Ravens concerned about the future

OWINGS MILLS -- Now, the real uncertainty begins for the underachieving Baltimore Ravens. Following the worst season in Ravens coach Brian Billick's seven-year tenure, several players packed their belongings Monday and left the locker room with a critical item missing from their personal inventory: assurance of a job on the team for next season.

"It's tough because we had Super Bowl aspirations and it just didn't happen for us," said linebacker and Baltimore native Tommy Polley, who's one of five defensive starters who's an unrestricted free agent. "I'm not the only one. Everyone's disappointed."

For Baltimore (6-10), its third-place finish in the AFC North and second consecutive absence from the playoffs didn't cost Billick his job as he was informed last week by owner Steve Bisciotti that he'll be retained for next season.

The players and several assistant coaches don't possess that same knowledge about their status.

Whether it's unrestricted free agents like running backs Jamal Lewis and Chester Taylor, defensive end Tony Weaver, linebacker Bart Scott, free safety Will Demps or embattled quarterback Kyle Boller, this is a time to wonder what the future holds.

"I'm human, I realize that this is my contract year and a couple of months from now I can go anywhere," Weaver said. "If that was it, I enjoyed my time here, but let's hope it's not.

"I don't get paid to make those decisions. There's going to be a lot of evaluations on who is going to be here next year."

Boller's erratic performance in the season finale -- a 20-16 loss to the Cleveland Browns where he threw two interceptions and missed a wide-open Derrick Mason late in the game on a deep pass he sailed out of bounds -- creates more doubt on whether he'll remain the starter in 2006.

Despite an inconsistent season underscored by 58.4 percent accuracy, 1,799 yards, 11 touchdowns, 12 interceptions and a 71.8 passer rating, Boller was endorsed by Mason.

"I think Kyle is the man," Mason said. "I can't see any reason why he would not be the guy that will quarterback this team. I've seen him grow tremendously with his patience, with his field generalship.

"I think he's the right guy for the job unless he proves otherwise. In my thinking, Kyle is the man until somebody says differently."

Billick has yet to commit to Boller as his starter for 2006, though. It's certain Boller won't be unchallenged next season as Baltimore is expected to acquire a veteran to compete with Boller in training camp and is unlikely to re-sign free agent backup Anthony Wright.

Despite his endorsement of Boller, Mason suggested strongly that competition at quarterback is a healthy thing.

"That's how you make your team better," said Mason, who set a single-season team record with 86 receptions for 1,073 yards. "You bring in somebody that's going to push the next man to work that much harder. Bringing in a veteran would be good."

Meanwhile, Lewis rushed for a career-low 902 yards and three touchdowns and averaged a paltry 3.4 yards per carry after spending his offseason in federal prison and a halfway house following a guilty plea in a cocaine conspiracy case. His six-year, $35.5 million contract expired Sunday.
"It's been a rough year, period, for me," Lewis said. "This is more frustrating than what I went through in the offseason. Expectations were high, and we kind of fell short. We just didn't have a good year."

Lewis is anxious to learn if the Ravens are going to offer him a long-term contract extension, allow him to depart without compensation in free agency or if they'll opt for the more likely scenario of naming him their franchise player.

"My agent needs to contact the organization and see which direction they want to go in," Lewis said. "I'm 26 years old, still young, played six years and accomplished a lot.

"I'm still strong, still able to run the football. I'm not over the hill. I'm sure I can get a long-term deal anywhere."
Despite the presence of 15 former Pro Bowl selections on a team Billick dubbed his most talented edition last July, the Ravens got off to a 2-7 start for the worst start in franchise history.

"Yeah, we have names, but the other teams don't care who we have over here," cornerback Samari Rolle said.
After a 9-7 season in 2004, Baltimore hired Jim Fassel as offensive coordinator, signed Mason and Rolle, drafted Mark Clayton and counted on Boller maturing. It didn't work out, though.

Baltimore never won a road game to extend the longest current road losing streak in the NFL of 11 games dating back to Nov. 14, 2004. The Ravens played their final 10 games without middle linebacker Ray Lewis who went on injured reserve after undergoing hamstring surgery as Polley led the team in tackles.
"I wouldn't have expected this in a million years," Weaver said.

Billick will discuss the dismal season today in a press conference along with owner Steve Bisciotti and general manager Ozzie Newsome. It's clear Billick will have to improve the team's record substantially to make it to the end of a contract that expires after the 2007 season.

"I don't think he's going to start crackin' the whip," cornerback Chris McAlister said. "But there will be some changes definitely. .. We have to rebuild. We all need to grow as people, as men, no different when you're growing into adulthood from a child."

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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