Mystery man

Benching unclear, but ample reasons to play McAlister

October 21, 2008|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,jamison.hensley@baltsun.com

It is unknown how long the benching of Chris McAlister will last.

Although there is a chance cornerback Samari Rolle and safety Dawan Landry could return Sunday, Ravens coach John Harbaugh wouldn't say yesterday whether McAlister would regain his starting job in the secondary against the Oakland Raiders.

"If he's one of the guys that we feel gives us the best opportunity to play the best defense at that moment, he'll be out there," Harbaugh said. "If we think there's a guy that can do it better, then he'll be out there."

On Sunday, the Ravens surprisingly replaced McAlister, a three-time Pro Bowl cornerback, with Frank Walker, who had been their No. 4 cornerback most of the season.

It remains a mystery why the switch was made. Harbaugh was extremely vague when fielding questions about the Ravens' interceptions leader not starting for the first time this season.

He said the decision wasn't the result of an injury or a discipline problem. He then declined to directly answer questions about whether the move was tied to a poor performance in Indianapolis (where McAlister appeared to give up two touchdowns) or a lack of effort in practices.

"It's a football decision," Harbaugh said. "We're always going to put the best 11 players on the field for that situation. That's what we did [Sunday]. We had the corners out there in those situations that we wanted to have out there."

This isn't the first time that the Ravens have had an issue with McAlister.

He was charged with misdemeanor possession of marijuana in 2000 and with driving under the influence in 2003. Charges were dropped in both cases.

Later in 2003, McAlister broke curfew and missed the team meeting the next day during the Ravens' extended stay in San Diego. He was sent home and fined.

McAlister questioned the Ravens' chemistry at the end of 2004, describing the locker room as "a little shifted."

But Harbaugh said the reduction in playing time had nothing to do with conduct.

"We don't tie any kind of a punishment to pulling a guy off the field," he said. "How much a guy plays is based specifically and directly to what gives us the best opportunity to put our best players out there in any given situation."

McAlister didn't enter Sunday's game until 8:57 remained in the second quarter. He played only three snaps in the first three quarters.

So, is McAlister in the coach's doghouse?

"We don't have a doghouse around here," Harbaugh said. "If you see a doghouse, let me know."

After Sunday's 27-13 win over the Miami Dolphins, Harbaugh seemed to pin the lineup change on McAlister's right knee, which slowed him throughout the preseason and has continued to swell up throughout the regular season.

Harbaugh clarified his comments yesterday, saying there is no injury "per se."

Walking through Ravens headquarters yesterday, McAlister said, "My knee is excellent."

McAlister, 31, is signed through the 2010 season. He is scheduled to earn $8 million this season and the last two years of the deal.

Addressing McAlister's status on the team this season, Harbaugh said: "Chris is still very much in the mix. He's part of our plans. He's going to be a part of our success or failure as we go forward."

While McAlister's role is in doubt, there is a chance the Ravens could have Rolle and Landry back.

Both have missed the past four games with neck and shoulder injuries. Rolle is seeing doctors today, and Landry is scheduled to meet with them tomorrow.

"I would have to say I was a little bit surprised in both those cases that you could come back so quickly," Harbaugh said.

Here are three reasons McAlister needs to be in the starting lineup:

* To shut down the next three teams. : The Ravens (3-3) could go on a run against the Oakland Raiders, Cleveland Browns and Houston Texans - teams who are a combined 6-12. A case could be made that the top playmaker on each team is at wide receiver. That's why they would need McAlister against Javon Walker, Braylon Edwards and Andre Johnson.

* No viable replacement. : Harbaugh contends that the Ravens will put the best 11 players on the field. It's hard to make a convincing argument that McAlister is worse than Walker, who couldn't start last season for the Green Bay Packers and struggled throughout the preseason for the Ravens. McAlister is also more physical than the Ravens' other top cornerbacks, Rolle and Fabian Washington.

* Money talks. : It's hard to believe owner Steve Bisciotti would be happy making McAlister the richest nickel back in the NFL. Based on his $8 million salary (which is spread over 17 weeks), McAlister earned $470,588 for playing eight snaps Sunday, or $58,823 per play. It would be a tremendously expensive message to keep McAlister on the sideline.

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