Bill Bidwill stiffed Baltimore for Phoenix in 1987, but now we owe him heartfelt thanks. By selecting Simeon Rice with the third pick in yesterday's NFL draft, Bidwill's Arizona Cardinals saved Art Modell from making a choice he would have come to regret.
Only after the Cardinals passed on UCLA offensive lineman Jonathan Ogden did Modell drop his plans to make Nebraska running back Lawrence Phillips the first true Raven at No. 4.
Indeed, Modell seemed downright excited by the chance to rehabilitate Phillips, citing his past experience with troubled players and claiming that Phillips was "provoked" into assaulting his former girlfriend, Kate McEwen.
Provoked? Nothing McEwen could have done justified Phillips beating her and dragging her down three flights of stairs, but Draft Day is a time to excuse all past sins, no matter how disgusting.
"If it helps our team," Georgia Frontiere said, "that's all I care about."
Phillips probably would have helped the Ravens more than Ogden -- the team needed a running back, not an offensive lineman. But this choice wasn't purely about football, or Phillips would have been the No. 1 pick overall.
Instead, he went No. 6 to the Rams.
Modell said the Ravens rated Phillips behind Ogden and Illinois linebacker Kevin Hardy (Jacksonville's choice at No. 2), and denied he feared a public outcry just months after moving the Browns out of Cleveland.
But director of football operations Ozzie Newsome called Ogden "the cleanest" of the top four players on the Ravens' board, then raised the character issue again after selecting Miami linebacker Ray Lewis at No. 26.
"Not only did we get football players, we got good character guys, good leaders," Newsome said.
Phillips did not fit that description, even if Modell insisted he had "no qualms" about taking a player who is on probation for misdemeanor assault and trespassing charges stemming from his attack on McEwen last Sept. 10.
"Make no mistake about it -- I was not going to be deterred by the avalanche of pre-publicity," Modell said. "I didn't shy away from Phillips because of anybody writing, calling or complaining that we shouldn't do it."
Indeed, Modell expressed "supreme confidence" he could have made a Class A citizen out of Phillips -- as if a 70-year-old millionaire could relate to a 20-year-old kid who was abandoned by his parents at the age of 12.
No, blind confidence.
Without it, Modell conceded it would have been "insanity" to draft Phillips, especially with several Ravens officials arguing that it would have created an unfair burden for a team starting over in a new town.
Those people were right -- it behooved Modell to send a positive message to a community giving him the deal of a lifetime. But for all his good intentions, the owner did not grasp the depth of the domestic violence issue.
In 1980, the Browns formed the Inner Circle, a self-help group for players with personal problems. Modell envisioned Phillips joining the group. The only players to admit membership were Charles White and Kevin Mack, both of whom are retired.
"I don't know who's in it. I don't know how many are in it. It's better I don't know," Modell said. "But I do know that some of the guys in the Inner Circle have gone on to be some of the most productive people in the NFL."
Modell said the Browns started the circle after drafting White out of USC -- "he was the Heisman Trophy winner, our No. 1 draft choice. And he couldn't even get off the plane, he was so drunk."
Yesterday, Modell emphasized he would not have drafted a player known to use drugs. In other words, he would have picked someone who inflicted harm on another person, but not one who inflicted harm only on himself.
Modell had selected a mentor for Phillips -- running back Earnest Byner, "a quality, quality man." But he would not have required Phillips to perform community service, or donate a portion of his salary to women's groups.
"It adds to the indictment of the man," he said.
A man Modell believes was provoked.
The owner reached that conclusion through a "frank" talk with Phillips last week, a two-hour phone conversation with Nebraska coach Tom Osborne and interviews with counselors and advisers who knew Phillips as far back as high school.
He didn't speak with McEwen.
"It was provoked -- extremely," Modell said. "That doesn't excuse the behavior. But you've got to understand his background. This was the love of his life, someone he could cling to -- he had no mother, no father -- and she turned out to betray him.
"He had the same love for Tom Osborne and his coaching staff. He's clinging onto things he never had as a child. I'm not psychoanalyzing him. This is what I was told."
Modell surely remembers that Jim Brown, the greatest player in Cleveland history, allegedly threw a woman off a balcony, but this is a different climate, a different era.
"It cannot happen again," Modell said. "If it happens again, they'll run him out of this league and put him in jail."
This was the player the Ravens wanted?
Thank you, Bill Bidwill.
Thank you for saving Art Modell from himself.
Pub Date: 4/21/96