Top Ravens officials said yesterday that they are committed to obtaining offensive talent during the off-season, but also capable of retaining the core of their defense for the next several years, which would make them a playoff contender.
The Ravens' defense climbed to the co-No. 1 ranking yesterday, tied with the Jacksonville Jaguars. It was a reflection of the team's draft and money spent there in recent years. The Ravens' offense has yet to move from near the bottom during the past two seasons, a position the team virtually paid for during the off-season.
The Ravens limited 8-1 Jacksonville to a record-low 132 yards Sunday, and are allowing only 237.9 yards a game. That's a result of their drafting linebackers Peter Boulware and Ray Lewis and cornerbacks Chris McAlister and Duane Starks in the first round and linebacker Jamie Sharper and safety Kim Herring in the second round during the past four years.
In that same time span, the Ravens have drafted only one offensive player in the first round, left offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden, the team's first pick ever in 1996. Since then, the Ravens have lost big-money players, such as quarterback Vinny Testaverde and receivers Michael Jackson and Derrick Alexander, and replaced them with members of the $400,000 club, which is close to the league minimum salary for veteran players.
The Ravens added street free agents like receivers Billy Davis, Justin Armour, Qadry Ismail, tight ends Greg DeLong, Aaron Pierce, quarterback Stoney Case and gambled on questionable quarterbacks, such as Scott Mitchell and Tony Banks. The result is that the Ravens are No. 27 in the league in total offense, No. 29 in passing.
Coach Brian Billick suggests the offense might get better, but realistically there is little chance that will happen without a proven quarterback, a quality receiver and a big-play running back. Even though the Ravens didn't speak directly about the team's money problems, it has become apparent that it has had significant impact.
"As we move into the leap year 2000, the bulk, if not all the extraneous cost and distractions of our transition will be put behind us," Ravens president David Modell said yesterday. "We are a vibrant business. The continued depiction of the viability or lack of viability of this organization is erroneous. This business has been over-leveraged, and we're rectifying that. We'll move forward to meet the challenges of our competitors."
The Ravens had a chance to sign several impact players on offense during the off-season, such as running back Marshall Faulk, quarterback Brad Johnson and receivers Joey Galloway and Carl Pickens. According to Ravens vice president of player personnel Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens inquired with teams about the respective players.
But the Ravens were not seriously involved because of cash-flow problems, and the team also needed money to sign Pro Bowl defensive end Michael McCrary, who eventually agreed to a six-year, $42 million contract.
"We were working under the cash equals cap theory," said Newsome. "It has softened now with the signing of McCrary. We're spending more cash."
Neither Billick nor Newsome says it will take a long time to build an offense. Newsome pointed out that the Ravens were in a similar situation several years ago in reshaping their defense. But while the Ravens were bringing in top defensive talent, some of their best players on offense were leaving.
Newsome says it is different this time around. Lewis is under contract for four more seasons while Boulware has three. McAlister has three more years and Starks two. Sharper and Herring will be restricted free agents after this season, meaning they are under contract for at least one more year. The top defensive free agents after this season are end Rob Burnett and cornerback DeRon Jenkins, and Newsome said he might meet with their respective agents before the end of the season.
"It can happen in a year, if that impact player is a rookie," said Billick. "There will be some free agents, and it's not going to be the high-priced, blockbuster free agent. One, they're not out there. Two, I don't know that anybody has proven that's the way to go."
Newsome said: "We're going to be able to build an offense while we maintain the defense. Do you have to retain the No. 1 ranking defensively to get into the playoffs? No. You have to have balance. If you have a top 10 defense and a top 10 offense, then you have what you need. We have two picks in the first round and we'll take a look at free agency."
But will there be enough money available? The Ravens need to re-sign Ogden to a contract extension this off-season and also pay the two first-round picks.
"Right now, I have an understanding from the owner and president that we have the available resources to pursue talent on offense and maintain what we have on defense. I can only operate on that commitment," Newsome said.
As for the present, Billick can only work with the limited talent, but talent he and Newsome also thought could provide at least an average offense this season. Billick may have overestimated his own ability in signing some of the free agents.
"It's my job as coach to somehow get a little more than what we paid for," Billick said. "We have some one-year guys that came in here with an opportunity to show they belonged in the league, and they're doing that. The collective result of that is a little frustrating because of a lack of productivity.
"I think we have some outstanding role players on this team. And if we can just augment with one or two guys, three or four, all the better. I think it could come together very quickly. But you need that one, two or three impact players."
"If you include Errict Rhett, then we've gotten more out of what was expected," Newsome said of the free agents. "But coming into the season, we thought Scott Mitchell would be our quarterback and would have gotten more out of Jermaine Lewis, and that Patrick Johnson would have progressed faster. The big thing was that we thought our defense would play well, and they have done that. But in this day of free agency, you get what you paid for and we're conscious of that fact."
Next for Ravens
Opponent: Cincinnati Bengals Site: Cinergy Field, Cincinnati
When: Sunday, 4: 05 p.m.
TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)
Series: Tied 3-3
Last meeting: Ravens won, 20-13, on Nov. 22, 1998, at Cincinnati
Line: Ravens by 5 1/2