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Q&A with Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti

Steve Bisciotti is coming off his most successful season as the Ravens' majority owner, winning his first playoff game and coming within one victory of the Super Bowl. At the NFL annual meetings Sunday in Dana Point, Calif., Bisciotti talked with Baltimore Sun reporter Jamison Hensley about the future of his franchise, from locking up Terrell Suggs to increasing ticket price to the chances of bringing another championship to Baltimore.

How did it feel to get your first playoff win as the majority owner?

Bisciotti: Honestly, that didn't register when we got it. What I remember -- not that I was majority or minority owner -- but the press talking about us not winning a playoff game since 2001. So, in my mind, just win one game because I hated that statistic hanging over the Ravens.

People might not agree with me, but when you get a bye [like the Ravens did in 2006], it's the same as a win as far as I'm concerned. They won't agree with me, but when you go 13-3, it meant you're a very good team. If you've earned a bye, it's as good as a win to me. But when I saw that [playoff win drought] in print, I guess I wanted to win one game. I don't want to say I would have been satisfied with one game. But I didn't go into the season expecting a playoff performance anyway. To me, it was all gravy.

So what expectations did you have for the 2008 team?

Bisciotti: I'll be honest with you. I told John [Harbaugh, Ravens coach] at the beginning of the year that if he secured his spot as a leader of this organization and we drafted a quarterback that may well be our franchise quarterback, I really didn't care about our record. I would consider it successful if I had my coach and the quarterback of the future. It was all a bonus.

The success vindicated me a little bit in the tough decision that I made. Certainly, it gained the respect of the players to see John manage a team all the way through the playoffs with a rookie quarterback. It certainly gave Joe Flacco an experience as a rookie that not many guys ever get a chance to experience.

What are the chances that the Ravens sign linebacker Terrell Suggs to a long-term deal?

Bisciotti: My hometown discount theory didn't seem to go over real well in the Ray Lewis negotiations (laughter). Suggs deserves to be paid as one of the top defensive players in the league. I have faith in Ozzie [Newsome, general manager] and his guys that they'll get it done. I know Suggs really wants to be here, and I know we really want him. So, I certainly hope it doesn't drag on as a franchise situation any longer.

Do you envision Suggs to be a long-term Raven like a Ray Lewis or Ed Reed?

Bisciotti: Yes. There's no doubt in my mind that we'll get a long-term contract done with Suggs. I think the way the contracts get accelerating -- and everybody keeps passing each other as the highest paid this or that -- I think it puts more pressure on Ozzie. But Terrell is a wonderful personality to have on your team. I'm pretty encouraged that they'll work it out.

Were you disappointed in how Ray Lewis handled himself this offseason in regard to talking about other teams?

Bisciotti: No. It humored me.

How did it humor you?

Bisciotti: We already had an understanding of what he was doing. I wanted Ray to explore his options. So, when he came back, he was 100 percent comfortable that Ozzie had given him a legitimate contract. It didn't bother me at all because Ray is one of the great self-marketers. I think he's a brilliant guy. I would have been disappointed had he not done the best to try and generate interest from other teams. I was just amused.

Did it surprise you that wide receiver Derrick Mason has publicly asked for an extension?

Bisciotti: When you initially hear it, it does. It seems like the corners and the wideouts are the press-getters in the league. We've always appreciated that Derrick goes out in that yeoman-like fashion and gets his 85 catches a year. Yet the minute I hear it, you realize why wouldn't he do this. He doesn't want to be one year further along, be a free agent and wonder where he's going to end up.

I think he loves Baltimore. He's happy here. It's only his second city, and I think he would like to just make it two cities. He's older. He's got kids. And he wants to know that he doesn't have to pack up and move at 36 years old next year. It may have surprised me because I didn't see it coming. Once he said it, I didn't take offense to it. He made his intentions known, and I think he got Ozzie's attention.

Will you consider it?

Bisciotti: Sure, we're already entertaining it. In these negotiations, it's Ozzie's job to make sure that something that benefits Derrick also benefits us. If the numbers are right -- and Derrick certainly doesn't look like he's slowing down -- then we could sign him to an extension and it would be cap friendly for us.

Some fans were upset about the increase in ticket prices (even though the team has traditionally done it every two years) because of the economy. What was the main reason for doing so?

Bisciotti: When I took over the team, the Modells had a history of raising the tickets every other year. So, I have always said it's important to keep our tickets at a level that allows us to have the kind of cash flow that makes us able to compete with the other teams in the league. This was the hardest one I have had to deal with because of the economy.

At the same time, your confidence is bolstered by the fact that tickets in the secondary market are being sold at two to three times the price of the ticket. Some of our studies say that only 25 percent of our fans go to every game. Maybe the wealthier ones give them away, and the ones that are less wealthy sell them.

Let's face it, if somebody is laid off of work, they're going to drop their tickets whether we raise the ticket prices or not. The people that are still gainfully employed, there may be a small portion of them -- 10 or 15 percent of them -- that sell three games instead of two games in order to make it work. If they really need the money, then they can sell our PSLs that have been great investments for them since they bought them. If you raise the tickets 10 percent, certainly your first option is to go to one less game to offset that before you would consider selling your PSLs. It did pain me because of the economy. It's not my favorite thing to do, but you have to do it to stay competitive.

There have been other NFL teams that have laid off people. Has the economy affected the Ravens' operation?

Bisciotti: It comes down to suites and sponsorships. We have a full stadium and we've always had a full stadium. In spite of the price increases, I think we will still have a full stadium. The sponsorships and the suite sales are the things my marketing team is struggling with right now. We will see a dip in revenue this year.

Would you have to make a reduction in staff like other NFL teams?

Bisciotti: If the economy continues to spiral downward, it's something that Dick [Cass, team president] could bring to me at any time. But he knows that is really the measure of last resort. As much of the family atmosphere that we try and foster, we don't have dead wood. We've got a lot of really productive people in this organization. Before we would lay off 10 percent of our organization, the organization would vote to take a 10 percent pay cut if those were the choices. I hope it doesn't get to that. But if it does, I think there are a couple of alternatives that are less painful for everybody than to lay off productive people.

The two biggest signings so far have been cornerback Domonique Foxworth and center Matt Birk, both of whom have outstanding reputations. How important was it to bring in two character guys?

Bisciotti: It's very important, but I would be remiss in saying that we lost two character guys in Bart Scott and Jason Brown. You certainly aren't going to chase guys with baggage when there's guys out there that are known to be high-character guys.

I talked to Bart Scott [on Saturday] and we had a long conversation. We got a young guy in Tavares Gooden that made it palatable to lose Bart Scott because we had somebody that we're very high on and think can fill his role. If that third-round pick last year had been a cornerback [instead of linebacker Tavares Gooden], I think it's safe to say that we would have kept Bart and not signed Foxworth. Sometimes it's not who you're letting go. It's who you can replace him with. Unfortunately, that's part of the salary cap.

With how the Ravens responded to the change in coaches, do you feel any sense of satisfaction in making the decision now?

Bisciotti: I'm happy that John turned out to be the man I thought he was when we went through the interview process. I had an eight-man committee that gave John a shot. That's as far as my satisfaction goes because they are two separate issues. I made a decision to get rid of Brian [Billick]. Then I threw myself into the uncharted waters that I had never experienced -- that was to search out and hire a coach that would be the leader of our future.

What was the biggest key in John Harbaugh having so much success in his first season?

Bisciotti: His eyes.

What do you mean by that?

Bisciotti: As a leader, you're always looking for the look in the man's eyes when he's on the cusp of getting an opportunity that could define his career. There was something in John's eyes that told me, if given the opportunity, he wouldn't disappoint. I can't elaborate any further.

Which free-agent loss hurt the most: Bart Scott, Jason Brown or Jim Leonhard?

Bisciotti: I hope it doesn't hurt the others for me to be honest, but it's Bart Scott. He's a very intelligent guy. He's just one of the great guys. Again, I told him [Saturday] that we'll probably see him again. We know him. He knows us. If he's a free agent when he's 32 years old and we're in the market for a linebacker, it would be a slam dunk. It would take Ozzie 15 minutes to cut that deal. I wish Tavares Gooden were a cornerback. Then, it might have made it a lot easier on us.

What do you think about the decision to not re-sign Matt Stover in the first month of free agency?

Bisciotti: Stover is a little like Trent Dilfer [the Ravens' Super Bowl quarterback]. Incredibly accomplished and maybe never appreciated for what he brings. If the NFL gave us a waiver to carry 46 players on game day [instead of the 45-man rule], then it would be a slam dunk. We would have Stover re-signed.

It took me a while to understand the ramifications of keeping two kickers [a placekicker and a kickoff specialist]. That's why not many teams do it. Accuracy and distance are two different skill sets at times. It put us in a position where we have to look at consolidating that position.

Matt can never get back the 70-yard leg that is going to knock the kickoff in the end zone. It creates a domino effect when you're cutting that roster to 45 on game day. While Matt can win you a game, Matt can cost you a game if we need to keep a kickoff guy because we may have two injuries at corner and we had to put a safety at corner.

What's your confidence level in new defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, who's only been in the league one year?

Bisciotti: Obviously, it's high because I trust John Harbaugh's ability to assess people's talents and capabilities. He did his due diligence. He determined that he had a good enough staff to keep intact and didn't need to look outside. So, he interviewed the four horses [Mattison, defensive assistant Vic Fangio, secondary coach Chuck Pagano and defensive line coach Clarence Brooks] and he decided on Greg.

Greg and Ray have a mandate. That's to prove that we can survive without Bart and Rex [Ryan, former defensive coordinator]. Nobody in Baltimore is rooting against that. We have all confidence in the world that Greg and Ray are going to make sure that transition is pretty seamless.

Are the Ravens one or two players away from the Super Bowl?

Bisciotti: I don't think you can ever say that. That's fool's gold. I think so many things happen during the course of the season from injuries to the bounce of the ball. That can be just as important as your settled roster. If you think that you're a player or two away, I think it'll end up disappointing you and the fans. I think there is so much luck in the bounce of the ball and injuries. If those two things go your way, I think we're already a Super Bowl team.

So, what are the expectations for this year's Ravens?

Bisciotti: I guess I don't have expectations. I think in watching Ozzie do his job over the last nine years, I think having what might be our quarterback of the future is very exciting for me. I'm looking forward to Ozzie being able to build a roster with that as a constant, which he's never had. I can't tell you the difference in our preparation for the draft and free agency without having to look at quarterback because we've always been looking at quarterback. If Joe stays healthy and he continues to develop, I'm really intrigued to watch Ozzie fill in that roster around a legit quarterback. Ozzie is our x-factor, not one or two players.

If the NFL reaches an uncapped season in 2010, could the Ravens compete?

Bisciotti: Yes, and then some. It's too difficult to explain the implications of an uncapped year to the average fan. But there are so many restrictions and poison pills built into an uncapped year ... this league has been predicated on the fact that you can't buy a championship. If it frees teams up to spend more money, it doesn't portend disaster for the teams that spend less.

Then it comes down to a lot of variables, and some of them are the actual cash availability of the owners. And there's a lot of owners that are in more precarious positions than I am. If it meant that I had to subsidize the team for a couple of years in order to keep us competitive, I think Baltimore would be proud to see the way I stepped up.

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