McAlister reports with a new attitude

WESTMINSTER -- In the past, Chris McAlister has been described as an enigmatic personality who marched to his own separatist beat. Now, the Baltimore Ravens' Pro Bowl cornerback is striking an altogether different, team-oriented chord as he enters his seventh season. A year ago, McAlister skipped training camp to protest being assigned the restrictive franchise tag.

Once he showed up and was eventually rewarded with a lucrative contract extension, the 1999 first-round draft pick generated another Pro Bowl season even though his play and intensity appeared to slip at times.

McAlister closed out the season by outlining a divided locker room where players didn't communicate well or enjoy hanging out together. The critical statements only seemed to further cement his loner reputation.

Yet, McAlister finally appears to be content after the Ravens' opening practice at McDaniel College.

"There's a much lighter attitude," McAlister said Monday. "I feel a lot better being here at camp and having a chance to create a warm environment with teammates and get on the same rhythm."

It certainly didn't hurt matters that McAlister's contract issues are out of the way. He's one of the richest defensive players in NFL history.

The imposing cornerback received an initial signing bonus of $10 million when he signed his contract in October along with a second-tier option bonus of $7.5 million this spring.

His base salary for this season is $965,000, and he's slated to make $5.5 million in 2006, $6.5 million in 2007 and $8 million per season beginning in 2008 and through 2010.

"Of course, it feels good," McAlister said. "Anybody would be happy to have a contract done before they come in."
For McAlister, though, eliminating the distraction of an unresolved contract situation isn't all that's different about him.

McAlister spent a great portion of the off-season in Baltimore, instead of returning to Southern California as he had for the majority of his previous six years in the NFL. He also became a regular in the weight room, a place he used to rarely visit as he preferred to train on his own.

"Chris has a different countenance about him," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "He's got that smile on his face. Feels good about himself, good about his situation and that's a positive thing."

Listening to Billick describe McAlister now represents a stark contrast to the defensive back's standing within the organization last December.

In the midst of losing four of their last six games to go 9-7 and miss the playoffs, McAlister's outburst basically aired the Ravens' dirty laundry in public.

"I can't really put my finger on it, but it's not the same feeling," McAlister said last year. "Maybe it's because we're losing. Maybe that's what has gotten this locker room a little shifted.
"It really used to be real loose, and we used to have a lot of fun in here. It's not that same way. Now it's kind of like everybody stays in their own little corner."

Reminded about his oft-repeated and debated opinions regarding last year, McAlister appears to be taking a wait-and-see approach that won't make waves.

"It's the first day of camp, what do you want me to say?" McAlister said. "We had a great first day of camp. We had fun. This is the first time the whole team has been together. So, we'll see how things work out in training camp."
Last season, McAlister was selected to his second consecutive Pro Bowl. He registered 44 tackles, returning a fumble and an interception for touchdowns while deflecting eight passes.

Yet, McAlister faltered in a few big games, notably when paired against Cincinnati Bengals All-Pro wideout Chad Johnson in a December loss. Johnson caught 10 passes for 161 yards and two touchdowns.

"McAlister didn't have a great year last year," ESPN analyst and former NFL offensive guard Mark Schlereth said. "He's definitely a top-notch corner and arguably one of the best four guys at his position. I think he's only scratching the surface of his potential. I think he could have a big-time year as long as he stays focused."

McAlister will have the added benefit of former Pro Bowl cornerback Samari Rolle in what should be one of the top cornerback tandems in the NFL. That pairing will work alongside safety Ed Reed, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

"A lot of people expect a lot out of us, but we expect more than they do," McAlister said. "Go to the Pro Bowl, go to the Super Bowl, the goals really don't change. You can never have enough rings and enough accomplishments."

When McAlister reported Sunday, he arrived with a smile as he carried in his golf clubs and PlayStation. Notably, he was hours early for the team meeting.

He didn't sound like the Ravens' one-time problem child.

"I missed eating, living, breathing football around the clock," McAlister said. "I almost forgot what it felt like."

In addition to being a long time contributor to RavensInsider, Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times in Westminster Maryland.

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