Ravens maintain focus amidst off-field issues

OWINGS MILLS – The Baltimore Ravens have experienced a tumultuous off-season between pending legal situations involving three key athletes and a nullified trade for All-Pro wide receiver Terrell Owens.<br><br> As the defending AFC North champions begin a final, four-day voluntary minicamp today (Monday)in what amounts to a dress rehearsal for training camp, off-field issues haven't seemed to affect on-field preparations.

If anything, the work at the Ravens' training complex could act as a comfort zone for Pro Bowl running back Jamal Lewis, outside linebacker Terrell Suggs and cornerback Corey Fuller. Each has been charged with two felonies apiece. Each player has pleaded not guilty.

Lewis stands accused of federal drug conspiracy charges in Atlanta. Suggs faces two counts of felony aggravated assault in Arizona. And Fuller, whose grandmother died a week before he exchanged gunfire with a masked intruder at his home, was charged with felony gambling and firearm offenses in Florida.

"I think the beautiful thing about it is that we always have each others' back," said Ravens All-Pro linebacker Ray Lewis, who weathered his own personal crisis in 2000 when prosecutors dropped murder charges against him and he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor obstruction of justice charge. "We don't worry about anything outside this organization. That is what we live by. If you can't find something to smile for, we'll smile for you. 

"We are a family and that is what we are here for. We don't worry about outside stuff. People are men. People are human, and you are going to go through things. Deal with them and move on. Come get away, and be with your family."

Now, the Ravens will get one more chance to work together as a team before reporting to Westminster on July 29 to start practice at McDaniel College the next morning.

The Ravens have maintained their focus, centering their attention on upgrading the lowest-ranked passing game in the league from last season.

"We're halfway through an eight practice sequence that's going to set the tone for training camp," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "I think they've got a good fundamental base under them. You have a real sense of team now."

Former New York Giants coach Jim Fassel was hired for the season as a senior consultant and a personal tutor to second-year quarterback Kyle Boller. The major emphasis for Boller, a first-round draft pick last year, has been improving his mechanics and decision-making. Fassel is likely to be a top candidate for head-coaching positions after this season.

"He's one of the best quarterback coaches in the league, a proven offensive mind, a guy that knows what my seat is about and can give me that type of perspective," Billick said.
Former Cleveland Browns wide receiver Kevin Johnson, who has averaged 66 receptions per season for his career, was obtained for a fourth-round draft pick.

Rookie Devard Darling, a third-round draft pick, has been impressive in practice sessions, snaring difficult catches with regularity and gaining separation behind the secondary.

After backup quarterback Anthony Wright underwent shoulder surgery to repair a partially-torn labrum that will prevent him from throwing until September, the Ravens hired former Pittsburgh Steelers and Chicago Bears starter Kordell Stewart.

"You have to have a veteran presence, a guy that knows how to operate in the mode this team is right now," Billick said. "It's all from a standpoint that you hope he never has to play. He understands his role, but it's going to be vital the first part of the season that he's ready to step in should something happen to Kyle."

As for the off-field issues, Billick acknowledged that there's little the team can do but offer support to Lewis, Fuller, and Suggs.

"There's nothing we can do to impact the process," Billick said. "We have to understand it. We can provide the structure for them that will allow them to do their job. 

"I've got to provide an environment that helps them do that, because I can't help them with the other. I don't have the expertise to do so."

Fuller has an Aug. 23 court date. Suggs has been assigned a Sept. 9 date, three days before the season-opener against the Cleveland Browns.

No court date has been announced yet for Lewis, although the team is preparing for the possibility of a trial before or during the season.

Ray Lewis said he has counseled Jamal Lewis on how to handle his personal situation.

"It is advice of truth, nothing else," Ray Lewis said. "Keep your mind on football, your family the things that he really loves and everything will be all right."

NOTES: Franchise player Chris McAlister, the Pro Bowl cornerback seeking a new contract who has yet to sign his $7.1 million tender, will be absent again this week. Negotiations are scheduled to resume July 15 after a league-mandated moratorium. … Ravens defensive tackle Aubrayo Franklin and the Frankfurt Galaxy absorbed a 30-24 defeat to the Berlin Thunder in NFL Europe's World Bowl.

Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times.

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