Half season left, Modell isn't done aiming for top

November 09, 2003|By MIKE PRESTON

RAVENS OWNER Art Modell is in his customary seat at practice. Regardless of the weather, Modell is always in the golf cart making evaluations, or telling legendary stories about his 43 years in the NFL.

Now it's time to discuss the 2003 season. Modell, 78, has eight games remaining before Steve Bisciotti takes control. And just like his young team, Modell wants to go out fighting.

He really likes this team. In his younger days, he might have predicted a Super Bowl title. But as the Ravens (5-3) went through a workout last week, Modell was quiet but confident. This team has a strong running game, good defense and solid special teams, which is a pretty good mix.

"You can't count anybody out, not this early," said Modell, whose team has a two-game lead in the AFC North. "There is great parity in this league. The whole system was designed for every team to finish 8-8.

"At the same time, I'm very proud of our players. This is a young team that's still learning. They are committed. If we repeat our first half, then we're in the playoffs, and anything can happen."

But Modell knows a lot depends on the development of rookie quarterback Kyle Boller, and if running back Jamal Lewis can hold up physically for the rest of the season in the Ravens' one-dimensional offense.

Lewis leads the league in rushing with 1,045 yards, but also in absorbing punishment because of his overpowering running style.

Modell doesn't believe Lewis can continue the pace.

"He is an extraordinary football player," Modell said. "I can't believe he has taken this ... beating, and keeps coming back. What a competitor, a brilliant performer. Wisely, I hope [Brian] Billick and the others will pace him and use the backups to give Jamal a rest."

Modell predicts Boller will have a good future, if developed properly. The Ravens have limited his attempts, and Boller has started to establish himself as a leader with his toughness and competitiveness. There have been times when he has made throws only a few quarterbacks can make.

But Boller still needs to make major strides in improving fundamentals. His drop-backs aren't consistent as far as footwork is concerned. He still throws off his back foot and has had problems holding onto the ball.

"Kyle Boller has a good future, but he is not there yet by any means," Modell said. "It takes time to develop, become established and then move on to the long career. He is smart and strong-armed. He needs to do the little things, like protecting the ball, but that comes with time.

"He's got to get good coaching. That's the name of the game with a young quarterback. It doesn't have to be a Bill Walsh or a Sid Gillman, but he has to get good, solid coaching. I'm not suggesting he is not getting that, but just making a point."

But coaching and a lack of offensive production are concerns. The Ravens have the No. 1 rushing offense in the league but are last in passing. Modell hasn't interfered much with the front office or coaching staff since the franchise moved to Baltimore, but he's irritated with the offense.

During the offseason, he was adamant in telling general manager Ozzie Newsome and Billick that they had to get a franchise-caliber quarterback. Modell might be a lame-duck owner, but he still carries clout in the organization.

"I made my position known very clearly before the draft meeting," Modell said of getting a quarterback. "I wasn't going to put up with any more reasons why this didn't happen or why that didn't happen. Ozzie knew I wasn't happy, Billick knew it, too, about locating quarterback talent, and the mistakes that were made.

"I've been concerned for some time about our lack of offensive production. It's no secret. There it is. I don't like our lack of red-zone productivity. As an owner, I would wait until the end of the season, and then re-evaluate everybody, the entire organization. We have to find out where the weakness might lie. It has to be in some personnel area."

Modell has no complaints about the defense. He said Ray Lewis is the best middle linebacker in NFL history and is complemented well by outside linebacker Peter Boulware. He has been impressed with young players like defensive end Tony Weaver, linebackers Terrell Suggs and Ed Hartwell, safety Ed Reed and defensive back Gary Baxter.

Modell is realistic. The Ravens are a wide receiver, a defensive tackle and a year away from seriously contending. But he is confident in Billick.

"I think Brian Billick has the potential to be a good coach. It's too early to make that prediction now," Modell said. "He needs more time than we've given him. You can't reach a judgment this early with so few years behind him. He definitely has confidence in himself and has a good knowledge of the business. I think Dennis Green did a good job of molding him up in Minnesota."

Modell looks forward to the eight remaining games and becomes more emotional after each one. Bisciotti has asked Modell to stay on with the team in some capacity.

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