We should delay judgment, but Ravens' losses unsettling

March 11, 2007|By DAVID STEELE

Before trying to figure out why the subtractions from the Ravens are outweighing the additions so far, a brief disclaimer:

The next-to-last thing anybody should do is judge an NFL free-agent period after its first eight or nine days. The very last thing, of course, is judge a draft as soon as the picks are made. Both laws get violated regularly, including right here. With free agency just having started, the Ravens are really asking for it.

So many important players going out. So few known quantities coming in. So much hope resting on the in-house promotions. They're still six months away from playing a down of meaningful football next season, not to mention seven weeks away from the draft.

But what exactly is supposed to make us all believe that this team will surpass the last one?

This is where we trust everybody responsible for keeping this franchise on top, from Steve Bisciotti to Ozzie Newsome to Brian Billick.

Don't even deny the cushion they get - deservedly so, but they've got it. Imagine, if the Orioles were having this kind of start to their offseason, how many different synonyms for "idiot" we'd all be using for Peter Angelos and Co.

But this is also where we say, "You couldn't keep Adalius Thomas, or Ovie Mughelli, or Tony Pashos, or Jamal Lewis, but you're still going to get deeper into the playoffs than last season?"

There's more than enough logic, on the front office's end and the players', to justify each move. And the payroll looks better now than it did March 1. But the next time several thousand fans rise from their seats on a fall afternoon at M&T Bank Stadium and chant "Move those cap figures!" will be the first.

Some of these battle lines are already set in many minds. Willis McGahee had better be as good as Lewis was. Jarret Johnson had better be as good as Thomas was. (By the way, is this as belated a farewell to a significant free-agent departure as there ever has been around here? Not that his leaving was a big surprise, nor his signing with the New England Patriots for huge money, but the fact that he was eclipsed by Lewis' release was unfortunate.)

As for the other gaps: Pashos leaves one at right tackle that's deceptively big and hard to fill. Same for Mughelli, who almost made everybody - including Lewis - not miss Alan Ricard quite as much. Who comes in to make you not miss Mughelli so much? Is that person's assignment to help make life easier on McGahee? In turn, will McGahee make life easier for all his teammates? His ability says yes, but the reports of the bitter departure from Buffalo aren't as clear-cut.

Sure, this tale of angst is being repeated in most NFL cities, even the one in which the Lombardi Trophy resides. But that's really the ultimate question. The shake-ups, the disruptions in a team that won 13 games, got a first-round bye and hosted a conference semifinal, are they going to get the Ravens further than last year? Are they going to help the Ravens beat the Indianapolis Colts? Are they going to help them beat whatever other team might stand between them and the Super Bowl?

Or is that an argument for another day? The moves so far send conflicting signals. They didn't want to commit that heavily to Thomas because he's turning 30 this year, so they're looking long-term. Extending Billick's contract for four years reinforces that notion. But that doesn't square with giving up three draft picks for McGahee, nor does extending his contract.

In the middle of all that stand two of the most important players on the team: Jonathan Ogden and Steve McNair. If Ogden is buttressing his ruminations about retirement with out-loud expressions of doubt over letting Jamal Lewis go, then long-term plans don't make sense.

Combine that with the notion that McNair was brought in not to nurse the Ravens along for the next few years and keep them in the hunt - he was brought in to win now.

In a worst-case scenario, he might be asked to do that with two new offensive tackles, two new backs and, supporting him from the other side, a defense that's replacing its most versatile and, probably, most valuable player.

And it was just a year ago that McNair was heralded as the missing piece. If the Ravens were only that set now.

It's funny about last offseason, isn't it? The solution, everyone was certain, was an upgrade at quarterback, an instant-impact upgrade. It seems crazy even now to think that everything could be solved by that one move. It wasn't, of course, because the draft filled in several holes in non-marquee positions, and free agents such as Trevor Pryce made up for the other losses.

Remember - between fits of drooling over McNair, plenty of people were fretting about how they would replace Tony Weaver, Maake Kemoeatu and Will Demps. Really. Think back, hard. There you go.

That's why it might seem premature to pass judgment now. More help could be on the way. More help might already be here.

It had better be. Because at this early date, the subtractions still outweigh the additions.

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