Ravens focused on the future

OWINGS MILLS -- The Baltimore Ravens' ambition of reaching the Super Bowl next year is being tempered by the reality of a painful past when the proverbial credit card bill arrived. After the Ravens won the Super Bowl six years ago, they decided to restructure several key players' contracts and made unsuccessful investments in quarterback Elvis Grbac and offensive tackle Leon Searcy.

Only a year later, Grbac, Searcy, Shannon Sharpe and many others were gone after just one playoff victory as the Ravens were forced to overhaul the roster because of major salary-cap problems.

Weeks removed from a franchise-record 13-3 campaign that ended with a bitter playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts, the AFC North champions aren't taking a Super Bowl-or bust-approach toward 2007 as they ponder several critical personnel decisions.

"We decided that winning back-to back Super Bowls was what this organization wanted to do, so we put all our eggs into 2001," said general manager Ozzie Newsome, who also acknowledged that keeping the team intact after winning the division title in 2003 was a mistake. "We basically mortgaged the future. We don't want to do that this time. We learned from that."

That institutional knowledge is likely to affect multiple situations, including: whether to pay a $5 million option bonus that former Pro Bowl runner Jamal Lewis is due prior to the opening of free agency on March 2 or potentially assigning a $7 million franchise tag to Pro Bowl linebacker Adalius Thomas by a Feb. 22 league deadline.

The team would also like to retain fullback Ovie Mughelli, offensive tackle Tony Pashos and reserve linebacker Jarret Johnson. Plus, 10-time All-Pro offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden is still considering retirement.

Newsome emphasized that he hasn't made his mind up yet on any of these issues. He revealed that Lewis recently underwent ankle surgery. Newsome hasn't launched formal contract negotiations with Thomas' agent, Bus Cook.

"What our plans are with Adalius is now something that we're starting to talk about," Newsome said. "We have up until the beginning of free agency to get something done. Even if we don't, we still have that window once free agency opens."

It's believed that Thomas is seeking a signing bonus between $10 million and $12 million. A versatile 6-foot-2, 270-pounder, Thomas is expected to be one of the NFL's most expensive commodities as an unrestricted free agent.

The Ravens are reportedly $5.7 million underneath the salary cap limit, but that number is dwarfed by teams like the San Francisco 49ers who are $40 million underneath the cap.

Including a potential $7 million salary for Thomas, $6.5 million for Ray Lewis, $5 million for Terrell Suggs because of an escalator clause he triggered with his 40th career sack and $2.6 million for Bart Scott, the Ravens could wind up devoting $21.1 million to their quartet of Pro Bowl linebackers.

"As far as loading up at linebacker, if I don't have a safety to pay, I might as well pay the linebacker and not overpay the safety or vice versa with the defensive line," Newsome said. "What we basically have to try to do is to establish a value that the player has to our franchise and not be concerned about whether we have No. 1 draft picks at linebacker and a guy that has emerged from a sixth-round pick to a Pro Bowler. Hey, that's just the way the chips fall."

The injury status of Lewis, who no longer demonstrates the breakaway speed he possessed as the 2003 NFL Offensive Player of the Year, is likely to deflate his market value one year after only being pursued by the Denver Broncos before re-signing with Baltimore. To return, Lewis would probably have to restructure a contract that includes the option bonus and a $5 million base salary in 2007.

"We're nowhere," Newsome said regarding talks with Lewis. "We have not made any movement toward that."

The Ravens haven't set any timetable as far as expecting a decision from Ogden, 32, on his future. The 11-year veteran had one of his best seasons after grieving the death of his father shortly before training camp.

"I think the best way to handle it, having had to go through it myself at some point, is to treat a man like a man," Newsome said. "When he decides if he wants to play, then he's going to come back and play at a very good level. But we are going to go ahead and operate. If there are very good offensive linemen in the draft, which I think there is, then, yes, we'll be picking them."

Newsome downplayed wide receiver Derrick Mason's postseason rant where he bemoaned not being more involved in the offense and said he didn't feel appreciated.

"What Derrick expressed in the media has been expressed to me personally," Newsome said. "He's been in my office, and we've talked about it. At the end of the day, and I said this about Ray, Derrick wants to win. When you lose, it's frustrating and you tend to say some things. "Derrick has a future with this ball club. We needed to get away from the game for a little bit, let our emotions settle down and then come back and see how we can move forward."

Whichever direction the team takes in the offseason as players like Ray Lewis and quarterback Steve McNair get a year older, the team hopes to become an annual contender and break its recent trend of reaching the playoffs only every couple of years.

The Ravens are banking on building for the future around a young nucleus that includes safety Ed Reed, Scott, Suggs, wide receivers Mark Clayton and Demetrius Williams, tight end Todd Heap, safety Dawan Landry, defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and a handful of drafted offensive linemen.

"We're not going to run this team with windows opening and closing," team owner Steve Bisciotti said. "Our goal is to figure out how to run this team so that the window never closes. I think we're getting closer to feeling confident we can do that.

"We've got a lot of young guys on this roster, so we're prepared to try and build this team and not take those big shots. That Super Bowl and trying to repeat were unique. I don't think we need to do that."

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland.

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