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Inside The NFL

March 11, 2002
March 11, 2002

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March 11, 2002

Pro Basketball

Inside The NFL

Out of the Money
A season removed from a Super Bowl win, the Ravens are paying a
steep price

This is an article from the March 11, 2002 issue Original Layout

At the annual scouting combine in Indianapolis last weekend,
various friends in the business kept coming up to Ravens coach
Brian Billick, expressing concern about his well-being. "They'd
say things like, 'Brian, are you all right?'" Billick said last
Saturday night as he sat in his 14th-floor hotel room. "It was
like somebody had died."

Nobody died, but the Baltimore roster has undergone major surgery
and doesn't look anything like the team that won the Super Bowl
two seasons ago. Blame an obscenely bloated payroll, largely the
result of Baltimore's spending an NFL-high $104.6 million in
signing, roster and reporting bonuses over the past two years,
according to salary documents obtained by SI. Eleven starters
from last season are gone, most of them because their cap numbers
for 2002 were excessive; a 12th, two-time Pro Bowl defensive end
Michael McCrary, will likely be waived unless he reworks his
contract, which is due to eat up a whopping one-eighth ($8.8
million) of the team's $71.1 million salary cap this fall.

Among the departed are No. 1 quarterback Elvis Grbac, top
receivers Qadry Ismail and Shannon Sharpe, three quarters of the
defensive line (end Rob Burnett and monstrous tackles Tony
Siragusa and Sam Adams), leading return man Jermaine Lewis and
rising-star linebacker Jamie Sharper. The last two were lost in
the expansion draft to the Texans, Siragusa retired and the rest
were cut. But Billick and the organization were unabashedly
unapologetic for the risky spending spree, pointing to the Super
Bowl win and last year's playoff run. "Regrets? Hell no," Billick
said. "I'm sitting here with one Super Bowl ring and knowing that
injuries cut our chances short last year. A lot of teams would
love to have a ring and then rebuild around some good players,
the way we will."

As the 10th year of unfettered free agency kicked off last
Friday, the last two Super Bowl winners, Baltimore and New
England, were at opposite ends of the spectrum in dealing with
the cap, but in both cases the lesson was the same: Don't overpay
for free agents. The result was the slowest opening weekend ever
in free agency.

The agents who flooded Indianapolis to monitor their new pro
prospects--some 300 draft hopefuls were tested--had mostly long
faces as they tried to peddle the unemployed veterans they also
represent. Call it the Patriot Effect. "People see the New
England model--modest signing bonuses, great coaching, solid
player development--won the Super Bowl," said agent Pat Dye Jr.

Amazing but true: New England's 2001 free-agent class--the Pats
signed 26, with 20 still on the club in the Super Bowl run--cost
the team $2.7 million in signing bonuses. Running back Antowain
Smith, wideout David Patten, linebacker Mike Vrabel and special
teams ace Larry Izzo all played key roles in the 20-17 Super Bowl
win over the Rams, all had salaries well under $1 million, and
the total of their signing bonuses came to $300,000.

"This game is still about finding good players," said New England
director of player personnel Scott Pioli, who along with coach
Bill Belichick constructed the reigning Super Bowl champs. "But
more than ever, you have to put a value on a player, and if he
gets more somewhere else, you move on to the next player on your
list. I think there are people in every organization who like
what we did because it was an attempt to restore sanity to the
free-agency process."

In previous years a free-agent quarterback such as Rob Johnson--a
good player for the Bills, but one with a history of
injuries--would have had five or six teams wooing him. But last
weekend the market was so cold that a quick survey of nine teams
needing a starting or backup passer revealed none with more than
perfunctory interest in Johnson, even at a salary of little more
than the NFL minimum of $650,000 he would command. What's more,
through Sunday no team had contacted the Patriots about
on-the-block quarterback Drew Bledsoe, whose $6.3 million cap
number in 2002 surely scares off many teams. "I don't anticipate
us spending any real money on an older quarterback," said
Redskins coach Steve Spurrier, new to the cap game but learning
fast.

For the Ravens the changes will be sweeping. A new defensive
coordinator, Mike Nolan, will be teaching a new scheme, the 3-4,
with as many as eight new starters. A quarterback with three
career NFL passes, fourth-year man Chris Redman, is likely to
start the season with a veteran such as Randall Cunningham or
Chris Chandler backing him up. "We still have a great core of
players under 30," said Billick. "I'm reminded of what I heard
Bobby Bowden say this year: 'If you're gonna beat us, better get
us now, because we'll be back, baby.'" Quite possibly. But the
key to Baltimore's 2002 season might be whatever Billick can
glean from the book on the night table in his hotel room: The
Leadership Secrets of Colin Powell.

Cris Carter Makes His Pitch
Meet Me In St. Louis

It's an intriguing match: the NFL's state-of-the-art passing game
and the most sure-handed receiver of his day, who desperately
wants to win a Super Bowl before he retires. If Cris Carter says
all the right things when he meets with Rams coach Mike Martz,
quarterback Kurt Warner and wideout Isaac Bruce this week, the
36-year-old free agent should join the Rams. Though he'd be the
third receiver in St. Louis and probably could start for other
playoff contenders, Carter made clear his desire in a recent
phone call to Martz. "He told me, 'Coach, I've made $18 million
in the last three years. This isn't about the money. I want to
win a title,'" Martz says.

Carter will have to convince the Rams he isn't the me-first
player he was at times in Minnesota. "I've got the right ego to
fit in," Carter says. "What difference does it make if I catch
50 balls or 90? Just once I want to be on the last team
standing." The Rams need a No. 3 wideout to replace Az Hakim,
who is expected to leave as a free agent. Carter is perfect--if,
as Martz said at the combine, he can check his ego at the
locker-room door.

Read more on pro football from Peter King and look for Paul
Zimmerman's mailbag at cnnsi.com/football.

COLOR PHOTO: ANDY LYONS/GETTY IMAGES (GRBAC) The Ravens told Grbac (above) to take a hike after he refused to restructure his contract, and Sharpe was also a cap casualty.COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO [See caption above]

Dispatches

After the quarterbacks worked out at the combine on Sunday, the
consensus was that Oregon's Joey Harrington, who threw some
gorgeous deep balls while battling a bad cold, had closed the gap
on Fresno State's David Carr, who's being projected as the top
pick in the April draft. But the surprise of the day might have
been Tulane's Patrick Ramsey, who, thanks to a smooth delivery
and surprising arm strength, appears to be working his way up the
draft board, perhaps as high as the middle of the first round....
The Packers left the combine pondering whether to deal a midround
pick this year and a conditional choice in 2003 for troubled
Patriots wideout Terry Glenn. The Raiders are also interested in
Glenn.... All prospects at the combine wore long-sleeve gray
T-shirts with identifying positions and numbers. It was odd to
see Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Eric Crouch of Nebraska
labeled RB13. Teams told him he might get drafted as a running
back and then be tried at safety, wideout or quarterback. Visions
of the early Kordell Stewart danced in Crouch's head. "Being
[another] Slash is not a bad thing," he says. "I think I have an
NFL arm, but I also think I'm a natural runner." ... Syracuse's
cat-quick defensive end Dwight Freeney, who had 17 1/2 sacks last
season and should be a mid-first-round pick, surprised scouts
with his strength. His 28 repetitions of 225 pounds in the bench
press would be considered excellent for an offensive tackle. The
6'1", 266-pound Freeney will line up on the weak side.... New
Redskins coach Steve Spurrier will give Danny Wuerffel a shot to
be his quarterback, to the amazement of some around the league
who think Wuerffel's arm isn't strong enough to throw the
sideline and deep routes. "He won four SEC titles and a national
championship for me at Florida," Spurrier says of Wuerffel, whom
he acquired in a trade with the Texans late last month. "It's
difficult for me to believe he can't play."