At 37, veteran can dream, but age-old question lurks

`Neon' in purple

Deion Sanders' Entrance

September 02, 2004|By JOHN EISENBERG

DON'T CALL this a roster move or a personnel transaction. Call it what it is:

A fantasy.

The Ravens didn't lure Deion Sanders out of retirement to fill their hole at nickel back.

They want him to reprise his star turn as "Prime Time," the electrifying defensive back, wide receiver, punt returner and game-breaker.

They don't want a 37-year-old fill-in who hasn't played since December 2000.

They want the 27-year-old Sanders who could help them in countless ways to reach the Super Bowl.

It's an outrageous flight of imagination, the kind of farfetched dream some loony caller might spout on talk radio. Deion's gonna come back without losing a step! Sure, pal.

And you thought the pros didn't play fantasy football.

But that's what the Ravens are doing.

In truth, they should be satisfied with the more realistic goal of Sanders capably filling the nickel role. It's not a certainty.

Older stars in all sports typically are capable of still making occasional splashes, but they tend to struggle with consistency. Did you see Michael Jordan with the Wizards?

Let's see Sanders pass the consistency test before adding to his responsibilities.

But any hint of such grounded, reasonable thinking was overwhelmed yesterday by the great expectations that swelled out of control at Sanders' debut appearance.

Sanders himself led the charge, making no effort to quash the talk of him catching passes, returning punts or playing at the level that made him famous.

"I feel like I did when I stepped off the field at 27," he declared after practice.

What aspects of his game did he want to show off to Baltimore's fans?

"I want 'em to get everything," he said.

Including catching passes?

"Hopefully so," he said.

And was he prepared to step into a larger role in the secondary, perhaps as a starter?

"I prepare to dominate. I prepare to conquer. I prepare to win it all," he said.

His optimism and bravado could be excused. He worked hard to get himself back into playing shape after retiring more than three years ago, and he needs to keep pumping himself up as he stares down considerable odds.

But the Ravens, who should know better, seemingly were just as keyed up. They didn't say, "Whoa, fella," or suggest it might be wise to think small in the beginning after 44 months away from the game.

To the contrary, Ravens coach Brian Billick just sat there with a giant, bemused smile as Sanders spoke, looking like a man with long-kept secrets that were finally being made public. Sanders as a receiver and returner? Aw, now everyone knew.

Billick actually gave away his fantasy the day before when a reporter asked if Sanders had been "studying a playbook."

"Whatever playbook he has, offensive or defensive. We'll have to sort that out," Billick said.

Say that again?

The coach also gave himself away that day when he said nickel back was just "a beginning point" and "we will expand [Sanders' role] as we see necessary."

Translated, they want it all.

The fantasy.

You know what they're thinking. They would look positively brilliant for having uncovered a healthy, motivated Sanders who cared less about the money than the challenge of proving himself to a skeptical public. "Prime Time" at a bargain price, a stroke of salary cap genius.

It even makes sense when viewed a certain way. The Ravens pursued Terrell Owens last winter because they needed a big-play receiver, as they always do. And they're still looking for a kick returner as incumbent Lamont Brightful has struggled.

Sanders has filled both roles before and could certainly do so again, perhaps not consistently, but enough to make a difference.

He is a neat fit in that regard, his skills a perfect match for the Ravens' needs. It's no wonder the team was so intrigued when Ray Lewis brought up the idea of recruiting him.

But again, the whole scenario is dependent on the fantasy of "Prime Time" coming all the way back, quite an achievement for someone who was the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year - in 1994, not 2004.

A more sober reality makes better sense. The Ravens already have a deep, talented secondary. They need a little help in passing situations. Sanders probably can provide it. All he has to do is cover some opposing receivers. He doesn't have to tackle anyone or make plays. Just cover.

He could make a huge difference in that role, helping foil opponents on third downs and get the ball back for the Ravens' offense. But his presence and effectiveness could be jeopardized by returning punts, where people get hurt, and by playing wide receiver, which he has barely done since 1998.

The fantasy is fun to contemplate, but the Ravens need a nickel back.

That's enough.

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