When Art Modell last endured this amount of off-season turmoil, he wasbranded a villain.
The year was 1996, the team was without a name and the chaos was over thepainful uprooting of a franchise from Cleveland to Baltimore.
Now, six years later and a season removed from a Super Bowl celebration,the resilient owner once again finds his team weathering an identity crisisafter months of upheaval. But this time - as the rag-tag Ravens kick offtraining camp Friday - Modell finds himself being applauded.
With two seasons remaining as Ravens owner, Modell signed off on arebuilding project that gutted a superstar lineup and greatly deflated hischances of returning to another Super Bowl.
Rather than reconstruct a team in the twilight of his ownership, Modellcould have ordered two last-ditch championship runs, leaving behind a clunkerof a franchise that wouldn't be able to climb out of its salary-cap ditch foryears.
Instead, Modell will ride out the bumps with a youth-filled team for twoyears and hand over the keys to a potentially Super Bowl-ready vehicle in2004, when minority owner Steve Bisciotti plans to exercise his $325 millionoption to purchase the rest of the team's shares.
"If I was him, it would be tempting to act selfishly," Bisciotti said. "Butto go for broke, it's so not Art. I have known him for 2 1/2 years, and hisreputation is more important than winning. His legacy with the NFL and theRavens are more important than a one-time shot."
The massive rebuilding process is sort of a cruel joke for Modell.
The 77-year-old owner has always chided his coaches for relying too much onveterans and never giving younger players a chance. That principle has beentaken to the extreme this off-season.
In the aftermath of drastic salary-cap cuts, the Ravens reportedly have athird of their $71.1 million cap tied up in "dead money" (term used for capcharges for players no longer on the roster), including a $4 million hit fromthe release of quarterback Elvis Grbac.
That has meant an operating budget of $48.3 million and a necessity to relyon younger, cheaper players. As a result, rookies make up half of the Ravens'training camp roster, and 10 first-time starters will likely line up in theseason opener.
Although it's the biggest turnover of any Modell team in his 42 years ofNFL ownership, he is never at a loss for levity in this predicament.
"I think that we are going to have the biggest program sales in the historyof the franchise," Modell said. "People need to find out who is who, includingme."
The national media are painting a darker picture for the Ravens.
Most preseason publications have the Ravens at the bottom of the four-teamAFC North, and some predict them to be one of the five worst teams in theleague. A recent Sporting News article evaluated the Ravens this way: "Successshouldn't be an issue for the Ravens in 2002 as much as avoidingembarrassment."
Said Modell: "It's a big mistake writing us off. I don't know what toexpect from this team, but it's the great amount of uncertainties that makesthis team exciting. I think we're going to surprise people."
A place with the team
While time is running out on Modell's ownership, he'll still have a place -as well as an office - with the team after Bisciotti takes over.
Bisciotti, an Anne Arundel County businessman, has gone out of his way tolearn from Modell and pay him the utmost respect. When the Ravens open theirnew practice facility under Bisciotti's ownership, Modell will have an officejust down the hall from Bisciotti's.
"We've grown so close," Bisciotti said. "I think he is an incredibleresource, and I want to keep Art around forever. It's not just from aknowledge standpoint, but it's based on our relationship."
The feeling is mutual.
"My obligation to Bisciotti is very, very clear: I want to leave this teamin super shape," Modell said. "I don't play it any other way than the straightand honest way."
Keeping Modell around is just part of the plan for a seamless transition inownership.
Ravens coach Brian Billick has already agreed to a four-year, $14 millionextension and senior vice president of football operations Ozzie Newsome isexpected to receive a similarly structured contract. Those new deals allowBillick and Newsome to remain together in the first two years of Bisciotti'sownership.
"It's important to have that team intact as long as they want to stayintact," Bisciotti said. "In two years of being in control of the team, I'mgoing to know if we want to work long-term together."
That commitment is essential to make the rebuilding project succeed. Itwould have been difficult for Billick and Newsome to concentrate on thelong-term goals of the team while worrying about their short-term jobsecurity.
"You have to have in place people to make the transition," Newsome said.
"We are in this situation because we all decided that this is the course wewanted to take. To have Brian and I able to work our way through it, it sendsa positive message to the locker room and the community. Those are the twoplaces that you have to be responsive to."
Getting cap in order
By taking the brunt of their cap hits this year, the Ravens expect to be intheir best cap shape since moving here.
But don't count on the Ravens to freely spend their projected $15 millionof cap space next season. There is no urgency to mortgage future seasons justto send Modell out on a high note.
"We are on a plan," Newsome said. "We will be competitive, but we will alsofind out what our needs are in 2003 and then we'll address those needs. We'lladdress as many as we can. If we have the success in '04 and '05 like we didin 2000 and '01, he's still going to be a part of that."
Still, Modell is savoring every moment in his final 17 months as owner,rebuilding his team once again while reflecting on the legacy he will leavebehind.
"I think it will be a dramatic change in my life, but a good one," saidModell, who has lost 30 pounds while recovering from a mild heart attack inApril.
"I've had my time in this league. I hope that I've done right by a lot ofpeople. I promised a certain team when I came to Baltimore, and I think I havedelivered. The last game I see as the Baltimore Ravens owner will beemotional. I'm sure of it."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun