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Vikes' price too steep for Ravens


Much as the Ravens needed Brad Johnson, they would have been wrong to trade three high draft picks for a quarterback who has never played a full season.

The Redskins could better justify the package that landed them Johnson last night -- first- and third-round choices in 1999 and a second-rounder in 2000.

It's a steep price, but the Redskins held the fifth and 11th overall picks in the first round this year, and could trade the latter knowing they still would draft a top college player.

True, the Redskins could look foolish if Johnson breaks down again next season. But the Ravens could look worse with Scott Mitchell as their starting quarterback.

The real winner won't be known until the end of next season, and perhaps even beyond, when all the draft picks come to fruition.

Ravens coach Brian Billick didn't think Johnson was worth the three choices, and he knows his former quarterback better than anyone in the NFL.

But Billick now seems ready to deal for the very available Mitchell rather than draft or trade up for a quarterback, a far more questionable decision.

True, the Ravens always could take a quarterback in a lower round. But Akili Smith, Donovan McNabb or Daunte Culpepper might be a safer gamble than Mitchell.

Jeff George? An even bigger head case.

Alas, these are the choices now.

Minnesota vice president Jeff Diamond called the Ravens yesterday morning, asked for the three picks and warned that other teams were interested in Johnson.

The Ravens offered their first- and third-rounders in '99 -- more than Buffalo gave Jacksonville for Rob Johnson a year ago, but not enough after the Redskins lost free-agent quarterback Trent Green to St. Louis.

Perhaps the Ravens could have completed the trade if they had offered the same package last week. But the Vikings had every reason to hold out -- they weren't required to pay Johnson a $1.19 million roster bonus until March 1.

Enter the Redskins.

Jeff Hostetler was the only quarterback on their roster after they released Gus Frerotte and lost Green. And Hostetler clashed with coach Norv Turner last season.

The Ravens' need actually was less urgent, with Jim Harbaugh, Eric Zeier and Wally Richardson still on their roster, and other options available. Still, that only partly explains how Billick lost his man.

Poor Billick, he had no idea what he was getting into.

Even from his grave, Jack Kent Cooke is haunting Baltimore. Not as badly as he's haunting his son, John, but almost.

If Cooke had acted like a normal father and left John the Redskins in his will, the Ravens might never have faced such intense competition for Johnson.

But eccentric that Cooke was, he decreed that a board of trustees would auction the team, with the proceeds going to a charitable foundation in his name.

What does this have to do with Johnson?

Only everything.

Indeed, it's as if NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue is conducting seances with Cooke, extending the conspiracy against Baltimore into the 21st century.

Just connect the dots:

The NFL has delayed approval of the Redskins' sale, even though Howard Milstein and Daniel M. Snyder bid a record $800 million for the team.

The trustees interfered with the Redskins' front office's attempt to re-sign Green, apparently trying to hold down expenditures for the new buyers.

And yesterday, Green signed a four-year, $16.5 million free-agent contract with the Rams, putting the Redskins in the market for a quarterback.

Heck, the trustees might not even have approved the Johnson trade, but Tagliabue ordered them last Thursday to allow John Kent Cooke, the acting team president, to conduct business as usual.

By then, the Redskins had already blown their chance to re-sign Green. But Tagliabue's decree gave general manager Charley Casserly the authority to trade for Johnson.

Were Milstein and Snyder happy to see their future assets traded for a big-money, injury-prone quarterback?

Who knows?

Let someone else experience the joys of dealing with the NFL. Owners come and go. Players come and go. One way or another, Baltimore always gets the short end.

Still, what last night's stunning turn of events demonstrated, more than anything, was the rising premium that NFL teams place on established quarterbacks.

A year ago, the Bills parted with first- and fourth-round choices for Rob Johnson, a quarterback with one career start. The Jaguars turned those picks into two promising running backs, Fred Taylor and Tavian Banks.

For now, it appears that the Bills overpaid -- Johnson wound up the backup to Doug Flutie. But the price for Brad Johnson was significantly higher, and his injury history tarnished his 15-8 career record as a starter.

Johnson, 30, probably was worth more to the Ravens than any other team. He knew Billick's system. He would have hit the ground running in Baltimore.

None of that holds in Washington, where Turner might not even be the coach next season. Johnson could be a lesser quarterback in a different offense. And still, the Redskins trumped the Ravens' offer.

Maybe the Ravens will regret their failure to make this deal. Maybe they'll even regret their refusal to consider including defensive end Michael McCrary, whose contract expires after this season.

They're looking at adding another journeyman quarterback when they probably should draft the best one available and let him develop under a new coach with a six-year contract.

But three high picks for Brad Johnson?

For this team, at this time, it was too much.

Pub Date: 2/16/99

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