Improved Ravens ready to take the next step
By David Ginsburg, Associated Press, 08/29/00
BALTIMORE -- Art Modell has learned enough during his 40-year run as an NFL owner to know it would be foolish to predict overwhelming success for a team coming off a .500 season.
So, although the Baltimore Ravens appear vastly improved from a year ago, he isn't making travel plans for his first Super Bowl.
"This is a good football team, maybe the best team I've had since '86," Modell said. "But the jury is still out. A lot of things can happen. You've got to be injury-free, get the luck of bounce. All I know is we're putting together the best 53 players I've had in a long, long time."
The Ravens haven't posted a winning record since Modell moved his Cleveland Browns to Baltimore before the 1996 season. The club was 16-31-1 before taking a step in the right direction last season under first-year coach Brian Billick.
"Was 8-8 a success? My answer is, if we can follow up this year and go to the playoffs, then last year will be successful because it set the foundation for it," Billick said. "If we don't go to the playoffs, then last year was just another mediocre 8-8 season."
Modell has four years left before Stephen Bisciotti can exercise the option of buying majority ownership of the franchise. Billick would like nothing better than to win the title for the venerable owner.
"Certainly you want to do it for yourself, but I can't think of a more gratifying scene than handing the championship trophy to Art Modell," Billick said.
It could happen, but the main goal this year is to merely get into the postseason.
"There's no excuse, after the way we finished last year and the additions we made, for us not to be in the playoffs," Pro Bowl offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden said. "Anything less would be a disappointment."
Anything more would be a bonus.
"Only one team wants to repeat what they did. Everybody else endeavors to take one step more," Billick said. "We want to make the playoffs. That doesn't mean we don't have ambitions of winning the AFC Central, going to the AFC championship game and winning the Super Bowl. But in order to do that, this team first has to get to the playoffs."
Baltimore won five of its last seven games last year behind a defense that featured four Pro Bowl selections and ranked second in the NFL.
But Billick went through three quarterbacks in 1999 before finally settling on Tony Banks, who went 4-0 in December and was rewarded with a four-year contract.
Banks has several new weapons at his disposal, including a flashy wide receiver and two of the best tight ends ever to play the game. Qadry Ismail, who had 68 catches for 1,105 yards last year, has been joined by first-round draft pick Travis Taylor and tight ends Shannon Sharpe and Ben Coates.
Sharpe and Coates will do more than merely provide Banks with two sure-handed options in the middle of the field; they are tested veterans who know what it takes to win in the NFL.
"They are a rock to lean on," Billick said.
Actually, the Ravens will once again lean on their defense in 2000. The offensive additions were critical for success, but retaining the services of middle linebacker Ray Lewis was the most important offseason development.
Lewis, accused in a double murder in Atlanta during a post-Super Bowl party, ultimately pleaded guilty to an obstruction of justice charge and was fined $250,000 by the NFL.
Yet he didn't miss a day of training camp, and thus far hasn't given anyone reason to believe he won't be the Ravens' leading tackler for a fifth straight season.
"He's the same guy he was before although he's more focused now, if anything," Baltimore linebacker Cornell Brown said.
Modell, similarly, can't contain his excitement as the Ravens prepare for Sunday's regular season opener against the Steelers.
"I think we're deep, we're hungry. We realize it was not an aberration last year that we won five of the last eight games," he said. "We're going to put it together, hopefully beginning in Pittsburgh."