Ravens insufficient? Cash, maybe; excuses, definitely


Let's hope the Ravens are telling the truth this time. They weren't telling the truth last off-season, or at least not the whole truth, when they cited prudent management -- and not insufficient funds -- as their reason for failing to pursue high-salaried players.

Owner Art Modell insisted again yesterday that cash has not been a problem for the Ravens, even on a day when quotes published in The Sun from his son, team president David Modell, and his vice president of player personnel, Ozzie Newsome, indicated otherwise.

Maybe the elder Modell, 74, is too proud to admit that his organization lacked the resources to add a Marshall Faulk last winter. Maybe, as a child of the Depression, he defines financial hardship differently from those in younger generations.

Even if you give him every benefit of the doubt -- something most Ravens fans have been doing for four seasons -- Modell is running out of excuses. His son, David, repeated yesterday that the debt-laden Ravens are now strong enough financially to improve the offense to the level of their defense quickly.

"Do we have and will we have the resource flexibility to draft our players and compensate them and have the ability to go out and get some well-positioned free agents? Yes," David Modell said.

Did they have that flexibility last off-season?

"No, I would have to say it would have been more difficult for us last year," David said.

That ends the discussion. Or does it?

"Cash is not a problem in this organization," Art Modell said. "The prudent use of cash is the call of the day. I can give you dozens of players making millions of dollars who are not earning their keep. We don't want to get into that trap.

"What did we lose with Wally Williams? What did we lose with Orlando Brown? What did we lose by not going after [Dan] Wilkinson and the other defensive tackle in Washington [Dana Stubblefield]?"

Modell then turned his argument to baseball.

"What do you make out of Cincinnati [nearly making the playoffs] with a $26 million payroll? [Orioles owner Peter] Angelos had an $81 million payroll. You cannot buy a championship team. You can just fill in the holes.

"The secret of success -- and it has been proven over the years -- is the development of first-, second- , third- and fourth-year players. That's what we intend to do."

Assuming, of course, that they get the chance.

Modell is seeking $150 million for a minority share of the Ravens, so he can pay off loans and strengthen the franchise. If he does not succeed in finding investors by early next year, the NFL might take over the team and sell it.

Modell declined to comment on the progress of his search yesterday, but his son expressed confidence that the team would meet the league's deadline. David Modell based his promise of greater resource flexibility on the "combination of the vibrancy of the business and the promise of a minority investor."

Which isn't to say the franchise would return to its free-spending ways of the mid-90s -- that's part of the reason it got into so much trouble in the first place, not just with debt, but also with the salary cap.

The Ravens have shown better judgment in some cases since moving to Baltimore, wisely awarding contract extensions to cornerstone players like Michael McCrary and Ray Lewis. And Modell is right -- they've lost nothing with the free-agent defections of Brown and Williams.

"Will we as an organization expend unnecessary resources in a not-too-well-thought-out way? No. Are we going to take funds and cast caution to the wind? No. We're not going to do that," David Modell said. "We're still going to be prudent in how the resources are allocated. That's just good business."

Fair enough, but the Ravens' current predicament on offense is a result of the "prudence" they exercised last off-season -- "prudence" that led them to assemble the $400,000 Club, a collection of minimum-wage veterans few other teams wanted.

First-year coach Brian Billick has referred to receivers such as Qadry Ismail and Justin Armour as players the Ravens rescued off the "trash heap." But Billick, too, embraced the low-budget philosophy and echoed the party line last February, saying cash wasn't an issue.

"The fiscal restraints we're showing right now are self-imposed, in terms of making sure we don't spend foolishly," Billick said then. "I'm very pleased with the way we've gone about it."

Asked if the Ravens would find quality players, Billick said, "Yes. And at darn good value, too."

Well, the results speak for themselves.

No one would dispute the wisdom of building through the draft -- seven of the Ravens' 11 defensive starters are home-grown -- but not every free agent is a bust. St. Louis and Indianapolis are two examples of teams that spent wisely and made dramatic turnarounds.

The Ravens need a similar injection of talent, particularly at receiver, but do they even know how to go about it? Their evaluation of quarterbacks has been dismal, and their cost-conscious approach has further confused the issue.

It's impossible to judge Tony Banks and Stoney Case when they're throwing to such poor receivers. And it's difficult to read too much into the performance of Jermaine Lewis, who thrived only when complemented by bigger receivers with similar talent.

The Ravens own two first-round selections in 2000, and they've yet to miss with their top pick since coming to Baltimore But of the 82 players drafted by the Modell franchise in the '90s, only 32 are still in the NFL, and only 18 are still with the Ravens, according to Ourlad's draft newsletter.

Former coach Bill Belichick is partly to blame, but that's the second-worst draft performance in the league over the past decade. The New Orleans Saints have fewer picks remaining in the NFL (31), but more with their team (20). The Jacksonville Jaguars only began play in 1995, and they've also got 31 picks in the league, and 24 still with their team.

If you want to argue that free agency isn't the only answer, fine. But for this franchise, the draft isn't the only answer, either.

Let's hope the Ravens are telling the truth this time. Let's hope they've got the money. And let's hope they spend it wisely.

After four years, it's time they started operating like a real NFL team.

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