Vick distractions are something Ravens can relate to

The Baltimore Sun

The charges brought against Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick for his alleged involvement in a Virginia-based dogfighting operation don't have an impact on the Ravens, but if any NFL team can relate to what the Falcons are going through, it's the team that opened training camp at McDaniel College yesterday.

Twice in the past eight years, the Ravens have arrived in Westminster with controversy swirling around them because of criminal charges brought against two of their biggest stars.

In 2000, linebacker Ray Lewis pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice after being charged with a double murder after a deadly incident in Atlanta the night of the previous season's Super Bowl.

In 2004, former Ravens running back Jamal Lewis had felony charges of conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute cocaine and attempted cocaine possession reduced to a lesser charge of making a drug deal by phone.

Ray Lewis didn't miss a snap.

Jamal Lewis was suspended for two games.

The Ravens have long since moved on from those controversies, but the aftershocks caused by the recent indictment against Vick have continued to reverberate throughout the NFL.

"It's difficult for the individual. It's difficult for his team. It's difficult for the league," Ravens coach Brian Billick said after his team's morning practice. "Obviously the player has rights; the player also has obligations and the league has to do what's in the best interest of the league. It's a fine line to walk; everybody needs to sit back and let due process work its course."

Said Ray Lewis: "My prayers are with everybody and the whole situation. The thing is ugly. So all you can do is pray for him. I haven't talked to him [Vick]."

Vick, who faces up to six years in prison, was told by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to stay away from training camp.

While Vick, who pleaded not guilty last week to federal conspiracy charges, awaits the beginning of his trial Nov. 26, one of his codefendants pleaded guilty yesterday. Tony Taylor, 34, agreed to cooperate with the government in its prosecution of Vick and two other men charged in the dogfighting operation.

Taylor said the operation was financed almost entirely by Vick.

Meanwhile, the president of the Atlanta chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People said the public should not rush to judgment on Vick before his court date.

"If Mr. Vick is guilty, he should pay for his crime, but to treat him as he is being treated now is also a crime," R.L. White said at a news conference yesterday. "Be restrained in your premature judgment until the legal process is completed."

By the time the Ravens opened training camp going into the 2000 season, Ray Lewis had already reached a plea bargain agreement. But the specter of what Lewis had been involved in hung over the team throughout the season and right through its run to the Super Bowl, and its victory in Tampa, Fla., over the New York Giants.

Veteran kicker Matt Stover said the Ravens used Ray Lewis' situation as a rallying point.

"It really comes down to the leaders on your team," Stover said. "It could do one of two things. It can make you fragment and not do well, or it can bring you together. We pulled together. It forces you to trust each other even more, and we had his back and we were willing to be there for him. I'm sure that's what the Atlanta Falcons are going to do."

Said Billick: "Ray's situation was very clear-cut. Fortunately we came into camp and there was a very clear definition as to what was going on and what had happened. Even that [Jamal Lewis' case] had definition for us. We knew going forward how that situation was going to pan out. Each situation is unique."

Tight end Daniel Wilcox was in his first season in Baltimore when Jamal Lewis was suspended and remembers the effect Lewis' absence from some practices and the two games he missed had on the Ravens, who went 1-1 without him.

"I think it changed the dynamic of what you're trying to do because you've got to account for the games Jamal wasn't going to play," Wilcox said. "It kind of screwed with the dynamics of the team. You set your offense around a certain player and all of sudden he's not there, it puts you into a hole a little bit."

The situation is magnified with a quarterback, certainly with one of Vick's ability and importance to the Falcons.

"I know that anytime you've got something going with your starting quarterback where he might not be able to play the first game or the preseason or whatever it may be, it sets your team back a couple of steps," Wilcox said. "He's the guy who has the ball in his hands every single play."

don.markus@baltsun.com

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