NFL not of mind to hurt Ravens

September 11, 2004|By JOHN EISENBERG

IT'S TIME to dispense with the longstanding local perception that the Ravens are second-class citizens in NFL society, constantly slighted and overlooked.

Please, enough with that paranoia and the many complaints it fuels.

The commissioner and league office aren't out to get the Ravens.

Free agents and the television networks aren't bored with the Ravens.

The national media don't underestimate the Ravens or take any more undeserved shots at them than at any other team.

To the contrary of all that, the Ravens are one of football's most interesting, prominent and respected teams.

Yet a vague sense of inferiority persists, helped along by the Ravens themselves.

Asked earlier this week about the fact that the team has opened at home only once since he became its coach in 1999, Brian Billick said, "We're used to it. `What, on the road? Yep, we must be Baltimore.' "

Billick has sounded the same song before, knowing "us against the world" is an effective motivator.

But he also knows it's a bunch of bunk in this case, admitting last year there "[wasn't] some Darth Vadian person out there trying to get the Baltimore Ravens."

His confession didn't quell the perception that has grown over the years with such "slights" as not opening at home on Monday Night Football in 2001 after winning the Super Bowl, and playing a first-round playoff game on Saturday instead of Sunday, allegedly hindering preparation.

Whenever the schedule, a referee's call or anything works against the Ravens, the local cry goes up: They're out to get us.

But a far different picture exists when you take stock as the Ravens begin their ninth season with a grudge match in Cleveland tomorrow.

They're a hot pick to win the AFC North, and according to some major predictions, advance to the Super Bowl. No one is failing to give them their due.

They have the defending Associated Press NFL Player of the Year on both sides of the ball in linebacker Ray Lewis and running back Jamal Lewis. So much for being overlooked.

Their front office is as respected as any in the league for how it drafts, handles the salary cap and manages personnel.

They're playing four games, as many as any team, in the Sunday and Monday night spotlight in 2004.

Both New York teams, the Giants and Jets, play just one night game this season. Same with Michael Vick and the Atlanta Falcons.

The defending NFC champion Carolina Panthers have two night games, half as many as the Ravens. The San Francisco 49ers also have two. The Redskins have three.

The television networks don't conspire against the Ravens. They like the Ravens.

And that was before Deion Sanders ended his retirement to wear purple, assuring the Ravens even more pub.

Deion didn't come back to play for just anyone, by the way. He wanted to have fun with friends Ray Lewis and Corey Fuller, but he also wanted as much attention as possible and a chance to win.

That the Ravens offered both says a lot about where they stand.

The sale of the team's merchandise ranks in the middle third of the league's 32-team ladder, according to spokesman Dan Masonson of NFL Shop.

"But we expect them to move up with a strong season," Masonson said. "Sales of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed jerseys are already strong, and now, with Deion Sanders, they might knock on the door of the top 10."

That's pretty strong considering that teams that win with defense rather than offense generally don't excite the public as much.

Granted, part of their attraction is the allure of controversy. Ray Lewis' court case still defines the franchise for many casual fans. Jamal Lewis' pending trial on drug conspiracy charges could enhance that.

But contrary to that reputation, the Ravens don't have an unusually long police blotter by NFL standards. Lawlessness is a league-wide problem that is well-documented and discriminates against no franchise.

Conjuring up a compelling nickname for their defense could help the Ravens with their image, as it did the "Steel Curtain" Steelers, the "Purple People Eater" Vikings and the "Doomsday" Cowboys.

But with or without a nickname, the Ravens are fine as is.

Maybe the league was, in fact, annoyed with them in the wake of Art Modell's controversial move from Cleveland.

That and their 16-31-1 record in their first three seasons here certainly rendered them invisible and irrelevant.

But they're invisible and irrelevant no more. They're major players, and the league is thrilled about it.

The NFL is interested in one thing only, having an interesting product. That's how it keeps making millions.

The Ravens are interesting, to say the least.

The league isn't out to get them. The league wants more teams like them.

Next for Ravens

Matchup: Ravens vs. Cleveland Browns in opener

Site: Cleveland Browns Stadium

When: Tomorrow, 1 p.m.

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

Line: Ravens by 3

More inside

Ogden out? Injured Pro Bowl tackle doesn't practice, might not play tomorrow. Page 8C

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