On field, McAlister speaks loudest

After off-field problems, cornerback shutting down opposing receivers

October 30, 2003|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

Chris McAlister is at his best when he is shadowing the game's best receivers and avoiding the spotlight.

After starting the season with a run-in with the law and broken curfews, the Ravens cornerback has thrived on the silent treatment. Over the past month, there have been few answers to the media and fewer questions about his play.

The focus has been reshaping his reputation where it mattered the most. On the field.

"I'm trying to get things back to normal and I don't know if they're there yet," McAlister said in his first lengthy interview since being benched in San Diego. "A lot of people have created an image of me in their head from what they've seen on TV. Ultimately, we all make mistakes. I'm not saying what I did was right but nobody's perfect. I come out and play harder on Sundays just to try to change the way people see me."

His recent play may not wipe away his mistakes, but it has erased the opposition's top wide-outs from the game plan.

In Arizona, he picked off Jeff Blake twice and returned one 83 yards for a touchdown. In Cincinnati, he held Peter Warrick to four catches for 43 yards. And last week against Denver, he followed two-time Pro Bowl receiver Rod Smith all over the field and limited him to four catches for 23 yards.

McAlister's presence on the left side usually prompts quarterbacks to throw to the opposite direction. But the Ravens have been allowing him to stalk the team's best receiver, forcing teams to throw more passes his way.

His challenge Sunday is going head-to-head with Jacksonville's Jimmy Smith, who has 17 catches in three starts. In harassing Smith the past two meetings, McAlister has reduced the notorious Raven nuisance to 8.8 yards per catch.

"For a coach to say `Go get him,' it takes me back to being a kid at Toys `R' Us," McAlister said. "Now, I can have some fun."

Fun has been a lightning rod of controversy for McAlister.

Near the end of training camp, he was charged with driving under the influence in Fairfax County, Va., and missed a day of practice. Then, two days before the Ravens' Sept. 21 win at San Diego, McAlister broke curfew and skipped a team meeting.

Two incidents in two months put McAlister in the midst of a vicious cycle.

"I had to find a way to stop the bleeding," McAlister said. "The only way to patch it up is playing hard and staying out of trouble."

The Ravens are taking a wait-and-see approach.

"Given the circumstances that have transpired, you're looking for a maturation in Chris in order for us to take the next step," coach Brian Billick said. "The steps he's taking are very encouraging. But we have a long way to go."

McAlister signed a one-year, $5.9 million contract as the team's franchise player and is expected to be an unrestricted free agent in about four months. Despite his off-the-field problems, he doesn't believe all the bridges have been burned with the Ravens.

"I can definitely see things working out to where I will come back here," McAlister said. "That's something I'm not worried about whether I'll be here or not. I honestly believe I will be a Raven."

His teammates have seen a change in McAlister.

"I've been here three years with Chris, I can tell a huge difference in his attitude and his demeanor and the way he's playing the game," defensive back Gary Baxter said.

There has been sizable motivation to change his ways.

Since McAlister has twice violated team rules, Billick has made it clear he can suspend McAlister without pay if there is another infraction. A one-game suspension would cost him $360,125, and a five-game suspension would deny him $1.8 million.

"It's not going to happen again," McAlister said. "The numbers are ridiculous. So it's not even worth it getting fined just to have a good time."

Beyond the dollars, McAlister said this season has taught him priceless lessons.

"All the off-the-field incidents helped me mature as a man and helped me realize how cruel the real world can be," McAlister said.

The 10th overall pick in the 1999 draft, McAlister has always been seen as a cornerback with limitless potential. Physical enough to play bump-and-run and savvy enough to play in zone, he is ninth on the team with 25 tackles and has broken up seven passes.

By the end of the season, maybe McAlister's focus will give way to a new image: Pro Bowl performer.

"Let's be honest, there might only be three or four of those guys around that you can say, `That is your guy, lock him down, take him all over the field and eliminate his touches,' " secondary coach Donnie Henderson said. "There's not a snap that I'm worried about Chris. He knows when he just goes play football and pay attention to his guy, he's one of the best out there."

Next for Ravens

Matchup:Jacksonville Jaguars (1-6) vs. Ravens (4-3)

Site: M&T Bank Stadium

When: Sunday, 1 p.m.

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

Line: Ravens by 7

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