Absences, uncertainty cloud Ravens camp

Ravens

July 29, 2004|By John Eisenberg

CALLING THE ROLL usually gives definition to a class on the first day of school. But as the Ravens prepare to open training camp, it's the absences, those not present, defining the team.

Terrell Owens, the receiver who would rather be in Philadelphia.

Chris McAlister, the cornerback who would be king.

And let's not forget Ed Garland and Donald Samuel, Jamal Lewis' attorneys, who might make -- or break -- the season.

None will be at McDaniel College as workouts begin. But all are critical to helping identify the team and its rightful place in the NFL in 2004.

Will the Ravens be a legitimate contender for the playoffs and Super Bowl? Or will they disappoint because of the usual lack of offense?

The answers would be different if Owens had joined the Ravens instead of squawking so loudly about his trade from the 49ers that he ended up in Philadelphia, his idea of heaven.

His disdain for the Ravens and Baltimore has put him up there with Robert Irsay, Paul Tagliabue, Cito Gaston and other enshrinees in the local mortal enemies' hall of fame. But let's be honest: It's a shame he isn't here.

For starters, the guy is a wacko; he was a lock to say and do a variety of strange and ridiculous things, and almost certain to break the franchise's single-season record for referring to himself in the third person. At the very least, the season would have been far more interesting.

As well, with a player so talented in uniform, the Ravens were almost certain to establish a better balance between their running and passing games, and also between their offense and defense. It can happen.

They would have been a reasonable pick to wade deep into January, even with the basically untested Kyle Boller penciled in at quarterback.

A more modest view persists without Owens. Another division title would be nice. Another trip to the Super Bowl? Some good things have to happen.

Losing Jamal Lewis isn't one of them.

It's ironic that the running back isn't among the marquee absences as camp opens. His potential departure looms over all, with his trial on federal drug trafficking charges possibly occurring during the season.

The importance of his situation can't be emphasized enough. Without Lewis, the Ravens might win half their games. They won a division title last year almost strictly because he was so good the team could get by without a passing game.

The franchise desperately needs Garland and Samuel to work their legal magic, minimize Lewis' absences during 2004 and clear his future for 2005 and beyond, much as they did with Ray Lewis when the linebacker went to trial on murder charges.

If the lawyers succeed, they deserve a place in the ring of honor at the Ravens' stadium. Has anyone else done more for the franchise?

That brings us to McAlister, whose absence is not nearly as life-altering, at least not in the short term. He is sitting out the start of training camp because of a complicated contract issue. It would be easier to explain the Magna Carta than the details of McAlister's situation.

But McAlister is obligated to play for the Ravens this season, so he will eventually show up. And he will probably play well, as he did in 2003. He is talented, basically irreplaceable as a "shut-down" cornerback.

But does he deserve the massive signing bonus and long-term contact he wants?

The Ravens keep avoiding the issue by making him their franchise player, a designation with a yearly salary. He has had his moments of immaturity, and the front office obviously has doubts about how he might react to signing a big-money deal.

McAlister isn't wrong to complain about not getting the deal while in his prime. It's just business, but he won't have many, if any, better opportunities.

What should the Ravens do? Finding the money for a guy this good is never a mistake. But the continuing delay intimates a lack of trust by the front office. If the deal doesn't get done in 2004, look for the team to go without him starting in 2005.

Brian Billick, on the other hand, will be here, his new contract securing his presence for at least several more years. So much for any uncertainty arising because a respected former head coach, Jim Fassel, is on his staff, and a new owner, Steve Bisciotti, is taking over the franchise.

Kudos to Bisciotti on his first major call. Stability is what makes a franchise formidable. Billick, with a 52-35 record, deserves to lead the roll call of those present, both today on the eve of training camp and in the coming years.

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