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On horizon, fans' point of no return


It's past the point of ripping them. Past the point of making fun of them. Past the point of calling for the coach's head.

The questions now are more troubling.

When will the fans stop coming?

When will the Ravens' honeymoon end?

The announced crowd yesterday was 69,074, but there were hundreds of empty seats, particularly in the upper deck.

Sure, it was cold and damp. But the 12-1 Minnesota Vikings were in town, featuring perhaps the most exciting offense and exciting player in the NFL.

And when the Vikings took a 35-14 lead less than four minutes into the third quarter, the exodus from Camden Yards began.

Oh, the fans are almost certain to return next season, with a new coach, a new quarterback and the anticipation of better days ahead.

But will that anticipation stem from legitimate promise or that old Art Modell standby, false hope?

Granted, no one expected the Ravens to beat the Vikings yesterday, not with three-fifths of their offensive line sidelined by injuries.

But six turnovers? That's inexcusable.

The 38-28 final? Don't be deceived.

The Ravens are 5-9 on the season, 15-30-1 since coming to Baltimore. If Modell doesn't turn over control to a top football man after this disaster, he never will.

He wants to hire a big-name coach, right? Well, big-name coaches want decision-making power, not the restraint of a cumbersome committee headed by an owner who has never been to a Super Bowl.

As many as 10 teams could be in the market for coaches. Who knows if Modell is ready to surrender authority? Who knows if he will even hire the right man?

The Orioles continue selling tickets because they've got a tourist attraction of a ballpark and a local owner who spends feverishly to win, even if his moves often appear misguided.

The Ravens lack those advantages. Their stadium is nice, but nothing extraordinary. Their owner is an out-of-towner who moved the team from Cleveland, then sold permanent seat licenses to a publicly financed facility.

How long will their fans tolerate the team's ineptitude?

How long before they say, enough is enough?

Yesterday didn't have to be so ugly. The Ravens took a 14-6 lead by scoring on their first two kickoff returns, then finished the first half with more turnovers (four) than first downs (three).

When a team fails to make significant cuts after an embarrassing 45-19 loss to Jacksonville, why should its players ever fear retribution for a sloppy performance?

The only fear in this organization is among the front-office types who remain forever passive, lest they ruffle Modell.

The Vikings ran 23 of the first 24 offensive plays, 33 of the first 37 and 91 of 133 for the game.

They might be too exhausted to win the Super Bowl now.

"At times, we looked like a high school team," Ravens quarterback Jim Harbaugh said, and he was being charitable.

The fans noticed. The fans booed. And in the final minutes, only about 5,000 hearty souls remained at the House With No Name, No Lights and No Glory.

It was only fitting the stadium went half-dark early in the fourth quarter. The Ravens have been playing in the dark for the better part of three seasons now.

When will they see the light?

The truth is, they're still haunted by their move from Cleveland. They had such little time to assemble a coaching staff, they failed to hire an assistant with the qualifications to replace Ted Marchibroda.

Think about it: Marvin Lewis has evolved into a respected defensive coordinator, but even he was the Ravens' third choice, behind two former head coaches, Richie Petitbon and Bill Arnsparger.

The season probably would not have turned out differently if Modell had fired Marchibroda after the loss to Jacksonville dropped the Ravens to 2-6. But with no quality interim available, Modell didn't even have the choice.

This isn't to exonerate Modell, who is responsible for many of his own problems. Nor is it to exonerate Marchibroda, who failed in ways big (refusing to name an offensive coordinator) and small (refusing to play Floyd Turner).

The point is, the next coach should be in position to attract better assistants. But will even that be enough? If getting rid of Vinny Testaverde wasn't the answer to the Ravens' problems, then neither is getting rid of Marchibroda.

The next coach almost certainly will be an improvement, but the fans' patience will only go so far. No one expected the Ravens' honeymoon to last forever. But if Modell doesn't get his house in order, it might be shorter than anyone ever imagined.

Losing control

The Ravens committed six turnovers yesterday, leading to 26 Vikings points:

Qtr. Turnover ...... Poss.* Res.

1st Holmes fumble .. R28 ... FG

1st Green fumble ... V44 ... FG

2nd Harris fumble .. R17 ... TD

2nd Harbaugh ....... R49 ... FG

.... fumble

3rd Holmes fumble .. R27 ... FG

3rd Harbaugh INT ... R28 ... TD

*-Yard line where Vikings took possession.

Pub Date: 12/14/98

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