Ravens' task: Blend `Prime' and daily grind

On the Ravens

September 01, 2004|By Mike Preston

NOW THAT Deion Sanders has signed a one-year contract, it's time for the tricky part. The Ravens' coaching staff and front office has to find a way to slowly mesh Sanders' fluff-and-puff, strut-your-stuff personality into a blue-collar locker room.

The players have been publicly saying the right things since the story broke nearly two weeks ago, but privately some are questioning if the Ravens are about to become the Washington Redskins by bringing in a high-priced free agent, and possibly bailing on a philosophy that relies on teamwork and chemistry.

Since the Ravens moved here from Cleveland before the 1996 season, this has been the team of the lone star, All-World linebacker Ray Lewis, who also doubles as part owner, general manager and head coach.

This team has absorbed other great players (see Shannon Sharpe and Rod Woodson) and other players with big mouths (see Tony Siragusa), but none as flamboyant and arrogant as "Prime Time," simply referred to as "Prime" by friends and teammates.

Integrating the seven-time Pro Bowl selection is a concern, so much that coach Brian Billick had to play the part of the CIA and do a background check.

"I've done my homework, and I have yet to find a coach or a player who said Deion wasn't great to work with," said Billick. "I think the public perception of Deion is much different than those who have worked with him over the years."

Jerry Rice's number must have been busy.

The former great 49ers wide receiver had a heated exchange with Sanders during the week leading to Super Bowl XXIX. He thought Sanders had a lack of regard for curfew. He also didn't like all the dancing and touchdown celebrations Sanders brought to the team.

"There is a maturity level he has reached because of the things he has gone through," said Billick of Sanders, who has been out of football for the past three seasons. "I think he is a person of legitimate faith, like Ray, and that mitigates some of the things in the past."

Regardless, Billick will keep an eye on the situation. He has to. This is a team with great chemistry. The Ravens had eight Pro Bowl players last season, but they pride themselves on out-hustling and out-muscling teams.

The defense is predicated on shooting gaps, maintaining lane integrity and blitzes. In other words, if they're unselfish, they're probably going to win.

The Ravens are at a crucial stretch in the franchise's development. After the 2001 season, the team was gutted of a lot of veterans. For the most part, it's still a team without much color, almost as bland as a pale white T-shirt.

But at the same time, personalities other than Lewis' are starting to emerge. There is safety Ed Reed, aka little Ray Lewis Jr. He wears skullcaps and T-shirts like Ray. Now after every tackle, he dances like Lewis. He wants some time in the spotlight.

Cornerback Gary Baxter is a good player and a great guy, but extremely sensitive. He felt slighted for not making the AFC Pro Bowl squad last season. Tight end Todd Heap complained about not getting enough receptions last year, and receiver Kevin Johnson could do the same this season.

And then there is cornerback Chris McAlister. Tick, tick, tick ...

He could go off at any moment ...

"One of the great things I can say about Ray is the way he adjusts to people regardless of race or religion, whether you're black or white, a Midwestern farm boy or a Mormon like Todd Heap, and the way he integrates players into the locker room," said Billick. "I believe he will handle this situation just as well."

But again, this situation will be like no other. Sanders is already playing to the national media. He had to confer with Michael Jordan about coming out of retirement. Why Jordan? Why not Jim Palmer? Because Sanders craves attention, and a response from Jordan would earn him more.

He has spent the last three days telling everyone he can still run a 4.34 40-yard-dash time, and is the fastest thing this side of Texas. He says he can still cover receivers, even if one of the ones he worked against recently, Tony Martin, is as old as Sanders.

Before Sanders' comeback became official, he told the country about his possible return through a friend at Fox, a friend at CBS and a friend of a friend on various Internet sites.

The president doesn't get this kind of coverage when he comes to town.

Sanders has a passion for the game, but make no mistake he's also back for the limelight. He'll only leave the game one day through embarrassment, just like Jordan. But that won't happen this year; there still is something left.

The Ravens/Sanders situation is going to be a strange fit. When he was with the Cowboys from 1995 through 1999, Sanders fit in nicely because he hung around the Michael Irvins and Emmitt Smiths. They had egos as huge as his, as big as Texas.

But it will be different in Baltimore. We like blue-collar heroes. Frank Robinson was gritty; so were Brooks Robinson and John Unitas. The Ravens want blue-collar players but needed Sanders, who will get only get 20 to 28 plays a game as a nickel back.

The Ravens, though, didn't bring Sanders in just because of his skill. They also want him to provide veteran leadership, but not to the point where he becomes a distraction, or upsets a chemistry that has been successful for the past four years.

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