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Time to hold line, make snap decision


President Clinton was acquitted. But the half-truths out of Washington continue.

Orlando Brown was at Redskin Park yesterday, issuing one ludicrous statement after another.

"I thought I played great last year."

"The Ravens told me all along they were going to franchise me. I couldn't believe they didn't."

"Washington is my home. I grew up watching John Riggins and the Hogs. I dreamed of playing for the Redskins."

The latter remark is more sincere than Albert Belle saying he grew up rooting for the Orioles. But in Baltimore, it will get Brown charged with high crimes and misdemeanors, if not outright treason.

Frankly, we'd settle for perjury.

Brown saying, "I thought I played great last year" is the equivalent of Clinton saying, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman."

And the Ravens knew better than to "franchise" him, knowing the sympathy pains he experienced last season on behalf of his poor, underpaid friend, Wally Williams.

"They had a chance to sign me last year, and they didn't," Brown said. "They dug the hole."

Perhaps, but how much better is Zeus' judgment?

For his first free-agent visit, he chose a team that might be too paralyzed to sign him, a team with its quarterback, coach, general manager and ownership all in limbo.

Then again, at least the Redskins entertained a free agent yesterday.

The PSINet Ravens were too busy managing their portfolio when they should have been showering Carnell Lake with free Internet access, among other goodies, before he could sign with Jacksonville.

We're not going to zap them yet, not when they've cut Michael Jackson, wisely avoided naming a franchise player and held firm in their trade talks regarding Brad Johnson.

Still, the Ravens could lose three quality free agents -- Brown, Williams and defensive tackle James Jones. And if they fail to land Johnson, they could raise as many questions at quarterback as they answer.

Scott Mitchell is a question. Any drafted quarterback is a question. Johnson is a question, too, but at least he has proven ability. And even with his injury history, he might be the safest bet.

More power to the Ravens if they acquire Johnson without yielding the 10th overall selection in the April draft. They might be bidding against themselves at this point. They shouldn't blink.

Indeed, at least one other NFL team with interest in Johnson believes that a 1999 first-round pick is an outrageous price for such a brittle quarterback.

But what are the Ravens' other options?

How will they rebuild their offensive line?

And why haven't they already signed Jones, one of their true professionals and leaders?

Just a few minor questions as Team Modell wades into shark-infested free-agent waters, from which it has emerged bloody before.

This is a franchise that expected to be a playoff contender last off-season after adding cornerback Rod Woodson, quarterback Jim Harbaugh, running back Errict Rhett and fullback Roosevelt Potts.

Woodson was the only one of those to perform even remotely well, and even he faded. Former coach Ted Marchibroda gets the blame for Harbaugh and Potts. But here's new coach Brian Billick, gushing about Mitchell.

Let's hope he's just posturing for the Vikings, feigning a fallback position.

Mitchell, 31, makes poor decisions and doesn't throw particularly well. He couldn't win when surrounded by Barry Sanders, Herman Moore and Johnnie Morton. He fell behind Frank Reich.

The NFL is a copycat league, but not every 30-something reject turns into Randall Cunningham. Billick probably is kidding himself if he thinks he can make lightning strike twice.

He's a coach, not a faith healer.

Then again, Mitchell would be only a short-term solution -- if that. The Ravens likely would acquire him for a modest draft pick, then recoup the pick by trading Jim Harbaugh. They'd still have Eric Zeier, and they'd still be in position to draft a quarterback.

Not a terrible outcome.

The Ravens could trade up to ensure themselves of Donovan McNabb, Daunte Culpepper or Akili Smith. They could also stay at No. 10, draft a receiver like Torry Holt if a top quarterback isn't there, then take a Cade McNown in the second or third round.

Would they improve? Maybe.

But not if they got weaker on their offensive line.

Brown appears gone, and it would be no surprise if Williams followed. Indeed, the failure to sign Williams to a long-term deal a year ago might have ruined two seasons -- 1998 and '99.

Williams' training camp holdout contributed to the line's disappointing play last season, and his contract dispute became a distraction for him and Brown.

If only the Ravens had given him the multi-year deal they promised, they could have adopted the same strategy with Brown this off-season, naming him their franchise player, then signing him to a long deal.

Everyone would have been happy.

And the line would have stayed intact.

Now, the Ravens might be left with holes at left guard and right tackle. They just lost Ben Cavil in the expansion draft. And A. J. Ofodile is their only tight end under contract.

Williams could play guard if he stays, with Jeff Mitchell taking over at center and James Atkins presenting one option at right tackle. But if Williams leaves, look out.

Offensive line play is critical, especially if Billick wants to throw 30 to 40 times a game. Defensive line play also is critical, which is why the Ravens desperately need to keep Jones. As usual, they're playing from behind.

For once, let's see them catch up.

Pub Date: 2/13/99

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