Ravens: rebound or rerun? Team starts anew, but questions lurk after 5-11 season

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Beginning today, the road to recovery gets serious for the Ravens.

Since moving from Cleveland, the Ravens have conducted their first draft, run two minicamps and implemented offensive and defensive systems under a new coaching staff.

The coaches and players have talked about starting fresh in a city that clamored for the return of the NFL since 1984, and about the advantages those conditions should bring to a team that was battered as much psychologically as it was on the field during last year's 5-11 disaster.

It's easy to forget that the Cleveland Browns started 3-1, before beginning a downward spiral a month later when the move to Baltimore was announced. Throughout the season's second half, the games became secondary to the public relations war, as news of the move sparked a furious reaction in Cleveland and across the nation.

"A lot of things happened last year. The obvious thing is we didn't win," said Mike Sheppard, Baltimore's receivers coach. "I don't blame it on anything. I just say we didn't do a good enough job anywhere."

When veterans join rookies for the team's first full-squad training camp practices today at Western Maryland College, the Ravens begin anew, trying to erase last year's futility and move into playoff contention in the AFC Central.

Here are some key questions the team faces:

How good are the Ravens' linebackers?

That's difficult to say, especially since their only proven veteran, Pepper Johnson, was released in what team officials say was a salary cap decision.

Johnson's departure makes this unit the team's biggest question mark. It also puts tremendous pressure on rookie Ray ** Lewis, the late first-round draft pick who will be counted on to start in the middle of defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis' 4-3 base alignment.

The rest is a cast of virtual unknowns, except for fourth-year player Mike Caldwell and free agent Mike Croel, each of whom will be asked to contribute from the outside. Caldwell started six games last year and recorded 58 tackles -- third-best on the team -- in his first season of considerable playing time. Croel, the NFC's top defensive rookie five years ago, drew sparse interest after his release by the Denver Broncos.

Fourth-year veteran Ed Sutter has never started a game but has played well on special teams. Craig Powell, the team's No. 1 pick last year, missed nearly all of 1995 with a knee injury and has yet to practice. Sixth-round draft pick Dexter Daniels is a 240-pounder who played stoutly in the middle at Florida.

Who will carry the load on offense?

Veteran Leroy Hoard, 5 feet 11, 225 pounds, looks like a cross between a halfback and a fullback, and figures to be featured in coach Ted Marchibroda's one-back offense. And that might be good enough to keep opposing defenses honest. After all, Hoard is only two years removed from the Pro Bowl.

Still, Hoard, who ended last year on injured reserve (ribs) after averaging 4.0 yards on 136 carries, did not score a touchdown in 1995.

Earnest Byner brings 12 years of experience and savvy, not to mention that he caught a career-high 61 passes last year. He is mainly a third-down weapon.

The wild card in this scenario is second-year back Earnest

Hunter, who had a terrific preseason last year but was banished to former coach Bill Belichick's doghouse after fumbling too much early in the regular season. Hunter has explosive speed and can be tough to bring down. The Ravens like his potential so much that they passed on prospects like Karim Abdul-Jabbar and Chris Darkins in the middle rounds of the draft.

"We have good backs in Hoard and Byner, and Hunter has to show some dependability," Marchibroda said. "What we don't have is that big, lead-blocker type of back."

Will Marchibroda's style reap immediate success?

Marchibroda is the anti-Belichick. Whereas Belichick was perpetually tense, Marchibroda exudes calm. Belichick ruled with an autocratic hand; Marchibroda is the consummate delegator. Belichick's offense lacked fire and imagination; Marchibroda is recognized as one of league's sharpest offensive minds. Expect a variety of looks, including three- and four-receiver sets, and the no-huddle offense.

Since the team's first minicamp, Ravens players have marveled at the relaxed, confident tone set by Marchibroda. Whether that translates into improved performance is the question.

Will this be Vinny Testaverde's career year?

The quarterback enters his 10th season in a make-or-break situation. The 1986 Heisman Trophy winner from Miami suffered through horrendous seasons -- with horrendous offensive lines -- in Tampa Bay before signing with Cleveland in 1993. He was off to his best start last year, before Belichick inexplicably benched him to give the team a spark. Still, he completed 61.5 percent of his passes and threw 17 touchdowns and only 10 interceptions.

The time is ripe for Testaverde to blossom as an upper-echelon passer. With Marchibroda and new quarterback coach Don Strock, Testaverde has never had guidance like this.

Will Jonathan Ogden make an immediate impact?

The Ravens' top draft pick, the best offensive tackle in college last year, heads into training camp to learn a new position at left guard, which is a major adjustment for a guy who has not played that position since before high school.

Ogden has size, speed, strength, smarts. If he develops quickly, the Ravens could have the best offensive line in the AFC. If he doesn't, the offensive line still looks like the team's strong suit.

Will the real tight end please step up?

Nine-year veteran Brian Kinchen is a solid, all-around player. Frank Hartley is a great blocker. And Harold Bishop is a player the Ravens gave up a second-round pick to get from Tampa Bay in 1995. Each disappeared in Belichick's run-oriented offense.

"We don't have that tight end who can block, go downfield, get the ball and run after the catch," Marchibroda said.

Team officials would love for Bishop, 6-4, 250, to break through in his third year.

Who will man the right corner?

Veteran Don Griffin was released last week, opening the door for one of training camp's key battles at right cornerback. Third-year veteran Issac Booth has the edge, but team officials want DeRon Jenkins, a second-round pick this year, to make a run at the job.

Is Jermaine Lewis for real?

A fifth-round pick out of Maryland, where he set several Atlantic Coast Conference receiving records, Lewis could prove to be one of the draft's steals. He might be the fastest on the team, and, as a kick returner, he should add to an already fine special teams unit.

Will the decisions to release Andre Rison and Johnson prove sound?

Salary cap concerns aside, Rison is a big-play maker who often floundered in Belichick's conservative offense last year, the worst of his seven-year career. The Ravens probably can cover that loss with a solid group that includes Michael Jackson and Calvin Williams.

Johnson's release is more risky. He led the Browns in tackles the past two years and missed only five starts in three years with Cleveland, and his leadership was unquestioned among young players, several of whom happen to be linebackers. Many veterans are angry over his release.

Which team will show up?

Will it be the 5-11 group that fell apart at midseason last year? Or will it be the 11-5 team that had the AFC's best defense in 1994? The answer probably lies somewhere in the middle.

Ravens camp

Where: Western Maryland College, Westminster

Practices: Run through Aug. 15. All are free and open to the public. Times are from 9 a.m. to 11: 30 a.m. and 2: 30 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Directions from Baltimore: Take I-695 to Exit 19 to I-795 north to its end. Follow signs to Westminster via Route 140 north to Route 97 north. Turn left on exit ramp onto Pennsylvania Avenue. Go about 1 mile and turn left on Monroe Street. Turn right at Winters Alley. Parking lot is on left.

Pub Date: 7/19/96

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