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Ravens need to use heads, draft an arm


The departure of Wally Williams, Orlando Brown and Eric Green means the Ravens have to rebuild half of their offensive line, a tedious task that will take more than a year.

Brad Johnson's trade to the Redskins means Ravens coach Brian Billick will have to start from scratch with a quarterback who doesn't know his system.

James Jones' defection to the Lions last night means there's yet another hole to fill.

Don't panic. New names will replace the old ones, but add it all up and here's the reality: The Ravens are going to be in a building mode in 1999 more than a win-now mode.

That should govern all decisions regarding the franchise's future at quarterback.

With so many new faces and so much building and learning to accomplish in 1999, it'd be pointless to do anything rash solely for the sake of filling a short-term need. It's the long term that matters now.

That means the right move, the key move, is to draft a quarterback in the first round this year. Period.

The long-term future isn't deposed Lions starter Scott Mitchell, and it certainly isn't Jeff George, Tony Banks or any of the other "options" out there right now.

The long-term future is some young gun who will come out of a draft class as rich in quarterbacks as any in recent years.

That doesn't mean the Ravens can't acquire Mitchell, which they seem determined to do in the wake of losing Johnson. Their interest in him is somewhat baffling, given that Mitchell has had a marginal career, including exactly zero playoff wins. He's no one's idea of a cure. But he's still one of the 20 best quarterbacks in the watered-down NFL, and hey, maybe Billick can help him.

But it becomes a bad idea if Mitchell's price is anything other than a bargain, and even more importantly, if his presence keeps the team from drafting a quarterback in April.

The latter scenario could easily unfold if Mitchell, Jim Harbaugh and Eric Zeier are all still on the roster come April. The Ravens can't afford to pay them all and also pay a youngster.

That means the Ravens would have to unload Harbaugh if they acquire Mitchell, an idea of debatable merit. Mitchell has the much stronger arm, but it's not unthinkable that Harbaugh could rebound from his poor 1998 and beat out Mitchell. He certainly has won more games during his career.

Whatever, the important thing is to look beyond 1999 and plan for the future. Ravens owner Art Modell says he doesn't believe in doing that, of course, but who is he kidding? You just can't lose veteran offensive players such as Williams, Brown and Green without taking a step back. Losing Jones is a major blow to the defensive line.

Not that the Ravens were wrong to let them go. The high prices Williams and Brown commanded after playing so poorly in 1998 were absolutely stunning. The Saints and Browns might not know it yet, but they have badly overpaid for those players.

The Jets also gave Green, a part-time player, more than he was worth. Nor were the Ravens wrong to let Johnson go to the Redskins when his price also got too high.

Pursuing Johnson made sense because he was so familiar with Billick from Minnesota, but there's no way he was worth three top draft picks, basically an entire draft.

But again, while the Ravens showed admirable restraint in each of those situations, the end result is unmistakable. The Ravens have some work to do. They aren't "almost there."

Billick all but admitted as much the other day when he told The Sun's Gary Lambrecht that fans were "mistaken" to think the Ravens' offense was just a player or two away from being productive.

That was the sound of a coach buying time, because he needs time, particularly now that Williams, Brown, Jones, Green and Johnson will play elsewhere.

The easy thing to do would be to make a big splash with, say, Jeff George, who would complete a lot of passes next season and certainly make things interesting.

But George is a head case who has lost at each of his many stops, a pure talent guaranteed to disappoint. He's fool's gold. The Ravens are wrong even to take him seriously as an option.

A much harder thing to do, but the right thing to do, the sound thing to do, would be to invest a first-round draft pick in the future. Regardless if Mitchell also is here.

It doesn't matter if the Ravens stick with the 10th pick in the first round and take something of a gamble, or trade up and take one of the quarterbacks the scouts love, such as Syracuse's Donovan McNabb, Oregon's Akili Smith or Central Florida's Daunte Culpepper.

What matters is that the Ravens end up with a future at the position, one way or another, a quarterback Billick can take and train to excel.

That way, after two or so years of the transitional Scott Mitchell Era, the future would arrive at Camden Yards.

After losing Johnson to the Redskins, that's clearly the road the Ravens should take.

Pub Date: 2/17/99

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