It's prime time for Ravens to make pitch for Sanders

August 17, 2004|By Mike Preston

RAVENS linebacker Ray Lewis might be getting a great opening act for his pre-game dance, or the Ravens' trio of Lewis, safety Ed Reed and possibly Deion Sanders are going to choreograph one of the NFL's best ever end zone celebrations.

And then imagine the post-game scene. No. 52 and Prime Time strutting around the locker room in fur coats the way Earl Monroe and Walt Frazier did when they were with the Knicks in the Big Apple.

The feathery hats and the arrogance can go along with those suits that make Sanders look like the old snitch "Huggy Bear" character in Starsky & Hutch. But the Ravens and their fans will be willing to put up with it for a year if it leads to a Super Bowl trophy.

Coach Brian Billick and general manager Ozzie Newsome tried to downplay the seriousness of luring Sanders out of retirement the past two days, but if the seven-time Pro Bowl cornerback can still play, the Ravens want Sanders.

They need Sanders.

So much, in fact, that a team official has sent Sanders game film to study to see if he is comfortable with the defensive schemes. Clearly, this is an indictment of the Ravens' nickel (five defensive backs) and dime (six) packages, which aren't worth a lot these days.

But the Ravens believe they are in serious contention for a championship, and if that's the case, and if Sanders can play and not cost a lot of money, the Ravens should sign him to a one-year deal.

Super Bowl contenders have to take gambles on players, especially veterans. The Ravens did in 2000 by signing Robert Bailey as their nickel back. The New England Patriots did in the recent past by adding cornerback Otis Smith in 2000.

The Ravens gambled on an often-troubled veteran cornerback during the season when they signed Dale Carter, who played well in minicamps and had earned the nickel back job.

But the Ravens announced Carter had a blood clot in his lung on the opening day of training camp and would be out for the season. The Ravens had hoped a candidate would emerge in camp, but none did.

Corey Fuller? A step too slow.

Ray Walls? The Atlanta Falcons toasted him three straight times in the preseason opener Thursday night.

Javin Hunter and Lamont Brightful? Please.

There wasn't much available via free agency, so the Ravens had few other choices than to consult with Sanders. If your defense can't get off the field on third downs in the NFL, you can't win.

There is no doubt that Sanders, 37, out of the game for the past three years, has lost a step and some of the skills that made him one of the league's best cover guys in the 1990s. Before he retired from the Washington Redskins in 2000, teams were starting to isolate against him, compared with previous years when they wouldn't even throw to his side of the field.

But Sanders at 80 or 90 percent might be better than most in today's game. The Ravens don't want him as a starter, but as a nickel back who plays anywhere from 20 to 28 plays a game. And if Sanders can return some punts to replace the fumbling, stumbling Brightful, then it's an added bonus.

The Ravens have one other major concern on defense. They have been without both starting cornerbacks, Gary Baxter (hernia operation) and Chris McAlister (contract dispute) throughout training camp. They expect both to be ready for the season opener, but the Ravens aren't taking anything for granted with McAlister.

That's why they're pursuing Prime Time. They want to ease as many concerns as possible. You can tell the Ravens really want Sanders because they put Lewis on the case, and not Billick or Newsome. It was Lewis who recruited Terrell Owens, but the Ravens couldn't close the deal with the disgruntled receiver.

The Ravens won't have any attitude problems with Sanders. He's flamboyant, cocky and downright nauseating at times, but not a disruptive force in the locker room. He's no Owens. He's more like a Rod Woodson, a pretty boy who doesn't want to get his football pants dirty.

Despite being one of the youngest teams in the league, the Ravens have a core group of veterans like Lewis, Peter Boulware, Jonathan Ogden, Edwin Mulitalo, Orlando Brown and McAlister who have been together for five, six, seven and, in some cases, eight years. They can absorb Sanders' flashy jewelry, the high-stepping antics and the I-guy persona.

The Ravens' team chemistry is too strong to be dissolved. They are a talented team with a lot of questions. Is running back Jamal Lewis destined for another great season or time in a federal prison because of drug charges? Is quarterback Kyle Boller accurate enough to run the West Coast offense? Can the team find a go-to receiver? Will a lightweight defensive line cave in before the end of the season?

One problem can be solved if Sanders can still play. The Ravens should sign him or any other player they feel might make a difference on the road to the Super Bowl.

The window for a Super Bowl title stays open for only a short time, and it might be starting to close for the Ravens. They are smart in probing Prime Time. His play and experience might help get the Ravens into the NFL's prime time in February.

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