Rebuilding blocks pave victory path

Ravens: The salary cap tore at their veteran fabric, but with shrewd planning, they've quickly rebuilt a contending team.

Ravens vs. Titans

Afc Wild-card Game

January 03, 2004|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

When the 2002 NFL draft ended, Ravens coach Brian Billick looked at his updated 80-man preseason roster chart, which showed nearly as many blank spaces as players on board.

Like a Ray Lewis collision, the reality of the team's salary-cap dismantling crashed into Billick head-on.

"How are we going to survive?" Billick thought to himself while staring at a list that had 45 players and 35 vacancies.

Twenty months later, survival has turned into celebration and the question has become: How did the Ravens pull off their rapid restoration project?

Today's wild-card game against the Tennessee Titans at M&T Bank Stadium is the reward for shrewd drafting and precision coaching, which transformed the Ravens from cap casualty to AFC North champion.

When the Ravens reached the postseason in 2000 and 2001, they were one of the most experienced teams in the league. Now, they are the youngest team in the playoffs.

Their last championship runs were financed by $104.6 million in bonuses. This year's team was built in a more workmanlike fashion, a reflection of the Ravens' old-school running attack and smash-mouth defense.

Rolling up their sleeves, general manager Ozzie Newsome's scouts had to dig up talent and Billick's coaching staff had to develop it. While the Ravens' blue-chip crop - eight Pro Bowl selections - reap the attention, it's the blue-collar players who have served as the foundation.

Of the 53 players on the Ravens' active roster, 36 were drafted in the fourth round or lower or were signed as low-priced free agents (undrafted out of college or veterans making less than $1.5 million annually).

"A huge amount of credit goes to our singularity of purpose," Billick said. "It's the way Ozzie's staff and my staff work together. We knew what 2002 represented. We stayed true to the plan on how to deal with it. By anybody's standard, we have accelerated the pace of [restoration]."

The Ravens' 10-6 season defies all the results typical in this salary-cap era.

An all-out purge should force two or three years of hardship before a team can become a winner again. Since the Ravens were $20 million over the cap - an annual limit that restricts each NFL's team spending to encourage parity - they gutted their team of 11 starters before the 2002 season.

Many predicted the same adversity that beset the Dallas Cowboys after 1999. "History says we should have won three games last year and gotten near .500 this season," Billick said. "But we are above the curve with a great collective effort."

The Ravens' front office held onto a core of under-30 star players like linebackers Ray Lewis and Peter Boulware, offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden, running back Jamal Lewis and cornerback Chris McAlister. Then, the coaching staff molded raw talent around them.

After last year's 7-9 season, that combination led to the AFC North title despite carrying a roster with an average age of 25.8 years.

"There is some satisfaction," Newsome said. "Even though we won a division for the first time and we're in the playoffs, you don't get the total satisfaction until you get the Super Bowl trophy. So, it's unfulfilled."

Filling spots before there were voids proved crucial.

Todd Heap was drafted when Shannon Sharpe was still the starting tight end. Ed Hartwell learned under linebacker Jamie Sharper before Sharper departed. And Gary Baxter watched safety Rod Woodson from the sideline for a year.

As a result, only two rookies (safety Ed Reed and end Tony Weaver) had to be pressed into starting roles last season.

"It's a little like college," Newsome said. "When you know you've got a graduating class, that next year you recruit freshmen to replace them."

While a large part of their success came from planning, some of it fell into their laps.

Heap, the Ravens' leading receiver the past two seasons, dropped to the last pick of the first round in 2001 because there was a run on defensive linemen. Reed, a Pro Bowl performer in his second season, dropped to No. 24 in the 2002 draft because safeties are undervalued.

If those two re-entered this year's draft, Newsome said, "They'd all be top-10 picks. We got lucky."

Luck is what you make of it, especially after the first three rounds of the draft.

Three starters (Hartwell, guard Edwin Mulitalo and linebacker Cornell Brown) were taken with the 126th pick or lower. Backup tight end Terry Jones (fifth round) and backup defensive back Chad Williams (sixth) are pivotal role players, and Pro Bowl special teams ace Adalius Thomas (sixth) was a major contributor before suffering a season-ending elbow injury.

"That's a credit to the detailed work that [director of player personnel] Phil Savage and the scouts do," Newsome said. "They put as much work in the bottom of the board as they do at the top of the board."

Just as important, there are those players that don't even make the draft board.

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