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Rhett stock soars; Ravens: Only a month ago, the running back's net worth to the team was near zero; now, he's a blue-chipper.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Errict Rhett was ahead of his time in the frenetic world of high finance, squeezing a nice profit from the newest innovation.

In the bottom-line business of football, he was running late, buried under a cloud of innuendo and suspicion.

This season, football caught up to finance for the Ravens' running back. A free agent as recently as last April, a special- and scout-teamer as recently as Week 1, Rhett leads the AFC in rushing one-quarter of the way through the season with 350 loud yards.

His football stock, almost worthless a month ago, is soaring, just as it did when he posted back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1994-1995.

But then, Rhett knows all about bull markets and changing climates.

"I was a day trader six years ago when nobody knew what day-trading was," he said yesterday. "I had my own day-trade shop in Tampa. "What they're paying me a year [in football], I was making monthly."

What the Ravens are paying Rhett this year is the veteran minimum ($400,000) in a contract stoked with incentives. It's the price he paid for three years of diminished activity, first with the Bucs and last season with the Ravens.

It's the price he paid for wading through the free-agent market last winter and finding few takers.

"I'm not worried about money right now," Rhett said. "That's the farthest thing from my mind. Money caused me to be put in this situation, trying to get more money with Drew Rosenhaus."

Rhett is the poster boy of dumb holdouts. In 1996, with Rosenhaus as his agent, he staged an acrimonious, 94-day work stoppage. By the time he returned to the Bucs that season, his career was already in tatters. A year later, Tampa Bay drafted scatback Warrick Dunn, and Rhett faded into the background.

"A lot of players learned from my situation," he said. "I was the one that had to take the punishment. Somebody had to do it. I'm glad it was me, because I can handle it."

Rhett sought refuge in Baltimore after a February 1998 trade to the Ravens. Instead, all he found was another seat on the bench. He started two games for coach Ted Marchibroda, went down with a hamstring injury and rarely was seen again.

The question of why remains fuzzy to this day.

"The word was, he couldn't understand protection schemes and wasn't very good about it," said Brian Billick, the new coach who took a low-risk flyer on Rhett last April. "[But] he's been great with that.

"His blocking is the thing I'm most pleased about. It showed me he's ready to play. I knew he could run. I can't think of a mental error he's had in protections in three games."

The rap on Rhett ranged from his ill-conceived holdout in Tampa to his alleged inability to take on blitzing linebackers. Those indictments dropped him onto what Billick calls the NFL's "trash heap."

"Sometimes," Billick said, "an unchallenged lie becomes truth. People may have bought into stereotypes. This guy said that, that guy said this. It was all unsubstantiated."

With three straight 100-yard rushing games, the talkative running back with an infectious smile is on track to become the NFL's comeback player of the year. He will try for four in a row Sunday against the 3-1 Tennessee Titans, who are allowing 126.8 rush yards a game this year.

And he will try to do it loudly. The Ravens' biggest trash-talker doesn't spew venom as much as humor, though.

"It's all humor," Rhett, 28, said. "It's nothing to degrade another player. I'm just talking as I'm running."

"It's good-natured trash talking, not belligerent," Billick said. "I keep telling him on the sidelines to sit down and rest a little. He's wearing me out. I say, 'The fourth quarter, I want you rested.' [But] that's not him. He's got a high motor and he's high energy."

His performance this year speaks even more loudly. In three games, he's rushed for a team-high 17 first downs with a 4.9 average carry, the best average in the league among backs with at least 70 carries.

"He runs bigger than his size [5 feet 11, 211 pounds]," said Ravens tackle Harry Swayne. "He doesn't shy away from hits or taking on people. It's just heart."

"I watch his intensity in practice," said reserve running back Jay Graham. "He's a hard worker. He deserves everything he's getting right now."

For Rhett, the onetime day trader, football is a bull market again.

NOTES: Three of the Ravens' injured starters participated in full practice yesterday, including Swayne (ankle) and defensive tackles Larry Webster (turf toe) and Tony Siragusa (knee). Billick was confident all three would play Sunday against the Titans. Left offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden went through a limited workout and Billick said he was questionable. Despite rookie cornerback Chris McAlister making his first start in the place of benched second-year player Duane Starks, Billick said that both players and cornerback DeRon Jenkins will work in a three-man rotation. The Ravens initially benched Starks in the second half of last Sunday's game against the Atlanta Falcons. Starks has 13 tackles compared with McAlister, who had five as the nickel back, but McAlister has played extremely well in the last three games and has broken up six passes, tops on the team.

Sun staff writer Mike Preston contributed to this article.

Next for Ravens

Opponent: Tennessee Titans

Site: Adelphia Coliseum, Nashville, Tenn.

When: Sunday, 4: 15 p.m.

TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM) Line: Titans by 7

Pub Date: 10/08/99

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