Team of promise vows to make good on it Shedding loser's tag with run to playoffs is goal line for '98 Ravens; Ravens: A look ahead and a look back Mike Preston

THE BALTIMORE SUN

As far as the Ravens are concerned, the rebuilding stage is over and it's time for owner Art Modell and his staff to deliver on a promise made nearly two years ago.

The Ravens will not have an "elite team" in 1998 as Modell promised, but the consensus among the front office, coaching staff and players is that the club will be ready to make a serious playoff run. The top rookies have experience. A new stadium will open. The team will have about $7 million more than this season to sign players.

After finishing 6-9-1 in 1997, and last again in the AFC Central, the Ravens want to shed their loser's tag.

"It was an agonizing year, and we lost a couple of games that were close, which means we can win a couple of games that were close," Modell said. "We still have a ways to go, but we're very close to being a good football team."

Coach Ted Marchibroda said: "Our record was not as good as we would have liked, but tremendous progress was made. Next year we will have more experienced talent, depth and more competition among our competitors."

The Ravens have a few holes to fill, but not quite as many as last year, when the team finished 4-12 and had to unload such free agents as outside linebackers Jerrol Williams and Mike Croel, who are no longer in the league.

The Ravens believe they have a strong nucleus with dominating offensive and defensive lines led by offensive tackles Jonathan Ogden, Orlando Brown and guard Jeff Blackshear, and defensive tackles Tony Siragusa, James Jones and Larry Webster and defensive ends Michael McCrary, Rob Burnett and Keith Washington.

The Ravens also like their corps of young, developing players such as Ogden, linebackers Peter Boulware, Jamie Sharper and Ray Lewis, running back Jay Graham and defensive backs Kim Herring, Ralph Staten, Donny Brady, DeRon Jenkins and John Williams.

The team's most pressing needs are at cornerback, fullback, left guard and running back. Those acquisitions can come via the draft or free agency.

"We needed a couple of hardened veterans," said Marchibroda, who had 23 rookies or first-year players on the roster. "We need a couple of players who have been to the playoffs before and know what it takes to get there."

As for the draft, the Ravens have had outstanding success in the past two years. Ogden, the team's No. 1 pick in 1996, was selected to the Associated Press' All-Pro team yesterday, his second postseason honor this year, and Lewis, the team's other No. 1 pick in 1996, led the league in tackles with 205.

Boulware, last year's No. 1 pick, came within one sack of the league's rookie record this year, finishing with 11.5. In the past two years, eight of the Ravens' draft picks have started games.

"Our past two drafts have been as good as any I've seen," Modell said.

But before the draft, the Ravens will have to decide on the status of their quarterbacks. Marchibroda was noncommittal on third-year player Eric Zeier or veteran Vinny Testaverde as his starter going into training camp next July.

The Ravens, who will have the No. 10 pick overall, could swap up in the draft to one of the top positions to select Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning, Washington State quarterback Ryan Leaf or Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson.

The Ravens are one of the few teams that had second-round picks who started this season, so they might be willing to part with one to draft up. The Ravens will discuss their options in the next couple of weeks.

"Both Vinny and Eric are under contract and we're planning on both of them being here next season," said Marchibroda, who has an outside interest in retired quarterback Jim Kelly. "We have two quarterbacks who have proven they can play in this league, and in the last four ballgames, Eric showed me he is a little better than I thought."

Modell said: "Trading up in the draft is one of many possibilities. This will all be addressed in due course."

Modell, members of his front office and the coaching staff will have evaluations Jan. 27. The meetings aren't expected to be as long as the daylong process of a year ago.

The Ravens have repaired their defense from a year ago, but now the offense needs work. The Ravens went from having the most proficient passing offense in the NFL to being barely above-average.

Except for brief flashes, the running game wasn't nearly as dominant as expected, and top running back Bam Morris may not return because of legal problems.

"Overall, we still made a big turnaround," said Ravens cornerback Antonio Langham. "Next year, we come in here with a lot of expectations. From Day One, we're coming in with a totally different mind-set."

Said Siragusa: "I think Ted told us today we lost a total of six games by 13 points. We did that with a lot of young players.

"But there are no more rookies now. We have experience. We got a new stadium. It's time we give Baltimore what they wanted and that's a winner. Our goal is the playoffs."

1997 recap

Plays of the Year

In the first quarter of the first Pittsburgh game, special teams ace Bennie Thompson had his helmet knocked off at the Steelers' 45, but ran 20 more yards through a wedge to make the tackle on Mike Adams at the 25-yard line. Thompson then got up and ran into the end zone to work the crowd.

If there is one play quarterback Vinny Testaverde will be remembered for in Baltimore, it was throwing a pass from off his knees after slipping. The pass was intended for slot receiver Jermaine Lewis in the third quarter against the Jets. Cornerback Otis Smith picked it off to kill the drive.

"As soon as it left my hands, I thought of Brett Favre and the one he threw like that earlier in the season," Testaverde said. "Big mistake."

Turning point

The Ravens were 3-2 and playing at home heading into their first game against Pittsburgh. If the Ravens had beaten the Steelers, they would have gone into the bye week 4-2. They jumped to a 21-0 lead and led 24-7 at the half, but melted down in the second half and lost, 42-34. The Ravens went on to lose three of their next four and never recovered.

Strange story

On July 29, second-year linebacker Ray Lewis was flown by helicopter to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center for a possible serious neck injury after colliding with rookie fullback Kenyon Cotton in practice.

It brought back bad memories for Cotton. During his sophomore year at Minden (La.) High, Cotton was playing wide receiver in the school's homecoming game and the town's mayor, Paul Brown, was on hand as part of the sideline chain crew.

Cotton caught a pass near the sideline and was pushed out of bounds, directly into Brown. The mayor flew backward, striking his head on a team bench. He suffered brain damage that incapacitated him until his death from cancer last year.

Sad story

Running back Bam Morris was suspended for the first four games for violating the league's policy on substance abuse.

Most Valuable Player

Ray Lewis, the man in the middle of the Ravens' 4-3 defense, started out as a strong producer and never stopped. Lewis did not miss a start, averaging more than 13 tackles a game to finish with a league-high 205. His speed, enthusiasm and ferocity make him one of the NFL's most promising linebackers. He'll play in a few Pro Bowls before he's done.

Rookie of the Year

Peter Boulware makes this an easy call. He led NFL rookies this season with 11.5 sacks, even though he spent most of the year learning a position he had never played, linebacker. He's a superstar in the making. As Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher said: "In a few years, people are going to be comparing other pass rushers to him."

Top free-agent acquisition

Defensive end Michael McCrary, who was among the team leaders in sacks and tackles.

Unsung hero

Tackle James Jones was a defensive leader, practiced every day and played in every game while also being one of the team's top tacklers.

Up-and-coming stars

Offense: T Orlando Brown, C Wally Williams, WR Jermaine Lewis, WR Derrick Alexander.

Defense: LB Peter Boulware, DE Michael McCrary, LB Ray Lewis.

Comings and goings?

Restricted free agents: DE Mike Frederick, OL Sale Isaia, C Quentin Neujahr, DE Keith Washington, QB Eric Zeier.

Unrestricted free agents: WR Derrick Alexander, CB Eugene Daniel, TE Eric Green, CB Antonio Langham, RB Bam Morris, WR Nate Singleton, DB Bennie Thompson, DE Larry Webster, C Wally Williams.

Top re-signing priorities: Williams, Langham, Webster, Green, Alexander.

Free agents the Ravens may seek: RBs Ricky Watters, Charlie Garner, Dorsey Levens, Edgar Bennett; FB Sam Gash; WRs Yancey Thigpen, Jake Reed, Robert Brooks; CB Tyronne Drakeford; LB Jeff Herrod; S Myron Bell; S Brock Marion.

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