Ravens Willing To Lose Big-name Free Agents
By Joe Platania
A few years ago, Ravens majority owner Steve Bisciotti said that, despite the up-and-down, parity-filled nature of the NFL, he didn't think there were competitive windows that opened and closed.
During the spring of 2001, Bisciotti was still a minority shareholder under majority owner Art Modell, and the team made an all-out effort to repeat its Super Bowl XXXV triumph by restructuring contracts and basically playing credit-card football, compromising the team's salary-cap situation while making another championship run.
At the time, the approach made sense on two levels.
Ravens fans, still giddy about the fact that Charm City had a team at all, were greedy for another title. Plus, Modell had only three more seasons left at the helm, per his agreement with Bisciotti, and a chance to leave an indelible back-to-back mark on history -- a welcome far cry from the desperate straits that forced him to move from Cleveland in the first place -- was too much to pass up.
But the 2001 Ravens were dealt a double dose of frustration, losing during the Divisional Round at Pittsburgh and then having to cut loose more than a few of the high-salaried veterans that had fueled the run in the first place.
Casualties included fan favorites such as tight end Shannon Sharpe, defensive tackles Sam Adams and Tony Siragusa, safety Rod Woodson, wideout Qadry Ismail and defensive end Rob Burnett.
After their Super Bowl XLVII victory this year, the Ravens traded wide receiver Anquan Boldin to the 49ers March 11, while linebackers Paul Kruger and Dannell Ellerbe both signed with new teams after the free-agent period opened March 12 -- Kruger with the Browns and Ellerbe with the Dolphins. Baltimore might part ways with other veterans to free up salary-cap room.
As the free-agent marketplace neared its March 12 opening, the team was trying to avoid the approach it had used 12 years ago. To the organization, it's not about winning back-to-back Super Bowls with the same team, but merely winning another championship while trying to stay consistently competitive in the future, true to Bisciotti's windows edict.
"We will not repeat what we did in 2001," general manager Ozzie Newsome said. "We are trying to build where we can win Super Bowls more than just one more time. But, I think our team is structured differently this time also. ...
"We have a great nucleus of young players. [We have] players who are just hitting into their prime that we are going to build this team around. But, we are not going to be restructuring contracts and do all of those different things to be able just to maintain this team to make another run."
That being said, the team tried to retain Boldin, the 2012 team's most consistent chain-moving receiver, a larger version of franchise all-time leader Derrick Mason, who was released in 2011 after six seasons with the team.
The Ravens wanted Boldin, a fine blocking receiver who also accumulated a league-high 19 first downs during the four-game postseason run, to take a reported $2 million pay cut and lessen his $7.5 million cap hit as free agency approached. But the two sides couldn't reach an agreement, so the Ravens traded him in exchange for a sixth-round draft pick.
For the most part, this year's free-agency approach will be similar to those during the recent past, which means the Ravens will reluctantly part with some familiar names. But it's important to point out that it won't be done in the guise of a so-called roster "blowup," but rather by selectively figuring out which players have the combination of youth and cost-effectiveness.
That's why one of the Ravens' high priorities for retention was restricted free agent tight end Dennis Pitta, who has spent his first three NFL seasons working out a terrific rapport with Super Bowl Most Valuable Player Joe Flacco, the highest-paid quarterback in league history.
Despite the doom-and-gloom feel to the process -- the feeling that without such stars as Boldin, Kruger, Ellerbe and other cap dumps, the team will take a step backward -- the Ravens have prospered with this approach during the past.
A portion of the fan base, which has a boatload of accumulated trust in Newsome, will point out that numerous veterans have been salary-cap dumps, or otherwise not re-signed -- including Mason, tight end Todd Heap, running back Willis McGahee, linebacker Jarret Johnson, defensive end Cory Redding, guard Ben Grubbs, and safeties Tom Zbikowski and Haruki Nakamura, among others -- and the Ravens have still maintained a consistently contending team.
"We are not going to get caught up in the moment and do things to our salary cap and make decisions in the euphoria of winning that could hurt us in 2014 and 2015, like we did in 2001," Bisciotti said. "Every single veteran was restructured, I think, so that every single veteran could stay, and then we ended up losing so many people [in 2002].
"We don't want to do that. You have to make sure that the excitement of the day doesn't cloud what we promise to build, and that was a consistent winner."
During the early 2000s, that didn't happen. The '02 blowup led to the league's youngest-ever Week One roster -- 19 rookies and first-year players took the field for the Ravens as that season began -- and the team finished 7-9 after surprisingly contending for a playoff spot for most of the season.
The good times returned the following year, when the Ravens won their first AFC North Division title, but the organization would rather not have to deal with those kinds of peaks and valleys.
For the most part, it hasn't. Five straight playoff appearances and nine during the past 13 years have the Ravens in a better position than most other teams in the league. The team can pitch to its free agents, as well as those on other teams, that Baltimore is an appealing place to play because it has the kind of blue-collar work ethic that has it at or near the top every year.
"The word repeat means nothing," head coach John Harbaugh said. "You go back to work. You sink the pilings deep. You do the same thing you do every year, and we're going to try to sink our pilings deep into bedrock again this year. ... And we just go back to work."
For the Ravens, it's the kind of work that might mean the loss of some familiar and favorite players, but the gain of more solid chances at another Vince Lombardi Trophy.
And for Bisciotti, it's about keeping the windows open long enough so they don't slam shut on his team's fingers, the way they did years ago.
Issue 183: March 2013