, McAlister won a Super Bowl ring. Last season, he tried to make do when dinks dented the armor of what had been a record-setting defense.

His focus and performance have approached All-Pro level - games where quarterbacks declined to test one of the more physical corners in the league. McAlister has also slipped off the tightrope that all cornerbacks walk. He won't forget Dec. 16, when the Pittsburgh Steelers' Kordell Stewart and Plaxico Burress picked on him.

Sometimes thrill and agony have come in the same 60 minutes. The New York Jets' Vinny Testaverde burned the Ravens for 481 yards passing in the 2000 regular-season finale, but McAlister got 98 of them back with an interception and speedy return for a touchdown, one of his 10 career picks.

"The Super Bowl, that whole season was a learning experience for me," McAlister said. "To come off that year and go back out again and reach the second game of the playoffs [in the 2001 season], all those games amount to a lot of crunch-time experience. When you're out there in the heat of the battle and it really counts ... you can't make the kind of adjustments I've made on a club that isn't winning games."

He grew up on defenses that were some of the stingiest ever statistically. Now, McAlister must make the transition from gifted role player with a considerable comfort zone to leader of a group where everyone else is learning on the job.

"Chris was the kid, has always been since he's been here," coach Brian Billick said. "He'll be the first to tell you that. Now, he's kind of the old man, and all of a sudden, your demeanor, the way you handle yourself, changes a little bit. I've seen that in Chris. He needs to expand on it even more. He has to understand that he's the big brother now, the father of that group. He needs to take the responsibility of being the top guy."

At the other corner, Gary Baxter and Alvin Porter are second-year players who saw most of their 2001 duty on special teams. The starting safeties have been rookies Ed Reed and Will Demps, whose dislocated elbow will put third-year man Anthony Mitchell into the regular rotation.

How did secondary coach Donnie Henderson get into this salary-cap predicament?

Starks moved on to Arizona. Corey Harris signed with the Detroit Lions, and the other safety, Rod Woodson, joined the Oakland Raiders. It is the latter's example that McAlister must emulate, a part he's familiar with. McAlister, 6 feet 1, 206 pounds, came out of Arizona with a safety's build and a reputation for hitting like one. Woodson spent most of his career at cornerback, and McAlister will miss his counsel.

"Playing with a guy like Rod, who taught me the ins and outs of being a corner, I think I gained a lot more than I would have if I had been on some other ballclub or been taught by someone who's not as established," McAlister said. "My perspective has done a 180. I give advice when I can. If I see something, or if a player asks me something, I can tell him all I know about that situation."

Have any teammates sought him out?

"Not really," McAlister said. "I'm young, too. They recognize that, but they also see that I've been here and that I'm established. I haven't had anyone come up to me. What I'll do is let them know what I'm going to do in a situation. I'm taking on the responsibility of letting them know what I'm going to do, like Rod would tell me."

The run to Super Bowl XXXV included several bold predictions by McAlister. It wasn't braggadocio, as the Ravens backed them up, but a recurring theme of Billick's has been for McAlister to let his play do the talking.

"I think I need to be me," McAlister said. "Whatever that is, that's what I'm going to display. I can't be something that I'm not. If it's my nature to talk ... it's hard for me to shut it off and not say anything."

McAlister is in the final year of his contract. He has never played on a losing team and said he isn't preparing the secondary for life on the wrong side of .500.

"I really don't do that," McAlister said. "I try to let them know we're accustomed to winning around here and that we don't have a losing attitude. Losing is very unacceptable. That's not something we practice."

Next for Ravens Opponent:Carolina Panthers in season opener for both teams

Site:Ericsson Stadium, Charlotte, N.C.

When:Sunday, 1 p.m.

TV/Radio:Ch. 13/WJFK (1300 AM), WQSR (102.7 FM)

Line:Ravens by 2

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