Out of the Money
A season removed from a Super Bowl win, the Ravens are paying a steep price
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 mat 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 un-apologetic 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.