Sanders primed for return with Ravens?

Source: Retired star mulls comeback as nickel back

August 16, 2004|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

Will a part-time role with the Ravens lure "Prime Time" out of retirement?

A league source yesterday told The Sun that Deion Sanders is contemplating whether to make a comeback as the Ravens' nickel back (fifth defensive back).

Sanders, one of the most charismatic athletes in sports and one of the greatest cornerbacks in NFL history, would address the biggest need on a vaunted Ravens defense.

A decision by Sanders is not imminent, the source added. Sanders, who turned 37 earlier this month, has been out of football for three seasons.

"To my knowledge, Deion Sanders is retired," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "That kind of takes him off our radar. If he decides to unretire, like any number of other teams, we would be interested."

Sanders could not be reached for comment.

If Sanders decides to return for a 13th NFL season, the Ravens might be his most attractive destination. He would not only have a chance for a third Super Bowl ring but also would have the opportunity to play with two of his close friends, linebacker Ray Lewis and cornerback Corey Fuller. Plus, it would give Sanders an opportunity to get back into the spotlight after his television career fell apart this year.

The last time Sanders considered coming out of retirement was December 2002, when he expressed interest in playing for the playoff-bound Oakland Raiders. The San Diego Chargers blocked that cameo comeback by claiming Sanders off waivers (he was previously on the Washington Redskins' reserve-retired list).

It is unclear whether the Ravens would have to compensate the Chargers if Sanders chooses to play again.

Perhaps the bigger question is whether Sanders has anything left of "Prime Time" - the nickname he gave himself for repeatedly making big plays on national television - or if he's simply past his prime.

When he retired before the 2001 season, Sanders reportedly told the Redskins he did not want to continue playing because his performance was not up to his standards. His rocky relationship with then-Washington coach Marty Schottenheimer also factored into his decision.

Sanders' last NFL season (2000) was steady yet not sensational. He surrendered only one touchdown pass but seldom made the electric plays that were his trademark with the Atlanta Falcons, San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys.

An over-the-top showman, he is considered one of the most dynamic athletes of the 1990s. Sanders combined flair with talent: He was a seven-time Pro Bowl selection (1991-94, '96-98) who became the only pro athlete to play in both the World Series and the Super Bowl, and the only one to hit a homer and score a touchdown in a seven-day span.

His flamboyant persona - flashy jewelry and brash talk - often complemented his high-stepping theatrics on the field. He owns the NFL record with 18 touchdowns on returns (fumbles, kickoffs, punts and interceptions).

Originally the fifth overall pick by the Atlanta Falcons in 1989, Sanders spent one season with San Francisco (1994), helping the 49ers win the Super Bowl. He earned his only NFL Defensive Player of the Year award that season, despite joining the team late because of baseball.

In 1996, Sanders played regularly on both offense and defense for the Dallas Cowboys, becoming the NFL's first two-way starter since Chuck Bednarik in 1962. He is the only player in Super Bowl history to have both a pass reception and an interception.

Quarterbacks regularly threw to the opposite side of the field rather than risk Sanders' picking off a pass. He has 48 career interceptions, including eight returned for touchdowns.

Sanders' role with the Ravens would be more specialized.

He would only have to play in passing situations, joining starters Chris McAlister and Gary Baxter as the third cornerback. The nickel back position has been considered the weak link of the Ravens' defense since Dale Carter was lost for the season. Carter was diagnosed with a blood clot in his lungs just before training camp.

The Ravens' current options are to either go with Corey Fuller, a 33-year-old veteran who has admittedly lost a step, or Ray Walls, a four-year veteran who has played a total of 18 games. If Sanders decides to stay retired, the Ravens likely will look for another veteran defender to help at nickel when final cuts are made throughout the league closer to the regular season toward the end of this month.

It is unknown whether the Ravens would want Sanders to handle punt returns, a duty he stopped midway through his last season with the Redskins. Lamont Brightful is currently the Ravens' return specialist, but his fumbling problems have put his job in jeopardy.

After retiring from football, Sanders livened up CBS' The NFL Today for nearly three years. His run ended in May because he wanted $2 million and CBS offered $1 million.

A week later, ESPN fired Sanders as host of The New American Sportsman, saying it wants someone who hunts as well as fishes.

Sanders is now scheduled to co-host a sports-themed talk show, The Players' Lounge, with comedian Paul Rodriguez.

Next for Ravens

Preseason matchup: Ravens (1-0) vs. Philadelphia Eagles (0-1)

Site: Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia

When: Friday, 8 p.m.

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

Training camp today

Full-team practice, 9:30-11:15 a.m.; special teams, 3-4 p.m.

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