Modell nears end of ownership of Ravens

Before the Ravens' football season began, owner Art Modell made a few proclamations inside his downtown stadium office. One, the venerable Brooklyn, N.Y. native judged this edition's talent to be superior to the team that won the Super Bowl three years ago. Two, the 78-year-old reiterated that he would probably never return to Ohio. Not after the venomous outcry when he decided to move the Browns to Baltimore eight years ago because of financial difficulties and squabbles with politicians.

 Not even during the final games of Modell's last season as majority owner as he completes a $625 million sale to Maryland businessman Steve Bisciotti. Not unless he was being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton after a career that has spanned over four decades with 27 winning seasons and an all-time record of 344-304-8. "People there still carry a terrible scar and that's understandable," Modell said. "The politicians drove me out of town. The business community took care of the Indians and the Cavaliers, but not the Browns. "Those memories are unpleasant. I will go back when I feel that I'm welcome." 

Of course, that welcome wagon won't begin during Sunday's road football game against the expansion Cleveland Browns, the team that was awarded to Cleveland by the league with Modell's cooperation by bequeathing the old colors and trademark. Will this be a normal football game for Modell and his team considering the playoff implications and the bad blood between the two cities over the move of the original Browns? Unlikely, at best. "The Ravens are always going to be disliked in Cleveland," said kicker Matt Stover, an original Brown and one of several former Cleveland employees like general manager Ozzie Newsome, a Hall of Fame tight end with the Browns, who now work for Modell in Baltimore. "When we left, it was like someone stealing your child away from you. That's how they feel, and there's still a lot of resentment. "Art did what he had to do and he has my blessing. Cleveland doesn't like Art. They don't like us and they don't want Art to win … ever." 

The Ravens (8-6) are technically tied atop the AFC North with the Cincinnati Bengals (8-6), although the Bengals own the tiebreaker edge if the teams finish the season with identical marks. Browns offensive tackle Barry Stokes actually told reporters this week that he wants the Bengals to win the division. Anyone except for the Ravens, he said. "I am sure it will stir up a little bit, but I think we have gotten past that," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "Hopefully, it is to the point where it is two storied NFL cities going at one another in a divisional game. "This is an emotional time for Art. Surely, this game means a lot to us. But for Art, it means a lot simply because it is a divisional game and it has playoff implications. So, we will focus on it as that." 

Modell wasn't available for comment this week because of a busy schedule. He was at practice Friday, riding out on the field toward the end of a walkthrough in his golf cart. It's no secret how his players feel about this game beyond wanting simply to remain in playoff contention. "I have a sense of urgency to win for him," Stover said. "I'll always have that personal connection with Art that I don't think a lot of other players do. It's like winning one for your dad." 

Team president David Modell, Art's son, said he couldn't speak for his father's feelings, indicating a preference to focus on what the game means for the organization as a whole. Newsome echoed that sentiment. "Obviously, this game has a great implication," David Modell said. "Nothing else is important. I can't speak for Art, but we know what this means."

 Modell won two world titles, was instrumental in the merger of the NFL and AFL, helped launch Monday Night Football and the initial collective bargaining agreement. He also helped boost franchises' value by negotiating television contracts and encouraging revenue sharing. "My heart and soul is in this league," Modell said in a July interview. "I've watched it grow and grow and grow into something extraordinary. It's hard to walk away from something you love." Now, Modell is down to two regular season games before turning control of the franchise over to Bisciotti, whose influx of capital helped Baltimore be competitive enough in free agency to win a Super Bowl and has been beneficial to Modell's estate planning.

 Modell has said he's likely to become a minority shareholder, and Bisciotti has already reserved an office for Modell next to him in the Ravens' new headquarters that remains under construction. It's obvious how Modell wants to go out, regardless of whether he's talking about his emotions publicly. "I think this means so much to Art," offensive guard Edwin Mulitalo said. "This is his last year and, yeah, that's part of our focus. He's old-school. "He's done a great job for the NFL, not just the Ravens. Guys like him are slowly retiring. It's a changing of the guard." 

NOTES: The Ravens made no changes to their injury report, including linebacker Ray Lewis (shoulder) as questionable. He required a protective harness in last week's loss to the Oakland Raiders. Mulitalo (groin) fullback Alan Ricard (ankle) and running back Chester Taylor are questionable, too. "I believe everybody will be available to us on Sunday," Billick said. Cleveland downgraded cornerback Anthony Henry (knee) from probable to out for Sunday, leaving unheralded Michael Lehan and Roosevelt Williams available outside. Besides tying Kansas City with eight Pro Bowl selections, kicker Matt Stover, Ricard and Mulitalo are alternate choices. 

Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times.

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