Modell has low-key high hopes


The last time Art Modell passed this way, he met with shocking defeat and numbing disappointment. The era was the 1980s, the location was Cleveland, and the agony was supplied by the Denver Broncos.

Three times in the '80s, the Broncos denied Modell's Cleveland Browns a berth in the Super Bowl, albeit in some of the most memorable playoff games of the decade.

Now, a dozen years later and one city removed, the venerable NFL owner is back in the high-rent, playoff neighborhood again.

Modell, who moved the franchise to Baltimore for the 1996 season, launches his 40th year in the NFL on Sunday when the Ravens opening training camp at Western Maryland College.

But it is his fifth - and clearly best - Baltimore team since the painful relocation. With a roster fortified through free agency and the draft, and prompted by a coach with steely focus, expectations are soaring.

And so are Modell's, even if he's reserved in expressing them.

"I'm probably more optimistic about this team than I have been in years, maybe since the '80s," Modell, 75, said yesterday. "I think we have a good football team, [but] I've been around long enough to know things can go wrong. Injuries are a factor. The bounce of the ball. Many things can go awry."

Then, seeking the right levity for the moment, he said, jokingly, "On that premise, I've decided not to print playoff tickets right now."

Ravens fans are buying, anyway. Buying into coach Brian Billick's system. Buying into the notion quarterback Tony Banks will mature into a playoff quarterback this season. Buying into the philosophy that tight end Shannon Sharpe will help invigorate a once-moribund offense.

The team already has four home sellouts, and two of the other four home games are close. The national media are projecting the Ravens as a team on the rise, a potential playoff team in a division - the AFC Central - that might send three teams to the postseason.

Measuring his words carefully, Modell said he believes this team will make the playoffs, but stopped far short of calling it a Super Bowl team.

"I think we are a playoff team this year," he said. "Once you're in the playoffs, you never know what can happen."

Bad things happened in the '80s to Modell's playoff teams, much of it inspired by John Elway. Three times Elway beat the Browns in the AFC championship game, once driving 98 yards to a tying touchdown, then winning in overtime.

The Browns went to the playoffs six times in the 1980s, once in the 1990s, and the Ravens not at all in Baltimore yet. As much as a playoff berth would mean to Modell, he understands what it would mean to the city that lost the Colts in 1984.

"The playoffs would be very important to me," he said. "I came to Baltimore with that in mind. It's something they haven't had since the old Colts left. There is an emotional void in town. People want to identify with a winning team. Hopefully, we'll be able to fill that void."

Modell has four years to accomplish the feat. He agreed to sell minority interest in the team to Anne Arundel County businessman Stephen J. Bisciotti for $275 million. The deal will allow Bisciotti to purchase the rest of the team's shares in 2004 for an additional $325 million.

If the clock is running on Modell's last shot at a Super Bowl, he appears to have a lot of the necessary pieces in place.

"There were reasons the deal was structured as it was," Modell said. "I turned down more money from others to allow him [Bisciotti] to take it. He accommodated my wishes.

"I wanted - needed - four years for an emotional and psychological meltdown. You don't just give up the business after 40 years and walk away.

"Second, this is a good team. It can make a lot of music the next four years. And I want to be part of it, and I want to reward the people of a great town. Baltimore is deserving of the best in baseball and football."

Modell figures he's got the right coach to do it, too.

"I think Brian Billick is one of the most gifted head coaches in the NFL right now," Modell said. "He hasn't reached the point where he can be viewed as a great coach because he hasn't coached that long. But he will be a great coach. You only have to look at the decline of the Minnesota Vikings after he left. It's very striking."

The feeling is mutual. Even thought Billick has only worked for Modell one year, there is an appreciation for what Modell went through in the move and what he's meant to the organization over the years.

For that reason, Billick feels an urgency to win the Super Bowl for the owner.

"I don't think there's anybody, except those in Cleveland, that doesn't know Art Model that would not like to see this happen," Billick said. "I think he's deserving of it. He's been such an icon in the profession for so long. He has such a passion and love for the game and players.

"If, indeed, the day comes when I'm able to stand there and watch a championship trophy handed to Art Modell, my guess is that watching that happen will probably have as big effect as anything that will happen for me personally. And I've only been around Art and [wife] Pat and [son] David for one year.

"I can't imagine the emotion that would elicit from people like Kevin Byrne [vice president of public relations] and Ozzie Newsome [vice president of player personnel] and the people that have been with them through some very tough times and been there for a very long time."

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