As Ravens fall, McAlister says team is divided

Pro Bowl cornerback: Team chemistry lacking, `locker room ... shifted'

Pro Football

December 30, 2004|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

Once a self-proclaimed Super Bowl contender, the Ravens have become a divided team, cornerback Chris McAlister said yesterday.

In a lengthy discourse on the state of the Ravens, in front of a captive audience of reporters, the Pro Bowl player revealed a disturbing split on a team that is finishing one of the most disappointing seasons in franchise history.

"I can't really put my finger on it, but it's not the same feeling," McAlister said. "Maybe it's because we're losing, coming off last year and not being able to follow up and meet expectations. Maybe that's what has gotten this locker room a little shifted."

The worst second-half collapse in the Brian Billick era -- four losses in five games -- has made this a desperate time for the Ravens. In addition to beating the Miami Dolphins in the regular-season finale, the Ravens (8-7) need Buffalo, Denver and Jacksonville to lose on Sunday to clinch the AFC's final playoff spot.

McAlister characterized the Ravens' postseason chances as "bleak" and painted an equally grim picture of their locker room chemistry.

"It really used to be real loose, and we used to have a lot of fun in here," McAlister said. "It used to be a lot of guys laughing and having a good time. It's not that same way. I've been here for six years and I remember coming in here and everybody moved around. Now it's kind of like everybody stays in their own little corner."

Team chemistry used to be considered a strength for the Ravens, who returned 21 of 22 starters from last season's AFC North championship team.

The first crack in the team's unity came earlier this month in a devastating loss to Cincinnati. After failing to hold a 17-point lead in the fourth quarter, linebacker Ray Lewis questioned some of his teammates' passion and called for a "gut check."

Other signs of discontent surfaced after Sunday's loss in Pittsburgh, when running back Jamal Lewis criticized the play-calling and safety Ed Reed admitted "something's wrong" regarding the team.

Ray Lewis, Jamal Lewis and Ed Reed were not made available to reporters yesterday.

Billick vehemently denied any division among his players, even before McAlister made his comments.

"I think you have a lot of frustrations in a situation this team hasn't been before," Billick said. "This is something that this team is dealing with. There are frustrations and there are anxieties. But they're handling them collectively."

The Ravens have lost their grip on a promising season collectively, too.

Their offense has scored only three touchdowns in the past four losses. Their defense failed to stop the pass against Cincinnati and failed to stop the run against Pittsburgh. Even special teams -- with returner B.J. Sams' fumbles and kicker Matt Stover's recent missed field-goal tries -- have struggled.

The Ravens, who sprinted to a franchise-best 7-3 start, have landed with a thud.

"I don't know what got us to this point right now," McAlister said. "But I can only say we haven't played our best team football as a unit this year."

So, how do you change it?

"I don't know," McAlister said. "I'm not a psychologist."

Several changes could be in order this offseason.

There has been increasing speculation that the Ravens will fire offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh at the end of the season. Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, whose contract expires after the season, and former University of Illinois coach Ron Turner could be candidates if Cavanaugh is let go.

Other issues that have to be addressed are: a possible shift back to the 4-3 alignment (four defensive linemen and three linebackers) on defense and their strategy on retaining their own free agents (namely cornerback Gary Baxter, linebacker Ed Hartwell, center Casey Rabach, guard Bennie Anderson and defensive end Marques Douglas).

As for the perceived troubles with chemistry, many players said the only change that needs to be made is winning.

"I just think we're searching for answers," Baxter said. "When everything goes wrong and we're not able to meet our expectations, then you start searching for reasons why we're not making that run to [the Super Bowl].

"It's a different feeling that we have to rely on a lot of other teams to lose to get in [the playoffs]. You kind of can tell the mood around here is a little sad. Guys aren't used to that. ... Guys look each other in the eyes and we're disappointed."

Other players said talk of discord is a convenient cop-out for a team that is on a late-season skid.

"When we were 7-3, nobody was talking about dissension or separation in the locker room," defensive end Tony Weaver said. "I just think whenever a team is losing, people try to look for an excuse. `What's happening? Is there tension in the locker room?'

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