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The clock's ticking on Ravens, Flacco to get a deal done

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Joe Flacco threw for three touchdowns in the Ravens' 34-31 win over the 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII.

Was it only me listening to Baltimore owner Steve Bisciotti and trusted GM Ozzie Newsome the other day, thinking they're going to throw the first big changeup into this offseason? Was it only me taking their words and reading resolve in them, and thinking it's actually possible that Joe Flacco could be stolen by a quarterback-needy and starved-for-relevance team like Cleveland?

Listening to Bisciotti and Newsome, you'd be a fool to think it's not possible. Probable? No. But look at the tea leaves. The Ravens have until March 4 to sign or put a franchise tag on Flacco, whose rookie contract expired after his heroic postseason run. If they don't sign him to a contract by then, the Ravens have to decide whether to designate Flacco their franchise player or their exclusive-rights franchise player.

The difference: Exclusive-rights franchise players are frozen to their teams, and cannot negotiate elsewhere. Franchise players can seek offers from the other 31 teams, and if they sign one of those offers, their original team can choose to match the offer as it is written, or surrender the player and get the signing team's next two first-round picks in return.

It has been presumed that if the Ravens can't sign Flacco before the March 4 franchise-tagging deadline that they'd exercise the exclusive tag. That would mean committing a $20 million guaranteed salary -- with another $24 million due Flacco in 2014 if Baltimore had to exercise a tag again next year. Two years, $44 million ... significantly more than Drew Brees, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady make now. The regular franchise tag for quarterbacks, meanwhile, is $14.5 million.

Don't be so sure of that exclusive tag. The Ravens were $5 million over the league's $121 million salary cap at the close of business Friday, and that figure doesn't include a dime for Flacco. Now listen to what Bisciotti and Newsome said Thursday:

Bisciotti: "We've proven it two years in a row that we can kind of shock the world and disappoint our fans at the same time, by letting some of these guys go, but letting young guys fill in and then going out and getting good values on the free-agent market.''

Newsome: "We will not repeat what we did in 2001 [after winning the Super Bowl, when Baltimore restructured and overspent to make one more run at a title]. We're trying to build where we can win Super Bowls more than just one more time. I think our team is structured differently this time also. We do have some veterans that will probably be retiring but we have a great nucleus of young players and players that are just heading into their prime that we're going to build this team around.''

The best solution, of course, is for Ravens' chief negotiator Pat Moriarty, who meets with Flacco's agent, Joe Linta, this week in Baltimore, to iron out a contract putting Flacco up in the upper stratosphere of quarterbacks with a contract that would be cap-friendly in the next two flat-cap years. Say, six years, $18.5 million a year, $111 million total, with cap numbers of $9 million and $14 million in the next two years. That's where I'd attempt to draw the line.

Would the Ravens dare let Flacco go -- to Cleveland, in the division, to a bitter rival, or to another team like Buffalo or Arizona? Would the Ravens be confident enough in their ability to retool on the fly with two extra first-rounders to deal for Alex Smith, let's say, and throw the gauntlet down and say to the Browns: Go ahead and take Flacco; we'll beat you anyway?

The top of the quarterback-salary standings is going to change quite a bit in the next year or so. Matt Ryan's deal is up in Atlanta after the 2013 season; Aaron Rodgers' contract runs through 2014. Both Atlanta and Green Bay are likely to try to get those extended before they expire, and what happens to Flacco could greatly influence both contracts. The top five average salaries for quarterbacks now.

Flacco is 28. He is at the peak of his earning potential right now, coming off an incredible postseason (4-0, 11 touchdowns, no interceptions). He is a principled guy. It'd be interesting to see how he'd react if no team stepped up with an offer sheet and he had to return to the Ravens to play in 2013 for significantly less than he was offered last offseason by the club -- and before he became Joe Clutch in January and February. He would not be pleased. What would that mean? A holdout? Rancor of some other sort? I don't know. But playing for $14.5 million would not make Flacco happy.

Let's look at the field now. Cleveland was $48 million under the cap as of Friday. Signing Flacco would rob the Browns of the sixth overall pick in this year's draft, plus their first-rounder next year. Because the Browns used their second-round pick on receiver Josh Gordon in the Supplemental Draft last year, they wouldn't choose until 68th overall in April.

But think of the shot of adrenalin for the Browns, if they could rip away Flacco from a team they despise. What sweet irony for Cleveland, to steal the Super Bowl-winning quarterback from the team that stole their franchise. With new owner Jimmy Haslam and uber-aggressive president Joe Banner dying to make a splash to show their fans this won't be the same old Browns, imagine Cleveland signing Flacco for five years and $110 million, making him the highest-paid player in history. And say Cleveland makes the 2013 salary $35 million. That way it'd be almost impossible for Baltimore to match; if the Ravens balked at $20 million per, you think they'd accede to $35 million in Year 1?

So in my scenario, Baltimore passes on matching. Then the Ravens take the sixth pick in the 2013 first round and fortify the aging defense with the best linebacker or pass-rusher. Then, I'd assume, the Ravens would try to acquire a veteran quarterback in exchange for a mid-round pick (Alex Smith?) or a late-round pick (Matt Flynn?) and also draft a rookie, so that there would be two QBs in camp to compete with Tyrod Taylor for the starting job. The Ravens with two addition first-round picks over the next two drafts ... a dangerous proposition considering what a strong personnel and scouting staff Newsome oversees.

Cleveland's not the only team that could be interested. Ralph Wilson would write the check tomorrow for Flacco to come to Buffalo, draft picks be damned. The Bills are only $14.2 million under the cap, so they'd have to maneuver a few pricey contracts. But the Bills would have to think long and hard about Flacco. Cleveland, with its available riches, would be the best candidate.

Then there's the issue of whether Flacco would want to leave. He wouldn't; I can promise you that. But he would if he felt he'd made a fair proposal to the Ravens and they turned it down.

One more thing about what Bisciotti and Newsome implied the other day. Committing a cap number of $20 million to Flacco this year would cut off the ability to franchise any other players in the next two years -- like much-needed linebacker Dannell Ellerbe or pass-rusher Paul Kruger this year -- and it hamstrings the ability of the team to make smart football decisions over the next two years. Exclusive-tagging Flacco would likely, but not certainly, mean the losses of Ellerbe and Kruger and the iconic Ed Reed, and maybe even Anquan Boldin if he won't lower his $7.5 million salary for 2013. Reed's understandable. Losing two of the others, or all three, would be major blows.

Bisciotti and Newsome have to know the answer to the test before they sit down to take it. They have to accept the fact that they'd be willing, under the worst-case scenario, to lose Flacco before tagging him with the lesser designation March 4. It's a big gamble. If you're a Ravens' fans, you have to hope it doesn't come to that -- and that Linta and Moriarty can get a long-term deal in the next three weeks.

***

The dot-dot-dot section

Ten thoughts about the near future in the NFL:

Regarding Gregg Williams taking an assistant's job with Tennessee: Question anyone giving Williams a job; that's fine. But why the rancor over letting a man who served his time be reinstated? Williams was suspended indefinitely in 2012 and told his reinstatement would be considered after no less than a season if he cooperated with the NFL's investigation (he did), and if he actively participated in spreading the word about sportsmanship and how dangerous bounties are. Williams spoke to at least 23 football teams and youth sports group while suspended. So what merit would there be to ban him for longer than a year? (In fairness, I must disclose that I am represented by the same agent as Williams -- Marvin Demoff -- so if that colors what you think of my opinion, so be it. I have not spoken to Williams since well before his ban.)

... I don't sense Baltimore is too concerned about replacing Ray Lewis on the field. The Ravens have to re-sign Ellerbe, and thinking back to how much the Ravens liked Rey Maualuga on draft day 2009, it wouldn't surprise me if they went after him in middle-class free agency after the initial rush ... Tell you who I think would be a great fit for Baltimore at 32 in round one, if he's there: inside linebacker Manti Te'o ... Detroit is a perfect fit for free agent running back Reggie Bush ... Speaking of stars available in free agency, one scout told me the other day: "I am scared to death of [Kansas City wideout] Dwayne Bowe. Like him a lot, but not sure what we'd be buying if we signed him. Too much baggage."

... What team is better positioned in free agency than Cincinnati, with 40 players under contract and $52 million available? Now, spending that money is another matter. The Bengals should re-sign Robert Geathers and Michael Johnson to keep their front seven strong, then go get one of the big receivers (Greg Jennings, Brian Hartline, Mike Wallace) ... Other potential big spenders: Indianapolis ($46 million under), Miami ($47 million under), Tampa Bay ($31 million under). Ryan Grigson, the Colts GM, with real money to spend? Dangerous proposition.

... The reason officials called no hold as two Ravens mugged 49er special teamer Bruce Miller on the 108-yard kickoff return for touchdown by Jacoby Jones in the Super Bowl: Miller would have had to be taken to the ground for it to be a penalty. Dumb, dumb rule. Miller was surrounded and held by two Ravens just as Jones sprinted by. The Competition Committee has to change that rule in 2013.

... One GM told me the most intriguing free agents on the board are Philadelphia cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha and Cincinnati tackle Andre Smith. "One guy whose value is way down but still is attractive because so many teams are desperate for corners, and one guy who just played great this year after a lazy start to his career,'' the GM said ... Really sorry I'll miss the tribute to Steve Sabol Tuesday night in Philadelphia. I hear it's going to be one great event.

***

News item: Saints hire Rob Ryan as defensive coordinator.

Logical, I suppose, that the Saints, likely to switch to a 3-4 defense, would take the most available 3-4 coordinator to coach. Ryan won out over Todd Grantham and Romeo Crennel. But I've started to wonder about Ryan in recent years. Last year he had to overcome tremendous injuries with Dallas, so you can excuse a mediocre season there. But in nine years in Oakland, Cleveland and Dallas, he's had a top-10 defense only once, in terms of yards allowed. In scoring defense, Ryan has never coached a top-10 defense.

His teams' sack production was better than the yardage or scoring numbers, four times ranking between sixth and ninth in average sacks per offensive play.

What can Saints' fans expect from Ryan? Well, there's no place to go but up; New Orleans allowed more yards in 2012 than any other NFL team in history. But his record in his first year has been mixed. Oakland was the 30th-rated defense in yards allowed in 2003 and finished 30th in Ryan's first season, 2004. Cleveland was 26th the year before Ryan arrived and 31st in his first year, 2009. Dallas was 23rd overall in 2010 and Ryan got the Cowboys to 14th in 2011.

***

Coming tomorrow. I will top my Tuesday column with an analysis of the 49ers">49ers offense and how offensive coordinator Greg Roman is coping with the pain of the last drive of the season -- four downs that netted jut two yards from the Baltimore seven-yard line and handed the Ravens the 34-31 victory. The play calling's interesting enough. The 54 different alignments in 60 offensive snaps portend good things for the Niners' future.

Quote of the Week I

"For the rest of my life."

-- Colin Kaepernick, asked at his season-ending press conference how long the Super Bowl loss would stay with him.

Quote of the Week II

"It sounds unbelievable, but it really wasn't strange. It's competition. My father will have another crack at it -- more than one. You put everything you have into this, and whatever happens, you have no regrets at the end. But to fall short by one play, at the end of the game, I just can't imagine how that must feel."

-- Jay Harbaugh, son of Jim and a coaching intern with John and the Baltimore Ravens, to me, on the feeling of working to beat his dad's team to win the Super Bowl.

Quote of the Week III

"Tebow, I really wanted to see you take charge of an offense again and the game. You are not a good QB by today's standards, but you are a great football player who knows how to lead a team and WIN. You will be 'Tebowing' when you reach your next team. I have faith in you. Get out of that circus they call the Jets, and away from that reality TV star, Rex Ryan ..."

-- From the long and rambling and incredibly varied manifesto of accused California murderer Christopher Dorner, the former Los Angeles cop who felt he was unjustly fired from the force. That firing apparently brought on the killing of three people and wounding of two additional police officers in California.

Stat of the Week

Think Jim Caldwell was good for Joe Flacco? Check out the 13 Baltimore games before Caldwell was named offensive coordinator, and the seven games he worked as Flacco's offensive coordinator:

Flacco ran more no-huddle under Caldwell, which he likes to do because he feels more in command and can force plays against a defense that has a hard time substituting on the fly. The one-yard improvement on yards-per-attempt means he was throwing downfield more under Caldwell, which obviously suits Flacco's game and his persona. As for the 15 touchdowns and one interception over three regular-season and four postseason games ... that's the kind of magic a Super Bowl-winning quarterback makes when he's happy and playing free.

So as much as it was a painful move for John Harbaugh to change from Cameron to Caldwell with three games left in the regular season, it was obviously the right move.

Factoid of the Week That May Interest Only Me

One of the guests sitting in the front row at the Donald Driver retirement ceremony in Green Bay last week was Phil Morris, a big Packer fan and a friend of Driver since they met in 2003.

Morris ... aka Jackie Chiles, the lawyer who represented Kramer in "Seinfeld'' in the latte and Sue Ellen Mischke bra cases.

Of course, hours after Driver's tearful farewell, there was the evening TBS "Seinfeld'' rerun, with Jackie Chiles trying, and failing, to get Kramer damages after he wrecked a car while ogling Mischke walking down the street with only a bra as a top.

As Bill Parcells used to say, sometimes God is playing in these games.

Mr. Starwood Preferred Member Travel Note of the Week

I'm not much of an airport fan. Airports are things you cope with; you don't enjoy them. Except in cases where you're pleasantly surprised, the way I was last Monday. After a Super Bowl week that included nine hours of sleep in my last three nights in New Orleans, all I wanted to do was return my rental car, get on my flight, go to sleep and wake up when my plane landed in New York.

But I'm a Super Bowl veteran, and I know when the airport is in a smaller city like New Orleans, the day-after is going to be total mayhem, with long security lines and every seat taken on every flight out of town. That increases the chance of getting that dreaded middle seat in coach, the seat that, if an airline president were ever to be sentenced to one for a two- or three-hour flight, he'd surely ban them or risk burning in hell on judgment day.

I had flown out of the Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport in southern Mississippi before, and I figured, "Who would think to fly out of there on the day after the Super Bowl?'' A few savvy travelers, but most would either fly Monday out of New Orleans or wait to Tuesday to get a flight from New Orleans. The difference in travel time -- 76 miles from my New Orleans hotel to Gulfport-Biloxi, 13 to the New Orleans airport -- would be made up, I hoped, by no lines and maybe even some room on the plane.

The trip took 70 minutes. I walked the keys for the rental car 50 yards to the rental counter inside the terminal. I checked my two bags at Delta in two minutes. The kiosk spat out the heavenly upgrades from coach to business on both legs of the Gulfport-to-Atlanta and Atlanta-to-LaGuardia. I was the sixth person in the security line; time through the line, maybe five minutes. And with an hour to spare before the flight, there was time for a fish sandwich and a Lazy Magnolia South Pecan brown ale. Or two.

Twenty-nine Super Bowls. Best postgame Monday of them all.

Tweet of the Week I

"how do you fine Bill B for grabbing an official to ask a question and not fine a player for shoving one?"

-- @JamesPGerry, a fan, after a league official said Saturday Ravens cornerback Cary Williams would not be fined for two-hand shoving the head linesman in the Super Bowl. He referred to the $50,000 fine Patriots coach Bill Belichick got in Week 3 for attempting to grab an official at the end of a game to ask him a question when the official wouldn't stop.

Anyone with half an eye could see that the two-hand shove of the official was a far more egregious offense than the grabbing of an official after a game.

Tweet of the Week II

"Problem with anonymous scouts is that I never know if I'm hearing from the guy who said that RG3 was a run-around QB who couldn't throw."

-- @SC_DougFarrar of Yahoo! Sports.

Tweet of the Week III

"Played my senior year w/ a sports hernia and can't believe A. Peterson ran for 2K with one. Totally insane"

-- @RossTuckerNFL, reacting to the news that Adrian Peterson underwent sports hernia surgery last week, after his MVP rushing season for the Minnesota Vikings.

Ten Things I Think I Think

1. I think no matter what the NFL's explanation for not fining Baltimore cornerback Cary Williams for his two-handed shove of 11-year-veteran head linesman Steve Stelljes in the Super Bowl -- most likely his "reasoning'' that he was enraged getting up from a pile and didn't know he was shoving an official -- it will be weak and flimsy. In a league in which Frank Gore gets a $10,500 fine for wearing his socks too low in the NFC Championship Game and Bill Belichick gets docked $50,000 for grabbing an official (and not holding on), Cary Williams getting no fine and no penalty and no ejection is precisely the reason so many players think the NFL is so capricious with its system of fines. And non-fines.

2. I think of all the controversial decisions the NFL has made this year, the one to not fine or sanction Williams is the easiest to rip. It's wrong on 77 levels. The NFL has just said that it's OK, in the heat of the moment, for a player to put both hands on an official and shove him back angrily. I would love to be a lawyer next year when a player touches an official and is fined. That'll be the easiest appeal ever -- and if I lose, I just go to the media and show both incidents and say, "What bureaucratic nimrod dispensed this kind of justice?"

3. I think, by the way, that if it were Ndamukong Suh who shoved the head linesman in the Super Bowl, he would be lucky if his punishment were being suspended for the first game of the 2013 season and nothing more. Very lucky. And yes, I understand that Suh has a history of similar behavior. But how do you suspend one player for doing something and not suspend or fine another player a nickel for doing the same thing?

4. I think it is in this spirit of good will that I wish Dean Blandino, the NFL's new vice president of officiating, good luck. He'll need it.

5. I think this is a sentence I never thought I'd write in my life: Joe Flacco went to the Tommy Hilfiger Fashion Show at Fashion Week in Manhattan the other day.

6. I think that's what a good husband does. Flacco and wife Dana did the hang-out-with-Hilfiger thing. There's a good chance Joe would have liked to be an ordinary Joe that day, but why not treat your wife to a front-row seat for one of the big shows on the runway in New York?

7. I think the league has its first assistant coach with the title of "sports science coordinator.'' He is Shaun Huls, who, according to USA Today, trained Navy SEAL before Chip Kelly hired him to help train the Philadelphia Eagles. I keep hearing from people who know Kelly that he's going to do some counter-football culture stuff with these Eagles, so get ready for the unorthodox. Here it comes.

8. I think ProFootballTalk made a great point Saturday about one aspect of the free-agent market: the tackle conundrum. There are so many good ones who will be free -- Jake Long, Brandon Albert, Andre Smith, Jermon Bushrod, Ryan Clady (likely to be franchised), Sebastian Vollmer and Sam Baker -- that the value will go down. Teams can likely to get a good tackle for $7 million or $8 million a year if they're patient.

9. I think the NFL owes quite a bit to Jim Sweeney, the former Montana State, Washington State and Fresno State coach who died Friday night at 83 in Fresno. He convinced Jan Stenerud to kick in college. He coached Trent Dilfer and Henry Ellard at Fresno. Mike Martz learned from Sweeney in the Fresno coaching staff. Tough and smart and offensively imaginative, Sweeney won 200 games as a head coach, and in his day, Fresno was the Boise State of its time.

10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:

a. Sports Story of the Week: From Scott Cacciola of the New York Times, a sort of baseball/sociological piece about people who wait for hours for a Derek Jeter autograph that quite likely will not come. I'm not sure if it's more pathetic that the people wait, or sad that Jeter won't spend five minutes a day accommodating them.

b. News Story of the Week: From Kevin Helliker of the Wall Street Journal, an exhaustive piece on how Truman Capote may have played favorites with sources and thus may not have gotten the whole truth when researching In Cold Blood, his best-seller about the murders of a family of four in Kansas in 1959. Capote, whose book was published in 1966, had unprecedented access to the killers and to a vital piece of evidence in the case, the diary of a 16-year-old girl who was one of those killed, and the evidence.

The recent unearthing of clarifying evidence from the Kansas Bureau of Investigation's investigation at the very least casts aspersions on some of Capote's motives and shows that at least a couple of core facts Capote relied on are wrong. Great research by Helliker, particularly after so many of the characters in the story and the investigation have died.

c. Finally saw Flight, the Denzel Washington-as-alcoholic-pilot-hero-sort-of movie. He was very good, as he always is. The movie was pretty good. My problem with it: horribly, horribly depressing, and unrealistic that such a screwed-up guy would be able to keep getting in cockpits for years, and it was waaaaaaay too long.

d. Watching the blizzard coverage on TV in New York Friday, I was sure thousands would be killed by the crush of snowflakes. Then I woke up Saturday, put on the TV, and saw pretty much the most common thing that happened in the Tri-State Area was that people were going to have to shovel for four hours.

e. We do tend to overreact to weather in this country.

f. Got sick when I got home from the Super Bowl. Got reacquainted with Luden's cough drops. What's better than a Luden's cough drop? Almost makes you want to have a sore throat.

g. Coffeenerdness: Blue Bottle Coffee in Manhattan? A godsend. Thanks, California. Terrific espresso.

h. Beernerdness: Strand me on a desert isle with Lazy Magnolia Southern Pecan brown ale, and I'll be just fine. Great taste. Not too nutty.

i. I want to play Arian Foster in Monopoly. He was tweeting about it the other day, about the cat replacing the iron as a new token (Down with the cat! Save the iron!), and he gave away his Monopoly philosophy: always go for Baltic and Mediterranean. He's right. Get the cheapie purple color group, put hotels on them early, and rake in $250 or $450 all game long when people land. Personally, I'm a big railroad fan. I think every time I've gotten a hold of all four, I've won.

j. My wife hates to play me in Monopoly because it brings out the sick competitor in me. And God help you if you don't give me the iron as my token.

The Adieu Haiku

Here comes the Combine. Time to overrate college kids. Stay sane, Mike Mayock.

SI.COM'S OFFSEASON PREVIEWSBURKE: NFL ANNOUNCER RANKINGSBURKE: OFFSEASON STORYLINESBANKS: REDRAFTING THE FIRST ROUND OF 2012

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