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"Welcome to the future of the NFL," a beaming David Modell said on Sunday, minutes before the Ravens kicked off their first regular-season game in their new, $223 million stadium. Even if you had to climb 217 steps, as 40-year-old Baltimore corrections officer Bob Weisengoff did around noon to get to his seat seven rows from the top of the stadium, you wouldn't complain. "It's magnificent," said Weisengoff, who paid a onetime $750 seat-license fee and doled out $350 for his 10-game season ticket this year. "Finally we got our football team back, and we can stop living in the past."
The players seemed in awe of the place too. "It's so beautiful you don't know whether to have a picnic or play a football game," said Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis. Added Steelers offensive lineman Jim Sweeney, "I wish the people of Pittsburgh could see this. They'd never vote down a stadium again."
Of course, there's still this little matter of playing football. And in three hours and one minute, the Bob Weisengoffs of the world found out that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Baltimore had streaked through the '98 preseason undefeated, outscoring opponents 89-26 in its four victories. There the Ravens were on Sunday, out-gaining the four-time defending AFC Central champion Steelers 376-271, holding Pro Bowl running back Jerome Bettis to 41 yards on 23 carries and limiting quarterback Kordell Stewart to 173 yards passing. Yet long snapper Harper LeBel misfired on a punt (which led to a Steelers touchdown) and a pair of field goal attempts (both of which were missed by the usually reliable Matt Stover, who blew a third one, to boot). Cornerback Rod Woodson and wideout Jermaine Lewis dropped an interception and a touchdown pass, respectively. And Pittsburgh walked away with a 20-13 victory.
In a fitting end to the day, the Ravens had planned to put the late-afternoon NFL games on me giant video screens so fans could watch the games in the world's biggest sports bar. It never happened. Something about a problem with the satellite hookup.
In the off-season Packers wideout Antonio Freeman turned down a multiyear offer from the club for about $3 million a year, opting instead to sign a one-year, $1.15 million deal and test the free-agent waters in 1999, after his fourth pro season. Playing with the league's most explosive offense and preparing to get rich in a market sure to be further inflated by the expansion Browns and a salary cap expected to rise about $8 million per team in '99, Freeman should be licking his chops. So why does he have reservations about his decision?
"The best quarterback's here, signed long-term," says Freeman, who has become Brett Favre's favorite target. "The Packers are one of the great franchises in sports. And this is such a violent game. Careers end every Sunday. But I'm looking at free agency as a one-shot deal. The Cleveland opportunity could be the chance of a lifetime."
The Packers could protect themselves by slapping their franchise tag on Freeman, who last season caught 81 passes for 1,243 yards and 12 touchdowns. Another team could sign Freeman, but it would have to send Green Bay two first-round draft choices or some other agreed-upon compensation. If Freeman stayed put, the Packers would be required to offer a one-year contract that is equivalent to the average 1998 salary of the top five wideouts in the league. In '99 that number will probably surpass $5 million. Either way, Freeman comes out a winner-provided, of course, he can stay healthy in 1998.