Sanders could star as prime distraction

October 04, 2004|By DAVID STEELE

ONCE UPON a time, Deion Sanders was viewed as a potential distraction. Now, the Ravens would love his kind of distraction.

In fact, tonight would be the perfect time for Sanders to become the Deion everyone remembers, the one he believes he can still be, the one people still wonder if he can be. After coming back from a three-year retirement, playing two games and sitting one out as a precautionary measure, Prime Time is expected to be back in uniform and on stage.

Yes, in prime time. Monday Night Football camps down here in Baltimore, and while the Chiefs and Ravens are full of their own story lines, Deion Sanders will hardly be overlooked.

This is a man who craves the spotlight and who knows what to do when it's turned on him. Generally speaking, this Ravens team is the same way. The problem is, this time - in a situation that unfortunately isn't unprecedented - the spotlight is on them for many of the wrong reasons.

Given that, the Ravens surely would prefer answering questions tonight about Sanders' huge return, his blanket coverage, the dance moves he has been eager to unveil, his latest helmet penalty. Anything in that category, rather than the ones spelled out in these pages and on the highlight shows and talk shows all weekend.

You could discuss a flag for unsportsmanlike conduct, or you can discuss plea bargains, suspensions, contract negotiations and locker room tensions. Take your pick.

Ironically, the Ravens were talking last week about the distractions of national television, making sure their energy doesn't override their focus, that their desire to show off for the nation doesn't steer them away from doing what they do best, that there's a fine line between rising to the occasion and walking into the trap that occasion presents.

Sanders, though, talked as if he should be the last player anyone should have to lecture about keeping his head tonight. One might assume he'd be bouncing off the walls waiting to show the world that his age, years away from the game, lack of a training camp and tender hamstrings were no obstacles to his being the player he used to be.

"I don't have to prove anything to anybody," he said. "You have to be kidding me. I wanted to come back to play football."

Nothing special about Monday night? "I'm excited to go out in practice in front of my teammates," he said. "Let's take that first step, guys."

An outstanding attempt at humility, to be sure. He knows, though, that a lot of eyes will be on him, as usual. Those aforementioned obstacles will only heighten the anticipation. So will the fact that he'll be on the field only a scant number of times. Mostly it'll be on defense. A handful of times it'll be on returns. It might - maybe tonight - be on offense. Don't turn away, you might miss it.

Most people have seen highlights of the two times he has touched the ball while in a Ravens uniform, on punt returns, and have noticed, the second time, he was one block and maybe one extra burst of speed away from truly breaking it.

The Ravens would rather see him do all of this later in the season, once he's really acclimated to his team, his fellow defensive backs, his own body. An explosive play in Week 4 followed by six weeks on the sideline won't help much when they surely will need him most.

Problem is, the Ravens could use him now - a touch of the old Prime Time to stir things up and divert attention from what isn't necessarily a ticking time bomb, but one with an awaiting fuse. The parameters of the Jamal Lewis situation have changed, and it remains to be seen whether it's for the better. The calendar on it, though, definitely has been moved up.

Few teams handle these things as well as the Ravens, of course (because they've had practice). Still, the momentum building in victories the past two weeks could now be derailed. Meanwhile, the delicate internal bonds necessary for a serious championship run could be threatened by the contract conflicts that are becoming public. It might not - probably won't - happen tonight, but there's a lot of season left and a lot of time for this all to get frayed and eventually torn.

As mentioned earlier here, the Ravens have little margin for error. If it keeps getting chipped away week by week, they'll be down to zero before they know it - if they aren't there now.

That's where one player, with a flashy nickname, a flamboyant manner and a game that once could regularly back it up, comes in handy. Sanders appears to have benefited from the week off to rest his legs. He plans to stay warm on the sideline on a bike. He thinks he can give his all in his few appearances on the field. And regardless of his careful observations about this game, he's well aware of this opportunity.

When he first showed up late in the preseason, Sanders looked like just another over-the-top personality on a team loaded with them. Now, he's as welcome a distraction as the Ravens could ask for.

Prime time has arrived, and if the Ravens are lucky, so has Prime Time.

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