Passing torch, Modell won't burn bridge

When Art Modell last endured this amount of off-season turmoil, he was branded a villain.

The year was 1996, the team was without a name and the chaos was over the painful uprooting of a franchise from Cleveland to Baltimore.

Now, six years later and a season removed from a Super Bowl celebration, the resilient owner once again finds his team weathering an identity crisis after months of upheaval. But this time - as the rag-tag Ravens kick off training camp Friday - Modell finds himself being applauded.

With two seasons remaining as Ravens owner, Modell signed off on a rebuilding project that gutted a superstar lineup and greatly deflated his chances of returning to another Super Bowl.

Rather than reconstruct a team in the twilight of his ownership, Modell could have ordered two last-ditch championship runs, leaving behind a clunker of a franchise that wouldn't be able to climb out of its salary-cap ditch for years.

Instead, Modell will ride out the bumps with a youth-filled team for two years and hand over the keys to a potentially Super Bowl-ready vehicle in 2004, when minority owner Steve Bisciotti plans to exercise his $325 million option to purchase the rest of the team's shares.

"If I was him, it would be tempting to act selfishly," Bisciotti said. "But to go for broke, it's so not Art. I have known him for 2 1/2 years, and his reputation is more important than winning. His legacy with the NFL and the Ravens are more important than a one-time shot."

The massive rebuilding process is sort of a cruel joke for Modell.

The 77-year-old owner has always chided his coaches for relying too much on veterans and never giving younger players a chance. That principle has been taken to the extreme this off-season.

In the aftermath of drastic salary-cap cuts, the Ravens reportedly have a third of their $71.1 million cap tied up in "dead money" (term used for cap charges for players no longer on the roster), including a $4 million hit from the release of quarterback Elvis Grbac.

That has meant an operating budget of $48.3 million and a necessity to rely on younger, cheaper players. As a result, rookies make up half of the Ravens' training camp roster, and 10 first-time starters will likely line up in the season opener.

Although it's the biggest turnover of any Modell team in his 42 years of NFL ownership, he is never at a loss for levity in this predicament.

"I think that we are going to have the biggest program sales in the history of the franchise," Modell said. "People need to find out who is who, including me."

The national media are painting a darker picture for the Ravens.

Most preseason publications have the Ravens at the bottom of the four-team AFC North, and some predict them to be one of the five worst teams in the league. A recent Sporting News article evaluated the Ravens this way: "Success shouldn't be an issue for the Ravens in 2002 as much as avoiding embarrassment."

Said Modell: "It's a big mistake writing us off. I don't know what to expect from this team, but it's the great amount of uncertainties that makes this team exciting. I think we're going to surprise people."

A place with the team

While time is running out on Modell's ownership, he'll still have a place - as well as an office - with the team after Bisciotti takes over.

Bisciotti, an Anne Arundel County businessman, has gone out of his way to learn from Modell and pay him the utmost respect. When the Ravens open their new practice facility under Bisciotti's ownership, Modell will have an office just down the hall from Bisciotti's.

"We've grown so close," Bisciotti said. "I think he is an incredible resource, and I want to keep Art around forever. It's not just from a knowledge standpoint, but it's based on our relationship."

The feeling is mutual.

"My obligation to Bisciotti is very, very clear: I want to leave this team in super shape," Modell said. "I don't play it any other way than the straight and honest way."

Smooth changeover

Keeping Modell around is just part of the plan for a seamless transition in ownership.

Ravens coach Brian Billick has already agreed to a four-year, $14 million extension and senior vice president of football operations Ozzie Newsome is expected to receive a similarly structured contract. Those new deals allow Billick and Newsome to remain together in the first two years of Bisciotti's ownership.

"It's important to have that team intact as long as they want to stay intact," Bisciotti said. "In two years of being in control of the team, I'm going to know if we want to work long-term together."

That commitment is essential to make the rebuilding project succeed. It would have been difficult for Billick and Newsome to concentrate on the long-term goals of the team while worrying about their short-term job security.

"You have to have in place people to make the transition," Newsome said.

"We are in this situation because we all decided that this is the course we wanted to take. To have Brian and I able to work our way through it, it sends a positive message to the locker room and the community. Those are the two places that you have to be responsive to."

Getting cap in order

By taking the brunt of their cap hits this year, the Ravens expect to be in their best cap shape since moving here.

But don't count on the Ravens to freely spend their projected $15 million of cap space next season. There is no urgency to mortgage future seasons just to send Modell out on a high note.

"We are on a plan," Newsome said. "We will be competitive, but we will also find out what our needs are in 2003 and then we'll address those needs. We'll address as many as we can. If we have the success in '04 and '05 like we did in 2000 and '01, he's still going to be a part of that."

Still, Modell is savoring every moment in his final 17 months as owner, rebuilding his team once again while reflecting on the legacy he will leave behind.

"I think it will be a dramatic change in my life, but a good one," said Modell, who has lost 30 pounds while recovering from a mild heart attack in April.

"I've had my time in this league. I hope that I've done right by a lot of people. I promised a certain team when I came to Baltimore, and I think I have delivered. The last game I see as the Baltimore Ravens owner will be emotional. I'm sure of it."