Ravens hope for a return on a risky investment

March 05, 2004|By LAURA VECSEY

TALENT IS a very seductive thing. None more so than Terrell Owens.

So what were the Ravens supposed to do when faced with the chance of getting the most talented wide receiver in the NFL? Stop and say, "Nah, we don't want that guy; he's a major pain in the tackling dummy"? Even when all signs point to as much potential for disaster as success? Even when the loud, imposing and impossible-to-ignore presence of Owens could very possibly wreak havoc on the development of Kyle Boller, for whom the Ravens gave away this year's first-round pick?

Is one tantalizing risk worth the price of all that investment? Ah, what a season it shall be.

Go ahead, dream - but dream at your own risk. It's either going to be stunningly great or stunningly horrific. There appears to be absolutely no middle ground for the Ravens, not with Owens in the house.

From Shannon Sharpe to the man with the Sharpie, it's little wonder Ravens fans are brimming with anticipation that 2004 is starting to look a little bit like 2000.

With Owens, the Ravens get instant pass offense - as long as they can actually design some effective routes for No. 81 to run. Luckily for anyone who likes his offense capable of producing crossing routes, slants and under-coverage shots 20 yards downfield, Jim Fassel preceded Owens to Owings Mills. Otherwise, what would be the point? What was Owens supposed to do, challenge Todd Heap for jump balls in the end zone like it was in the old days, like last year?

Whoops. Almost forgot. Even if the Ravens aren't going to be capable of designing plays to maximize Owens' ability, Owens can do it! Just ask 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Knapp, whose ears are still ringing with "suggestions" Owens made during game time.

In fact, maybe embattled Ravens offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh isn't losing some of his duties to Fassel, but to Owens. What did Owens write on that football in Seattle, anyway? A set of plays, all diagrammed for him?

Sure, Owens can back up his control-freak tirades with production, unlike Keyshawn Johnson. But until he wins six Super Bowls, Owens can't assume the perfectionist's throne once reserved for the lone superstar athlete in the universe who could legitimately scold and browbeat his teammates into following him to the promised land.

And at least Michael Jordan never pulled out a Sharpie after torching the Utah Jazz.

Ah, but that's just Terrell being Terrell. Visit his Web site, www.terrellowens.com. He explains everything - except how it is he became so full of himself to the exclusion of any of the humility or quiet pride most real sports fans adore in their star players.

That's what makes this deal so interesting. If the Ravens weren't such a repository for all players inflammatory or indicted already, what are they now with the arrival of Owens? How about a high-wire act? How about a high-wire act with no safety net?

If history tells us anything about Owens, it's that he's all or nothing. Ecstasy or agony. Happiness or fury. Highlight reels or lowlight reels.

It's not whether he wins or loses, it's how he plays the game - and it's all about feeding him. That's why this deal feels a little like a deal with the devil, albeit a most riveting and talented devil.

One thing in the Ravens' favor is there might not be a better franchise for managing this kind of talent and the kind of tension he'll create. Brian Billick is a lot tougher than Steve Mariucci. Billick is about 10 times slicker than Dennis Erickson. For that, Owens has to watch out. There's no fast-talking or trash-talking Billick. In a celebrity death match of egos, Owens has nothing on Billick.

If Owens thinks his act and outbursts are going to be tolerated in Baltimore, he's in for a rude awakening. Just ask Chris McAlister - the franchise player bad boy who got with the program three days after Billick shipped his Pro Bowl body home from San Diego before the September game against the Chargers.

And whatever Billick can't take care of, the incredibly credible Ozzie Newsome can.

From their Super Bowl run through now, the Ravens have been able to coax amazing team chemistry and sense of purpose from a locker room stuffed with talent and tough individuals. Billick did this even in the two seasons when the Ravens were stripping salary and had little chance to make the playoffs.

But this might be the Ravens' biggest management test. They gave away a second-round pick - who wouldn't for the chance to work with someone as talented as Owens? They are at a point in their rebuilding cycle where a Super Bowl run comes now and next year. Ray Lewis and the defense must be maximized now.

So Owens could prove the biggest test of player management Billick has ever undertaken. He and Newsome clearly think they're up for the task.

Ravens fans can only hope. This is wild. This is a risk. This is feast or famine.

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