Latest episode only adds to McAlister's troubling saga

THE BALTIMORE SUN

RAVENS CORNERBACK Chris McAlister is like a bad receiver in the NFL. He just keeps running the wrong routes to self-destruction.

One day he is involved in an altercation at an airport. Another day he is arrested on charges of misdemeanor possession of marijuana, even though the charges were eventually dropped. On Monday morning, McAlister was charged with driving under the influence at 2:36 in Fairfax, Va. A patrol officer reportedly clocked his car going 86 mph in a 55-mph zone.

Maybe those charges will be dropped, too, but there is a bigger picture here. Where there is constant smoke, there is fire, and McAlister might become too hot for the Ravens to handle.

In the seven years the Ravens have been in Baltimore, he has become the franchise's biggest enigma. You expected former running back Bam Morris to get in trouble, and his career was on the downside when he arrived here. Safety Ralph Staten's troubles followed him from his college days in Alabama to his playing days in Baltimore.

But never has a Raven had so much talent and charisma and been in so much trouble.

And now at the end of the season, the Ravens have a tougher decision to make: Do they offer McAlister, their franchise player, a long-term contract when his current one expires, or do they let him go?

Do they invest a guaranteed, upfront signing bonus worth millions of dollars in a player whose childish behavior is rivaled by San Francisco 49ers receiver Terrell Owens?

The answer is no.

When the Ravens start serious negotiations with McAlister during the offseason, it should be loaded with performance and incentive clauses centered around playing time and with only a modest signing bonus. And if McAlister doesn't like it, say goodbye. Adios. Hit the road.

Giving McAlister a large signing can be risky business because you don't know what to expect.

If they could get away with it, the Ravens should pay him after a fourth game instead of after every one.

This latest episode has to infuriate Brian Billick because it conflicts with what he does best, and that's build teams. Billick has that rare gift of being able to find a team's pulse, and then create a chemistry. He is punctual and detail-oriented, scripted at times.

Yet he keeps colliding with McAlister, the first player he drafted as head coach in 1999. Yesterday, Billick walked the fine line between supporting his player and showing frustration.

"We need to wait to hear what all the facts are, both from a personal standpoint, a team standpoint and certainly from a legal standpoint," said Billick, who needs to tighten up his curfew laws for a team that is still one of the youngest in the NFL. "We need a little more information from both sides. There is not enough to take any action yet."

Then a few minutes later:

"I'm concerned with everything that happens about this team," Billick said. "I'm concerned that young people sometimes drive too fast. I'm concerned that young people sometimes don't use the best judgment with regards to themselves and their obligation to an organization."

Let's hold the Billick-speak right there.

McAlister is an "I Guy."

On the morning after McAlister was arrested, he was expected to be on the practice field at McDaniel College in Westminster, dressed and ready to go. He was a no-show.

A $5.9 million-per-season no-show.

We've seen this tired, troubled act before. Ravens officials always say the same thing: "Maybe he'll mature. Maybe this will be the turning point in his life."

Hey, wake up and smell that rubberized turf field at M&T; Bank Stadium. Maybe he won't. The man is 26. His behavior off the field is as erratic as it is on it. Remember how he ripped off the helmet of New Orleans receiver Donte Stallworth last season and threw it aside. He is so impulsive.

Can someone say anger management?

Actually, McAlister is in the driver's seat right now. He is the only healthy cornerback left on the roster. The Ravens are in such a desperate need for bodies at the position they brought in Raymond Walls yesterday, two weeks into the preseason schedule.

It's a shame about McAlister.

He is such a talent. The guy has a great smile, tons of charisma when he wants to put it on display and a strong wit. He is easily one of the most popular guys in the locker room.

He can have just as strong a presence on the field. He is big enough to play bump-and-run, smart enough to survive in a zone. When he is on, like he was in 2000, McAlister can cover any receiver one-on-one anywhere on the field.

Most teams don't have that luxury.

Good cornerbacks are hard to find in this league, which is why the Arizona Cardinals offered Duane Starks a bundle of money as a free agent after the 2001 season.

The Ravens can put the franchise tag on McAlister again for next season, but that would require a 20 percent increase in his salary. They also could allow him to hit the free-agent market, where he would command a big contract.

Last season, McAlister led the team with 24 passes broken up and finished tied for ninth with 67 tackles. Before training camp this year, he declared he had matured, and he may have had his best training camp ever.

But the Ravens can't afford to have these recurring problems with McAlister. There are already too many distractions in a season. A quarterback controversy is one thing, a DUI is totally unnecessary. The Ravens have to put up a safeguard against him in the future with a well-structured contract, or let him go.

The Ravens have to choose their own path because McAlister can't choose the right one. No one knows which road he will travel down.

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