Friday, May 30, 2008

What do the Ravens see in Freddie Mitchell? What doesn't Mike Preston see in Troy Smith?

I’ve been asked by several people why it is that The Sun’s Mike Preston can walk away from a passing camp practice with such a pessimistic perspective on Troy Smith when the rest of the media in attendance discussed Smith in glowing terms.

I thought Smith was very impressive also. I detailed the reasoning in my blog on Thursday. One thing that I didn’t mention Thursday is the growth I’ve seen in Smith in less than a year as well as the apparent disappearance of an awkward hitch in his wind up. I consider those to be positives as well.

When I considered what Preston wrote, it forced me to put things into perspective. Was Smith impressive? Yes. Is he possibly a quality NFL starter? It’s way too early to address that. Is it possible that along with several other observers that my enthusiasm over Smith was a bit too extreme? Perhaps.

You see we have grown so accustomed to watching sub-par play at quarterback here in Baltimore that when one of the quarterbacks actually does some things that catches your attention – something that is a bit eye opening, you pause and take note. Did Smith do anything extraordinary? No. Did he do some things that good NFL QB’s do? Absolutely!

And when you take Smith’s performance on Wednesday and compare it to that of Kyle Boller’s, it’s hard not to get excited. When a sailor is at sea for 5 years he might get pretty excited about the first semi-attractive woman he sees when he returns to shore.

You get my drift…

Similarly Preston may be so used to seeing bad QB play from anyone dressed in a Ravens purple jersey that he has become somewhat jaded. Some may say that he’s intentionally controversial.

Whatever the case may be, two things are clear: 1) Troy Smith looks better than he did at this time last year; and 2) He clearly looks better than Kyle Boller. And that’s a start. Let’s see where it goes from here.

Several have also emailed me today questioning the Ravens interest in Freddie Mitchell. I have also questioned this somewhat puzzling interest in a receiver who couldn’t stick on a receiver-needy team in Philly. His bark was far worse than his bite but not as bad as his haircut.

That said, the Ravens do things like this all the time, not just prior to a season but during a season as well. Other workouts probably don’t get the attention that this one with Mitchell has received because of his flamboyant history. Still this is a very curious workout and I’m wondering if the intent is simply to send a message to an underachieving corps of receivers.

Derrick Mason you are excused…

Jamal Lewis can't shut his pie hole...Roger Goodell supports Ravens' PA Announcer

"The first seven years of my career the offense was all focused on Jamal Lewis running the football. But now you can't do that. You have so many weapons this team can go to. I can do my job without worrying about eight- and nine-man fronts. "Here, I deal with six- and seven-man boxes. That's what I like to see."

That’s from former Raven Jamal Lewis who goes on to say….

"It's a myth when people say I was injured, I was this, I was that," Lewis said. "It was just the position I was in, and where I was at."Now I'm with a better team, I'm around better players, and I have help. In the place I was in before, I had no help, so ... it's a much better situation."

The more this guy talks the less I like him.

It’s hard to respect a player who forgets where he came from; one who forgets about the offensive line that was able to create enough space for him despite 8 and 9 man defensive fronts and still pave the way to over 2,000 yards; one who might be out of football or incarcerated if not for the support of the Ravens’ organization.

And just think, one day he’ll be up there in the Ring of Honor and when he accepts the induction Jamal Lewis will give us all lip service and tell us how he will forever treasure his time here in Baltimore and blah, blah, blah.

I’m disappointed in Jamal. And I’m sure Jonathan Ogden, Edwin Mulitalo, Mike Flynn, Casey Rabach, Orlando Brown and company are all just thrilled with old No. 31. What a guy. What a teammate, eh?

This isn’t the first time Lewis has blathered about his former mates like an idiot (See J. Lewis in Denial) and I’m sure it won’t be the last. Lewis is obviously comfortable playing the role of the victim. Victims never do anything wrong – it’s always someone else’s fault.

Right Jamal?

Lewis’ former back-up, Musa Smith is now a member of the Jets. Smith was initially thought to be the heir apparent to Lewis but injuries prevented Smith from ever realizing his potential. Word is the Ravens were unimpressed with Smith’s tentativeness following the neck injury he suffered in Tennessee back in 2006. Now Smith gets to back up another high profile back from the draft class of 2000 – one that many Ravens’ fans preferred on draft day to Jamal Lewis – Thomas Jones.

To my surprise the Ravens are entertaining the idea of suiting up Freddie Mitchell. The former Eagle also known as Fred-Ex ran his mouth more effectively than passing routes towards the tail end of his active career which faded away like a Tom Hanks delivery lost at sea.

Remember when Brian Billick brought in several former Vikings when he first arrived in Baltimore. Maybe John Harbaugh is taking a page from Billick’s handbook and plans on bussing former Eagles south on I-95. Hey what’s up with Harold Carmichael these days?

Ever go to a Ravens’ game and think that S.A.F.E. Management’s hired guns are a little too amped up? If so prepare yourselves. The amperage is about to climb even higher.

Roger Goodell’s soon-to-be-released fan conduct policy will be part of the Commish’s plan to remove violence from the stands and tailgate lots.

"We want everyone to be able to come to our stadiums, behave properly, enjoy this experience but don't ruin it for others," said Goodell. "We will be focusing on that, including the implementation of an NFL fan conduct policy which we will have out prior to the season."

No truth to the rumor that Ravens’ PA Announcer Bruce Cunningham will be doing a “DON’T BE A JERK” tour this season.

Ever look at The Sun’s baseball box scores these days? I guess the tabloid format isn’t suitable to showing the pitcher of record's seasonal record or the ERA of pitchers. One step forward and two steps back for The Sun’s sports section.

Paint it purple downy ocean hon! Beginning today over 5,000 purple clad dyed-in-the-wool Ravenmaniacs will make their way to Ocean City to celebrate their favorite team. Each year Ravens Roosts throughout Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania participate in a parade that meanders north on Baltimore Avenue. Ravens’ players are usually in attendance and this year’s roster includes Jason Brown and former Raven and fan favorite Edwin Mulitalo. If you are Eastern Shore bound, check it out. A big contingent of fans will call Castle in The Sand home this weekend where volleyball tournaments and karaoke competition will kick off today.

WNST has a great idea (one that I'm told was the brainchild of Comcast Morning Show producer Adam Dembeck) to help fill the semi-void of sporting activity here in The Land of Pleasant Living.

They've kicked off a tournament to crown the King of Baltimore Sports. So far they have 28 candidates, all of which are labeled automatic bids. The at-large bids (4 in total) will be determined by write-in candidates. Among the glaring ommissions in my opinion are: Bert Jones, Earl Monroe, Gus Johnson, Paul Blair and Ken Singleton. Look if Lydell Mitchell is on the list, how is Bert Jones not on it? Same goes for Blair and Singleton when the juice machine (aka Brady Anderson) is on the list. You can find all of the automatic bids here on WNST's website. Johnny Unitas is the chalk (he should win easily) followed by the Robinsons and Ripken. But given the aforementioned oversights, who knows what the outcome will be? That's why they play "the games."

Oh and can we disqualify Jamal Lewis for stabbing his former mates in the back -- AGAIN!

Finally, congrats are in order for my nephew Nick Caddick who graduates from Calvert Hall tomorrow. Nick is a southpaw pitcher for the Cardinals and enjoyed three championship seasons as a member of the varsity baseball team. My best goes out to Nick and all graduates of any age. Celebrate responsibly!

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Passing Camp Notes: Troy Smith sets the pace...McGahee shows leadership

The Ravens convened for the first of a series of three voluntary passing camps on Wednesday in what would later prove to be a rather uneventful practice. No-shows included: Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Chris McAlister, Samari Rolle, Trevor Pryce, Jonathan Ogden, Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata. Adam Terry was very limited as was Dan Cody. Mike Smith continues to be sidelined with lingering shoulder problems and at this point is an extreme long shot to make the team. Reserves who willingly stepped in for their absent mates were Nick Greisen, Jim Leonhard, Fabian Washington, Corey Ivy, Justin Bannan, Jared Gaither, Gary Stills and Dwan Edwards.

My focus points during practice centered upon the tight end position, offensive line and quarterback.

Todd Heap took a significant amount of reps given the injuries to Quinn Sypniewski (season ending knee injury), Dan Wilcox (foot) and Lee Vickers (undisclosed but in attendance). Volunteering his services to give Heap a break was DE/OLB Edgar Jones. Jones was an accomplished tight end in high school and he did nothing to dispel those reports during practice yesterday. While not the primary receiver during most routes, Jones while wearing a red mesh jersey to cover his white No. 91 defensive jersey proved to be a quick study of Cam Cameron’s offense and ran decent routes while finding open spaces to be a viable check down option. Jones caught four passes during practice, one for a touchdown during 7 on 7 drills

The first team offensive line from left tackle to right tackle included Jared Gaither, Ben Grubbs, Jason Brown, Marshal Yanda and Oniel Cousins. It seems as though the Ravens’ coaching staff will force Chris Chester to step up his game if he has any plans to crack the starting lineup.

Behind the first team offensive line throughout practice was Troy Smith. If there was a star in this relatively workmanlike practice it was the former Heisman winner from Ohio State. Smith looked poised and appeared to know where to go with the football when his primary passing option was covered. His ball skills were sharp during exchanges with Willis McGahee and he sold the play action effectively. Three passes that stood out during practice were as follows:

Smith to Figurs on a 15 yard sideline route to the left between two defenders…Smith dropped the ball over the defender covering the short zone outside the left hash and in front of the safety rolling over in coverage.

Smith to rookie Justin Harper…Harper was able to get behind two defenders, one of which was fellow rookie Haruki Nakamura. The completion went for a 20 yard score just to the outside of the numbers on the right side of the field. Smith’s throw had touch dropping into the outstretched arms of Smith and away from any defender.

Smith to Todd Heap…Stepping up in the pocket to avoid outside pressure from the left, Smith delivered a perfect strike to Todd Heap who was working his way towards the right hash mark from the right flank about 20 yards downfield. Smith placement couldn’t have been any more precise as he avoided the shallow defender (linebacker) and the deep defender (safety) to hit the tightly covered Heap in stride.

Kyle Boller took all of his snaps with the second unit and for the most part Boller had a pretty miserable day. He didn’t force any throws into tight coverage or commit turnovers but he was high, wide and late throughout the day. Passes deep down the right sideline were thrown over the receiver’s outside shoulder and out of bounds. One deep ball down the left sideline fell short of an open Marcus Smith and was intercepted just shy of the goal line. Boller’s ball skills have never been very good and nothing seems to have changed there. His body language was that of a player who recognized that Troy Smith was creating some space in the race for the starter’s job. Boller had a tough time particularly with backs circling out of the backfield and dragging towards the middle of the field from right to left. Pro Bowler Willis McGahee stayed late and worked with Boller on that route under the guidance of Cam Cameron.

Joe Flacco was missing from practice due to the NFL/NCAA rule that allows only one practice for a collegiate player whose graduating class has not yet graduated.

McGahee looked sharp and is playing in a spirited way. Cam Cameron has made it clear that McGahee will be a focal point, if not THE focal point in the Ravens offense and the second year Raven appears eager to accept the challenge. On a day when several other Raven Pro Bowlers and high profile starters were missing the voluntary practice, McGahee was focused and determined while practicing with purpose.

OTHER NOTES & OBSERVATIONS…Demetrius Williams was limited and ran routes on the field adjacent to the main practice field, hauling in passes from Kyle Boller and Brad Roach. Williams ran his routes half speed at best, nursing a sore Achilles. The injury isn’t believed to be serious…Running in the No. 3 receiver slot for most of practice was rookie Justin Harper who appears to have an early lead on fellow rookie Marcus Smith. Smith dropped a 10 yard in route from left to right delivered on the money and with plenty of juice by Kyle Boller. Smith later struggled to gain separation on Ronnie Prude despite plenty of time to throw on the very slow developing play…Two things that are noticeably different with the receivers in Cameron’s offense. 1) They are very conscious of yards after catch (as John Harbaugh would emphasize later after practice) and; 2) More attention is being placed on downfield blocking after the catch or in support of a running back that breaks free. On one screen to McGahee on the outside right, Harper provided outstanding blocking to seal his man to the outside while enabling McGahee to navigate an ample amount of real estate…On the other side of the ball, Rex Ryan has his troops seemingly more determined than ever to pick up loose balls another indication of the head coach’s feistiness. After each incompletion that bounces off an offensive player’s hands, defenders swarm to the ball until they hear the whistle…Earlier in practice when the offense and defense were split Cameron had his unit fine tuning the nuances of an effective reverse. Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton were most often the ball carriers on those reverses…Ray Rice will be a fun player to watch particularly if Cameron can get him out in space in the short passing game. Defenders will regularly whiff on the rookie out of Rutgers…David Pittman was an observer during practice. He’ll need to develop a sense of urgency very soon or he’ll be playing elsewhere…The Ravens are utilizing a 40 second clock during practice. Harbaugh has credited that to Cameron and believes that it helps to speed up the tempo of practice…Several of the Ravens participated in a team bonding fishing trip yesterday arranged by Kelly Gregg and Jarret Johnson…The team will practice again today in Owings Mills. Practice is not open to the media.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Jason Taylor to the Ravens...more bark than bite!

Jason Taylor to the Ravens… Hmm, is this fantasy football? Well not according to ESPN 1300’s Damon “Bulldog” Yaffe who reported on his appropriately titled blog Dog Droppings that Taylor is heading north:

"Current Miami Dolphin (DE) Jason Taylor wants to be a Baltimore Raven and everything is pointing towards the fact that he will become one soon. I was contacted earlier today by a local source who stated to me that 'you really need to look into the Jason Taylor situation; a number of Ravens are trying to talk him into coming to Baltimore and he has told a few of them that he will push Miami for a trade and would love to be in Baltimore' the source also noted 'official talks between the Dolphins and Ravens have already taken place on a possible deal' & the Ravens really think he will be a good fit here in Baltimore'. "

Clearly Taylor would be a fit. He is a stud athlete with a great motor and work ethic who plays hard to the whistle. He’s a leader and a solid citizen as evidenced by his Walter Payton Man of the Year Award given annually to a player in recognition of his volunteer and charity work, as well as his excellence on the field.

The New York Giants showed the world that even the most dominating offense can be beaten if you smack around the opposing quarterback. And boy don’t those DB’s look a lot better when the quarterback is under siege and wouldn’t THAT be a fit here in Baltimore given the problems in the secondary last season?

Just imagine Terrell Suggs, Antwan Barnes, Trevor Pryce and Bart Scott getting after the quarterback with the support of six-time Pro Bowler Jason Taylor. You think Ben Roethlisberger wants to see that twice per season?

It is a match made in heaven but unfortunately it won’t happen.

It won’t happen for 3 reasons: Taylor’s age; Taylor’s probable salary requirements and Taylor is represented by Gary Wichard who just happens to be the agent for Terrell Suggs.

At 34, Taylor has probably played his best football already. If he leaves the Dolphins he will want to land in a place that is Super Bowl ready. Even the most optimistic Ravens’ fan would have to concede that the Ravens are not Super Bowl ready.

Moreover, the Ravens’ capologist Pat Moriarty doesn’t have much breathing room with the team’s cap at the moment. What is left will be used to sign their rookies and then leave a bit of space for any in season requirements that may surface due to injury. Tight end comes to mind.

And then there is the issue of Terrell Suggs and his contract status. Suggs and Wichard would lose leverage if suddenly Taylor appears on the team’s roster. Why would Wichard do that when there are other teams arguably far more Super Bowl ready than the Ravens that may have the prerequisite cap space? Why would Wichard undermine his own efforts with Suggs? Wouldn’t it make more sense for him to place Taylor with a team that is not negotiating with another of his high profile, high priced pass rushing specialist free agents? A team like the Chargers or Cowboys would make more sense.

The Chargers would place Taylor closer to Hollywood where he could conveniently pursue his post-NFL aspirations. The Cowboys would place Taylor closer to his brother-in-law Zach Thomas. Both teams would place Taylor closer to a coveted Super Bowl ring.

The guess here is that Yaffe’s source had at the very least some distant connectivity to Wichard. Agents love to float their players’ names out to the media and create rumors. The rumors bring attention and they can help to shake up a stagnant trade market.

And here’s a final thought on the topic. If one of the driving forces behind the team’s alleged interest in Taylor is rooted in the team’s player’s collective desire to bring Taylor here, isn’t that reason enough to nix the deal? Getting rid of Brian Billick in part was due to the team’s need for a cultural cleansing and place the control of the team back into the lap of management and not in the lockers of the Ravens’ infamous locker room posse.

Remember the players’ yearning for Corey Fuller and Deion Sanders and Steve McNair?

I rest my case.

Well, time for me to go…there are a few dog droppings out back stinking up the joint.

Those little doggies can be fun but sometimes they sure can make a mess.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Ravens and O's should be happy they were jilted...Improvements planned for M&T

The hits keep coming for the New England Patriots. Now Ross Tucker, a former journeyman offensive lineman who suited up in five different uniforms including that of the Patriots during his 7 year career is calling out Bill Belichick & Co.

Tucker claims that the Pats allowed players placed on Injured Reserve to practice with the team – a no-no in the NFL. According to Tucker, "Basically, the Patriots would put a player on IR, knowing it meant he couldn't play in a game or practice with the team for the remainder of the season. By skirting the rules and practicing him anyway, it allowed them to develop his skills during the year. A side benefit is that they were also able to give some of the older players less repetitions and, therefore, additional rest."

Not a bad idea really but once again – BUSTED!

That said, Tucker sounds a bit like a scorned needy lover seeking an audience for his sob story particularly when he admits that using a player on injured reserve during practice is of "minimal" benefit.

The NFL owners are crying poor over the paltry estimated sum of $4 billion that fill their collective coffers on an annual basis. They want a little more and consequently they’ve opted out of the current collective bargaining agreement.

One of the issues the owners have focuses upon rookie salaries which are totally whacked. This week Matt Ryan agreed to (as if he needed his arm twisted) a 6 year, $72 million deal that includes $34.75 million of guaranteed ch-ching. Now that is a ton of coin for someone who has yet to take a snap in the NFL.

Is Falcons’ owner Arthur Blank nuts? Or did he fall on a grenade for his fellow owners just to prove a point?

At the end of the day – well really at the end of the eleventh hour prior to 2010 when the current CBA expires, look for the players to make a concession here. Why? The veterans are supremely envious of first round picks who have done nothing to merit such outrageous contracts while they’ve paid their dues and play for much less.

To put it in perspective, over his entire career sure fire first ballot Hall of Famer Ray Lewis has not been paid anywhere near $34.75 million in guaranteed money.

Speaking of money, the NFL’s resident Evil Knievel is looking for more from the Cleveland Browns. Word is Kellen Winslow is not attending the team's voluntary workouts and with the able bodied assistance of pot stirrer Drew Rosenhaus, he is positioning himself for more payola or a trade or both.

Hey Kellen, didn’t the Browns pay you despite your idiocy on that crotch rocket that you unintentionally wrapped your body around a few years back? How many passes did you catch during your first two seasons? Five? How many key blocks did you make? Didn't the checks keep coming?

Granted these are voluntary workouts and Winslow and his agent contend that the talented but forgetful tight end will be at mandatory workouts and camps, this is probably going to get ugly. The Browns were wise to select a tight end in the 2008 draft (Martin Rucker in the fourth) as an insurance policy. If the Browns are smart they will not cave in to Winslow and Rosenhaus. Given the Browns’ track record that’s a big “if.”

The Ravens are one of three teams that have been given permission by the league to schedule stadium improvements. In the Ravens case, that’s $9 million to move forward with their plans.

Personally speaking I don’t know that the stadium has many flaws although I’d like to see more accurate scores and stats on the TV’s in the concourse area to go along with more highlights from around the league. Come to think of it, it would be nice to see a few TV’s in the men’s room to help make the lengthy wait more tolerable especially when Mother Nature comes inconveniently calling when there isn’t a TV timeout.

That said the cash won’t be used to satisfy my wishes. Instead it will be used to improve the luxury suites. Gee, an upgrade to the sushi menu and finer crystal wine glasses are exactly what we all need, right?

Now that John Harbaugh has elbowed Ravens Wired many have predicted that the player radio shows are next. And we all know that those shows were the main culprit in a 2007 season gone awry, right? Ray Lewis’ show hurt his season, right? Derrick Mason, c’mon he may have had 120 catches instead of 103 last year had it not been for his weekly banter with Steve Davis. J.O., if he wasn’t holding that microphone his toe would have felt 100% better. Bart, without his show he could have blitzed more regularly and not been forced into coverage in shallow areas outside of the hash marks. And let’s now forget Willis McGahee’s show. Maybe he could have played on third down more often if he didn’t wear himself out with Anita Marks.

Oh, and Adalius Thomas’ show certainly hurt his value in the free agent market, didn’t it?

The dripping sarcasm aside, so many shows certainly proved to be overkill and overkill led to less compelling radio. But let’s all get over the foolish notion that the shows affected performance. No one was complaining about A.D. when the team was 13-3 and he was named to the NFL All-Pro Team.

And the 2012 Super Bowl goes to one of the nation’s most treasured tourist towns in February – Indianapolis. And some thought Detroit was bad. What’s next, Cleveland?

He might enjoy Dancing with the Stars but he will no longer be dancing with the fish…or so it seems. DWTS finalist Jason Taylor may be on the outside looking in with the new age Dolphins led by Bill Parcells. Parcells is being the bully and brow beating Taylor for skipping voluntary team workouts opting instead for the Cha-Cha.

The brow beating has morphed into a feud and according to new head coach Tony Sparano, Taylor has informed the team that he will now not report to mandatory workouts.

Taylor has been a model player and a leader for a rather hapless team and he keeps himself in excellent shape. He’s a six-time Pro Bowler, four-time All Pro, 2006 AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year and the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award recipient in 2007.

Parcells might want to pick his battles a bit better to “urinate” all over Dolphins Stadium in an effort to establish his territory and superiority. For me the Phins were a team that I could give a rat’s you know what about. Now, they’ve just become another team to root against.

Shifting gears, let’s all thank our lucky stars that Baltimore was jilted by two skippers within the last year. First Jason Garrett turned up his Ivy League nose at Steve Bisciotti. Prior to that, Joe Girardi made the Orioles look like fools when he stiff-armed Andy McPhail.

Be careful what you wish for there Joe. Now you are in a place where you are expected to win. Add to the mix the over-the-top involvement in the team’s daily activities by Hank Steinbrenner and your realized wish could be short-lived. Just what the doctor ordered for a guy whose proven nothing yet is so full of himself.

The Sun’s Rick Maese did a piece on the infamous Earl Weaver Manager’s Corner piece that has been floating around for the better part of two decades. I first heard the tape in the mid 80’s and while highly entertaining and classic Weaver, even the most gullible of listeners would know that the R-rated edition of Manager’s Corner was nothing more than Weaver and host Tom Marr having fun. I guess Maese was up next and didn’t have much to write about. Anyway if you haven’t heard the tape, it’s here on YouTube. Then judge for yourself how gullible Maese is or pretended to be. Warning, this video is not suitable for children.

And finally, when I first started this blog entry, my girlfriend had Good Morning America on in the kitchen. Their musical guest this morning was Counting Crows. The band's leader Adam Duritz has lost it in my opinion and with each new album this once promising band releases, it makes me realize that the excellence of their outstanding debut, August and Everything After will never be approached again by the Pikesville native and his band. Perhaps their debut was the musical equivalent of a blind squirrel finding an acorn.

Ain't that a shame?

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

RAVENS HQ: A trip down One Winning Drive

Some, including our very own Fran the Fan, have criticized Ozzie Newsome for moving up to No. 18 in the 2008 NFL Draft to select Joe Flacco. Don’t count me among them. It’s obviously too early to jump to any conclusions but of the three QB’s in camp, Flacco stood out. He can make all the throws and can adjust his arm angle depending upon the situation. Not only is his arm powerful, it is equally accurate. He could be special. If he ends up being like Ben Roethlisberger only with a better arm and more mobility who will complain? Would you really fret giving up a pick to move up 8 spots for Flacco when you could instead have drafted OT Duane Brown or CB Antoine Cason?

That’s what I thought...

The Ravens wanted Flacco after they couldn’t get Matt Ryan and they got him. At some point you have to trust the Ravens front office more than your own opinions that have in large part been formulated from the opinions of league observers who are far less in the know than the brass at One Winning Drive.

It must be that time of year when we are all drilling down to find interesting and compelling things to discuss about the Ravens. Here’s one for you! Have you seen the new $5 bills? If not on the back of the bill in the lower right hand corner is an enlarged No. 5. The number is displayed in Ravens purple. Omen?

When John Harbaugh left the practice field after the first day of Mandatory Mini Camp, he was grinning from ear to ear. What better way of showing that the culture in Owings Mills will be different from this point forward than by dragging out his pacified vets into the rain for an old fashioned practice? Granted the team was dressed in shorts and practice jerseys only but the mood was spirited and rather intense marked by physical contact that you would not have seen during the Billick regime.

For the record the differences so far under Harbaugh include: practicing in the rain; no more cliques; no more veterans leaving the summer training camp hotel; no more Ravens Wired TV segments; quarterbacks dress in red; the offensive coordinator is really the offensive coordinator. Are the player radio shows and Ray Lewis’ dance next to go?

Summer camp sure does promise to be new and exciting and will undoubtedly be more physical featuring more live scrimmaging. The guess here is that this will help the team get off to a better start. The question is will they fade later in the year much like Mike Tomlin’s Steelers did in ’07 due in part to the team’s early season physicality on the practice field?

Some have been critical of Steve Bisciotti recently and they worry about the owner’s seemingly increasingly meddlesome ways. I’m not buying. Folks around town are a bit too paranoid about owner involvement thanks to the team across the street and the self anointed very available man owner. Bisciotti is the antithesis of Peter Angelos and challenges his employees to drill down and come up with solutions to improve performance and efficiency. That is how he built his fortune. He believes that determined and talented people can and will improve if placed in the right environment. But that doesn’t exclude Bisciotti’s involvement. Any good organization should give him the red carpet treatment to be involved.

On draft day, Bisciotti has been a staple in the Ravens’ war room over the past few years. His role has gradually changed and from what I’m told, the change is very welcomed. What Bisciotti brings and offers to the war room isn’t additional football acumen. There’s an abundance of that already in the room.

What he provides is a measure of reasonability and a finely tuned sense for reading people. Understanding people and what motivates them and drives them is the key to his fortunes. If Bisciotti didn’t offer such understanding and people reading skills to the war room, the war room would be less efficient.

During Day 1, the Ravens discussed Fabian Washington with the Raiders. The Raiders initially wanted a No. 2 or a No. 3 pick in exchange for the former first round pick out of Nebraska. Bisciotti listened in as Ozzie Newsome tested the waters with Al Davis & Co. Reportedly Ozzie ended that conversation while leaving the door open with the Raiders. Processing what he had observed, Bisciotti was convinced that the Ravens could get Washington for a No. 4 pick. His confidence was embraced by the rest of the war room and it helped the team stay true to its board and not reach for a corner despite the obvious need. All were of the opinion that Washington would be a Raven in exchange for a fourth rounder and all shared the opinion that whichever corner was still available in the draft, he would not approach the skill set of Fabian Washington.

So when are you going to let us know J.O.? All signs point towards retirement for the player who will undoubtedly become the first Raven inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But what is he waiting for? Those that defend J.O.’s procrastination suggest that he shuns the spotlight and doesn’t really want all of the attention of a press conference to announce his retirement. If that is true, here’s a suggestion J.O. That brief press conference can be trimmed down to a minimal amount of pomp and circumstance. Take ten minutes, get it done and then there’s no more questioning and wonderment about your retirement or possible return. Delaying the announcement generates far more attention than a press conference intended to confirm what most suspect anyway.

By the way, what is Jerry Jones thinking? His Cowboys had a bad game and his quarterback had an even worse game in the NFC Divisional Playoff Game against the eventual Super Bowl Champion Giants yet still nearly won. He wasn’t that far away. So why bring in a player like Pacman Jones when you are that close? It makes no sense. Roger Goodell would be doing Jones a favor by just saying no to Pacman. I don’t care about providing Pacman with the ability to pursue a livelihood. When you are a re-re-re-re-repeat offender, don’t you lose that ability at some point? After losing face with Spygate, it would be hard to envision Goodell in a forgiving mood anytime soon.

Ever hear of the theory of global warming? I just walked in from outside on this late May morning. Uh, what exactly does global warming mean again?

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Godfather Part IV: Saving the NFL

Senator Arlen Specter has been called a grandstander by his detractors as he engages in what looks to be a burgeoning crusade against the NFL.

One of Specter’s biggest financial backers is Comcast, a company that coincidentally is at odds with the NFL over the tariff charged for the NFL Network, a charge Comcast passes on to its customers. It’s not hard to see the potential for a major conflict of interests.

That said, the NFL has certainly challenged the faith of even the most ardent supporters of the National Football League with their handling of Spygate.

There’s no need to revisit the particulars of Spygate. Anyone reading this blog is familiar with the seemingly sordid details. It is however interesting (and this speaks to Specter’s concerns) how an entity as large and influential as the NFL can be its own judge and jury while on trial for a cheating scandal that could have far reaching implications.

I can’t help but think back to my favorite all-time movie, The Godfather. Roger Goodell is the league's Michael Corleone and he is systematically eliminating all those who stand in the way of the greatest good for “the family.” And in this case the family consists of 32 NFL owners.

First there’s the Patriots and Bill Belichick. They both get slaps on the wrist. Along comes videographer extraordinaire Matt Walsh who suddenly seems to not see what he thought he saw after a face to face with Godfather Goodell that lasted over 3 hours. It's as though by some strange miracle or phenomenon a hit on a member of a competing family was reduced to a traffic violation.

And then there is the Boston Herald – not exactly the Towson Times. The Herald suddenly doesn’t have any source to corroborate the story they broke about the Patriots taping the Rams walk through prior to Super Bowl XXXVI. Things that make you go hmmm.

Now Tom Brady is chiming in. According to Brady, "I think [Spygate is] a way to really sell newspapers, and all the ESPN stations, they've got to fill the air, too.”

Brady added, "It's just kind of the environment right now, though. I think that's the way that guys make it. They just say the craziest things. That's what ESPN has become. ESPN, to me, is like MTV without the videos, ESPN is without the highlights."

Hey wait a minute, since when does MTV have videos?

Seriously though, it will be interesting to see if there’s any Brady backlash from ESPN, a network that regularly has its lips suctioned to the buttocks of Gisele's man.

It will also be interesting to see how things shake out for Senator Specter. Will his financial backers suddenly and coincidentally dry up? Will rumors surface about conjured up bones in Specter’s closet? Will a horse head end up in his bed persuading Specter to step down as Senator? How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Roll Pop?

The world may never know…

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Ravens and Suggs agree on hybrid designation...WNST serves up chuckles

Speaking of placing your best players in places to promote the greatest team success (picking up from my last blog topic), don’t be surprised to see the Ravens use three wide receiver sets much more frequently. Cam Cameron is a big proponent of putting his best eleven on the field and a strong argument can be made for Derrick Mason, Demetrius Williams and Mark Clayton to be among Cameron’s Eleven.

Moreover, the Ravens are extremely thin at tight end. The only healthy tight end at the moment is Todd Heap and those who have followed Heap’s career know that his health is about as stable as gas prices these days. That said Daniel Wilcox is hardly an Iron Man candidate having missed 16 games over the past three seasons due to various ailments. It might be time for the Ravens to think about a journeyman tight end to augment their current roster.

John Harbaugh has reportedly decided to put the clamps on the Ravens TV show “Wired” this season because it promotes individualism. Now that could be debated and some might make the argument that it unifies the team. But apparently the call has been made and producers for RaveTV will have to take another angle. The move does however bring into question the plethora of player radio shows. Last year Ray Lewis, Bart Scott, Jonathan Ogden, Willis McGahee and Derrick Mason all had their own radio shows. One has to wonder if Harbaugh will exert his influence upon these players and keep them off the airwaves.

The Ravens and Terrell Suggs have reached a compromise and that could be a sign that the two camps are once again talking. As you are probably aware, Suggs filed a grievance against the Ravens claiming that the majority of his snaps were taken from the position of defensive end and therefore his franchise tag tender should be that of a defensive end and not a linebacker. The franchise tender for a defensive end is $8.879 million while that of a linebacker is a paltry sum of $8.065 million.

Suggs agent Gary Wichard said that the two sides have created a new designation – a hybrid defensive end/linebacker with an agreed upon tender of $8.5 million. The sides are awaiting league approval.

Might this new designation open up Pandora’s Box for the Ravens and the NFL? Soon safeties who play up in the box for the majority of their snaps might want a linebacker’s tender if they are franchised. If Ray Lewis is franchised next year, he may argue that he is deserving of a hybrid tender that takes into account his experiences at linebacker, defensive coordinator, general manager and assistant to the owner.

A theory has been spun by Mike Tanier of Football Outsiders. Tanier claims that the hiring of John Harbaugh coupled with the Ravens’ first two draft choices in ’08 (Joe Flacco and Ray Rice) are part of an effort to lure disgruntled South New Jersey based Philadelphia Eagles’ fans into Raven Nation. Certainly Steve Bisciotti would be all for that. More on Tanier’s theory here.

And finally props to WNST’s Drew Forrester for successfully utilizing the unique “skills” of Rick from Reisterstown on his morning program. The timely chuckle or two helps drivers sift through gridlock and avoid entering the dangerous waters of road rage. Apparently Forrester’s willingness to air Rick’s altered state of sports consciousness meets the approval of the majority of WNST listeners. Unfortunately (or fortunately depending upon your perspective) the same listeners of 1570 don’t approve of the Fighting Ungers. Several that called into Forrester suggested that Rick from Reisterstown take over for the Ungers’ during the 6-8 PM slot Monday through Friday. No truth to the rumor that Nestor Aparicio is considering moving the Ungers to 6-8PM exclusively from November to March when the sun has set by 6 rendering WNST’s signal useless. For you Rick from Reisterstown fans, he will be in studio with Forrester this Friday. Be careful while driving.

Ravens need to get their best players on the field more

One of the things that I criticized Brian Billick for throughout his tenure as Ravens’ head coach was his knack for coaching with fear. He refused to take calculated risks and was far too concerned about injuries to his players. Injuries are part of the NFL. There’s no way of avoiding them. Sometimes teams are fortunate like the Ravens of 2006. Other times teams aren’t so fortunate like the Ravens of 2007.

Teams have to prepare, practice hard and play harder and hope that through effort and preparation they remain healthy.

And hopefully get lucky.

Somewhere along the line Brian Billick thought that he could manage that luck. He attempted to stave off injuries by maxing out on creature comforts for his players. He also chose to align his players in positions that they were most familiar with, again in part to protect against injury.

Meanwhile other clubs used the unique athleticism and intelligence of certain players to benefit their teams even if the surroundings for that player were somewhat unfamiliar.

One player who comes to mind is Mike Vrabel of the New England Patriots. Vrabel often lines up as an additional tight end and has developed a knack for sitting down in the right area of the end zone to provide Tom Brady with a window of opportunity and the result is often an easy touchdown. Dallas employs Terrell Owens’ ball skills in the prevent defense to guard against successful Hail Mary attempts by opponents at the end of either half. Julius Peppers has seen time as a tight end. Defensive tackles around the league see time at fullback or tight end in jumbo packages designed to move the chains or score in short yardage situations. Warren Sapp comes to mind.

Yet the Ravens avoided that temptation (assuming there was one) under Billick, preferring instead to take the safe approach and not risk injuries, turnovers or both. That is the approach of a defeatist.

And that is an approach that apparently John Harbaugh will not subscribe to.

During mandatory mini-camp practices that recently concluded, Haloti Ngata lined up at fullback. Those who have seen Ngata practice know that for a man of his physical stature he is very nimble afoot. What linebacker would want to take him on as a lead blocker during a rush off the edge?

The Ravens had Adalius Thomas for years – a man who could stand under the basket and dunk backwards. He could run a 4.6 at 270 pounds. He had soft hands. You know where this is going.

What Raven would you like to see most with the ball in his hands in the open field? Think about it, what one player wearing purple makes more game breaking plays despite his limited touches?

For me that player is Ed Reed. His presence alone on offense would raise the suspicion of opposing defenses. Decoy? Perhaps, but think of Reed on a quick flanker screen. The NFL is all about putting your best players in position to make plays. If mini-camp is any indication, then you might see some of your favorite Ravens defenders on the other side of the football doing whatever they can to score points. And that’s exactly how it should be.

Although I bet John Harbaugh won’t stand for all of those schoolyard laterals that Brian Billick used to pass along as Ed Reed being Ed Reed.

And isn’t it about time?
Photo by Sabina Moran

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Ravens Mini-camp observations

It was a bit strange yesterday not seeing the tall guy with the straw hat patrolling the middle of the practice field and barking out directions and words of encouragement like, “Take care of each other” and “We need a better tempo”. But those days are gone and a new regime has arrived.

Whereas Brian Billick would spend nearly all of his time with the offense behaving more like an offensive coordinator than a head coach, John Harbaugh observes both Cam Cameron and Rex Ryan in action and is far more prone to assisting special teams’ coordinator Jerry Rosburg.

The offensive players are clearly just beginning to grasp Cameron’s new offense as evidenced by the pre-snap adjustments made by the quarterbacks and receivers. If the first day of mandatory mini-camp is any indication, you will see the Ravens feature the shotgun more often even in the running game.

Other early hints of offensive changes to come…The offense appears more spread out with less bunching outside of the tackles. Todd Heap will be in the slot and flanked more frequently. The guards also appear to be busier and getting out in space a bit more…Yesterday the offense practiced a few plays with short swing passes out to the backs and receivers in motion, both escorted by pulling guards. That might help to explain why Jason Brown has shed some weight. He appears more nimble…It is tough to call which players make up the No. 1 offensive line unit, particularly with Adam Terry being limited due to a recovering left ankle that was heavily taped. The team appears committed to developing Jared Gaither as a left tackle. Marshal Yanda took some snaps at center but it was Brown who appeared to get the most snaps at center with Chris Chester in the mix. The team could be sending a message to Chester to step up his game. Clearly it’s time for the third year second round choice to take it up a few notches…Another message might be on its way to Mark Clayton. Again it’s early but Clayton was an observer on a few plays that featured what appeared to be the first team offense. The No. 2 receiver was Demetrius WilliamsMarcus Smith is an impressive looking receiver in stature and moves well to the ball. He’s one to keep an eye on…Another to keep an eye on is Yamon Figurs. Figurs didn’t appear to be as thin in his torso area and he seems to be running a bit more confidently with the offense. Don’t be surprised to see Cameron employ that speed a bit in ’08…Ray Rice is very shifty and that was even apparent on a slippery surface…Kyle Boller is not a mudder. He has struggled in the past during inclement weather and yesterday was no exception. Granted it is only one practice but Boller continues to make the same kinds of mistakes that he’s made from day 1. I couldn’t help but think that his usefulness may be diminished as he adjusts to Cam Cameron’s playbook and terminology. Boller at least had mastered Brian Billick’s offense. Now one has to wonder with that part of his game taken away, how much he will struggle…Receivers had a tough time hanging on to the football. Several on target passes were dropped.

Other observationsBrendon Ayanbadejo is wearing No. 96. He shows good athleticism and it would not be surprising to see the team put that to use in some defensive situational sub packages. Tavares Gooden moved well and should contribute as he learns Ryan’s defense schemes…Antwan Barnes appeared more involved and that could be due in part to Terrell Suggs’ absence as he awaits a ruling on his grievance filed against the team. He has yet to sign his franchise tender offer…Haruki Nakamura supported the deep sideline route effectively rolling over in time when set up in a Cover 2…Fabian Washington ran with the first unit during 7 on 7 drills subbing for Samari Rolle who was for the most part and observer…Chris McAlister moved well and broke on the ball in time on a few plays to break up passes…During the Billick era the defense always had its way with the offense. Early on there will probably be little to no shift in that balance of power as the offense grows accustomed to Cameron’s teachings. For Ryan’s defense, it’s pretty much business as usual.

For other Day 1 observations click

Friday, May 09, 2008

Differences under Harbaugh are immediately noticeable...Flacco impressive

The contrasting styles of John Harbaugh and Brian Billick were immediately apparent during the team’s first and only mandatory mini-camp of 2008. Despite the availability of a state of the art indoor facility less than 100 yards away, Harbaugh had his squad of 80 practicing outdoors in a steady rain.

Many have questioned the Ravens inability to play in inclement weather. Even members of the organization have quietly opined that the team’s subpar play in rain was directly linked to Brian Billick’s refusal to practice in such conditions.

Players slipped and passes sailed but overall the mood was very upbeat. The QB’s were dressed in red jerseys while the rest of the offense wore purple. The practice jerseys are much closer to the actual game jerseys than they’ve been in the past, each decorated with the player’s name, embroidered numbers and team logo. Perhaps Harbaugh subscribes to the dress for success philosophy.

Most eyes centered upon No. 5 – Joe Flacco. While it is still extremely early and he’s proven nothing as of yet, Flacco throws perhaps the best looking ball from a Ravens’ quarterback since Vinny Testaverde. Despite the wet conditions, the rookie’s passes had zip, they spiraled tightly and they were for the most part on the mark. His deep passes arched high and hit receivers in stride. During 7 on 7’s Flacco hit Mark Clayton down the left sideline for a 60 yard scoring strike.

Troy Smith was inconsistent and at times appeared a bit too mechanical. Several passes sailed high especially those thrown to his right. The Ravens have mentioned that they may incorporate plays specifically designed to maximize Smith’s skills and if today was any indication, that talk is hardly lip service. Smith worked on several designed rollouts and even faked a handoff to McGahee out of the shotgun and kept it while running around the right end. The play included a pitchout option to Smith’s right.

Kyle Boller has never been a mudder and today was no different. He was off the mark often. On the very first play during 7 on 7 drills, Boller locked in on his receiver running a curl out of the backfield. Ray Lewis read it and timed it perfectly, intercepting the short pass and taking it in for a score.

I’ll chime in with more observations tomorrow morning…

Ray Lewis' career could end somewhere other than Baltimore

According to Adam Schefter of NFL Network, talks regarding a contract extension between the Ravens and Ray Lewis are at a crossroads. That should surprise no one. In fact if Schefter said that talks were going smoothly I would be concerned because that would suggest that the Ravens were being far too accommodating to the two-time Defensive Player of the Year and Super Bowl XXXV MVP.

More than likely Ray Lewis’ representatives are asking the team for a staggering signing bonus, one that likely had the Ravens front office doubled over in laughter behind closed doors.

Some have criticized Ravens’ owner Steve Bisciotti for not so subtly suggesting a few weeks ago that if Lewis files for free agency after the 2008 season, that the Ravens would probably top any offers that Ray receives.

"If [Ray] becomes a free agent next year, I think the Ravens would probably outbid other teams. We know Ray's value more than the other teams. We know the leadership he brings to the team. We know the commitment and the effort he gives to winning."

On the surface such a suggestion deserves criticism and it could place Ozzie Newsome and Pat Moriarty in a tough spot.

Beneath the surface of that statement lays Bisciotti’s true intent – HOPEFULLY!

Could it be that Bisciotti is confident that other teams won’t be rolling out the red carpet for Ray? Lewis will be 34 years old entering the 2009 season. Mike Singletary’s career closely parallel Lewis’ (All-Pro eight times, All-NFC nine times, 10 Pro Bowl selections, 2 DPOY Awards) and he retired at the age of 34. Is it prudent to offer an aging veteran who has played only one complete season in the last six (2003) a lucrative signing bonus?

Of course not!

Sentimental fools have no business in the NFL. Just ask Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Ronnie Lott, Emmitt Smith and Junior Seau. Do you think their fans ever expected them to dress in another uniform?

Perhaps Bisciotti realizes this and he’s willing to let other teams establish the market for Ray Lewis. Now there may be a former coach of Lewis’ who might fall in love with the idea of bringing Ray in to be a leader and a role model. And if such a team is willing to pay through the nose for Ray, the Ravens like the 49ers, Cowboys and Chargers before them, must be ready to say goodbye.

After all, it’s just business, nothing personal.

Photo by Sabina Moran