AFC North Report

<b>BALTIMORE RAVENS</b><br><br> A week after being bounced from the playoffs, the Ravens have already begun steps to improve the NFL's worst-ranked passing attack.<br><br> The Ravens are looking into adding a receivers coach, which would allow David Shaw to focus his attention on quarterbacks. For the past two seasons, Shaw has coached both the receivers and the quarterbacks.

If the Ravens can re-sign Anthony Wright to go along with Kyle Boller, they still will have one of the league's most inexperienced quarterback groups. But if the Ravens want to advance further than the first round of the playoffs, they have to develop either Boller or Wright.

Neither distinguished themselves last season.

Boller completed 51 percent of his passes for 1,260 yards, with seven touchdowns and nine interceptions. His passer rating was 62.4.

Wright connected on 52 percent of his passes for 1,199 yards, with nine touchdowns and eight interceptions. His rating was 72.3.

"It certainly gets the adequate attention right now, but the further development of both Kyle and Anthony is going to be pivotal," coach Brian Billick said. "Allowing David Shaw to focus more on the quarterback position will free up [offensive coordinator] Matt Cavanaugh from some of that because they shared that duty to a degree.

"Bringing in a receivers coach can bring an isolated perspective for them and might be a good way to enhance that productivity. That's where my focus is right now."

The Ravens' first choice for receivers coach, Jerry Sullivan, decided to join the Miami Dolphins.

Billick said he would conduct more interviews for that position and could fill it as early as the end of next week. But after missing out on Sullivan, who is considered one of the NFL's top receivers coaches, there is no guarantee of adding a new member to the offensive staff.

"I would anticipate doing it but that doesn't mean it's going to happen 100 percent," Billick said. "If the right guy doesn't present himself, I'm confident in the structure that we will have."

This is Billick's way to improve the offense without having to fire Cavanaugh, whose job status has been a hot topic among fans. One fan even sent a resume to Billick to apply for the offensive coordinator position.

The Ravens had the NFL's most lopsided offense in three decades, finishing first in the NFL in rushing and last in passing. They set franchise records with the fewest yards passing (141.3/th/yards per game) and yards per pass attempt (6.07).

In five seasons under Billick and Cavanaugh, the offense has finished in the bottom half of NFL four times. The Ravens have never ended a season ranked higher than 14th.

Billick, who has guided the Ravens to the playoffs in three of the past four years, said the offense is tailored to win games, not praise. Building a conservative game plan around a smash-mouth run game to compliment a hammering defense is considered the best formula for this team.

"With our running profile, you're never going to have the league-leading numbers so many people want," Billick said.

Coaching Carousel
Head coach Brian Billick has guided the Ravens to the playoffs in three of his past four seasons and has a contract that runs through the 2005 season.

The Ravens are expected to announce Jeff FitzGerald as their new linebackers coach next week. FitzGerald has coached the Arizona Cardinals linebackers for the past three seasons.

Since they already have Mike Singletary and Phil Zacharias working with linebackers, the Ravens will need to reshuffle their defensive staff. The addition of FitzGerald likely means a reassignment for Zacharias.

Secondary coach Donnie Henderson is in the running for the New York Jets' defensive coordinator position. If Henderson leaves, the Ravens would promote defensive backs assistant Dennis Thurman.

The Jets interviewed Gunther Cunningham yesterday and the Tennessee Titans linebackers coach is believed to be the front-runner because of his experience. But if Cunningham is hired in Atlanta (where he is expected to interview later this week), Henderson could be offered the job with the Jets.

A league source said Henderson's meeting with the Jets was very positive. "There's no timetable," Henderson said.

Offensive line coach Jim Colletto is staying with the Ravens. Recently hired Arizona Cardinals coach Dennis Green had set up a visit with Colletto for yesterday but called to cancel the trip Sunday, saying he was going in a different direction. At Purdue, Arizona State, Ohio State and Notre Dame, Colletto was the coordinator for offenses that averaged 26.8 points.

"I've been a coordinator for most of the 30-some odd years I've been doing this and I want to do it again after being in this league," Colletto said. "The problem in this league is it's very hard for an offensive line coach to get that because people don't think you know anything else except blocking and pass protection. Well, I've been in this business long enough to learn something about it and do it. It's disappointing."

FA Update
The Ravens have the salary-cap space but they aren't prepared to go on a spending spree. Sitting $24 million under the cap, the Ravens are looking to re-sign most of their unrestricted free agents and add second or third-level free agents.

Signing a high-profile free agent like receiver Terrell Owens or defensive tackle Warren Sapp doesn't appear likely.

The 13 unrestricted free agents are: OT Orlando Brown (strong run stopper but may not be pursued if commanding more than $1 million per season); C Mike Flynn (negotiations are currently taking place to extend his contract); LB Bernardo Harris (aging veteran is not expected to return); TE John Jones (physical special teams player who could return at veteran minimum); CB Tom Knight (barely used in the final month could signal exit); CB Chris McAlister (coveted cornerback says he definitely will return); DE Riddick Parker (role player could return at veteran minimum); QB Chris Redman (will not return after being demoted twice this season); K Wade Richey (kickoff specialist was second in NFL in touchbacks and should be re-signed); WR Marcus Robinson (strong second half of the season could push up asking price but shouldn't be out of the Ravens' range); K Matt Stover (accurate veteran may test free-agent market); LB Adalius Thomas (Pro Bowl special teams ace not expected to return since he will draw serious money in free agency); QB Anthony Wright (interest from other teams could determine whether he returns).

Feeling a draft
The Ravens are without a first-round pick for the first time in the team's nine-year history. They traded away this year's top pick to New England last April in order to move up and select quarterback Kyle Boller. With second and third-round choices, the Ravens need to upgrade with youth at receiver, defensive line and offensive line.

Ravens Quick Hits

  • For the second straight year, Art Modell was not among the 15 finalists for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Modell finished his final season as owner after 43 years in the NFL. But his farewell did not outweigh the emotions of moving his team from Cleveland in 1995.
    "I'm not going to characterize my feelings except to say I'm happy to be alive and kicking," Modell said.
  • After the Dolphins hired Dan Marino as head of football operations and promoted Rick Spielman to general manager, Ravens director of player personnel Phil Savage remained optimistic about his chances of landing a general manager position in the future…

    "My time will come," he said. "I'm not even concerned about it whether it's here or somewhere else. It's going to happen. I'm thankful that the Ravens have given me a chance to forge somewhat of a reputation in the field. People want to be close to a winner and we're going to win."
    Savage had interviewed with the Dolphins last week.

  • During Fox's pregame show Saturday, Buccaneers receiver Keyshawn Johnson listed the Patriots, Cowboys and Ravens as teams he'd like to play for next season. It's believed that the combination of Johnson's asking price and his skills as a possession receiver probably would not attract the Ravens.
  • Medical Watch:
    --LB Peter Boulware will have arthroscopic surgery on his injured right knee some time before the Super Bowl. The surgery will force Boulware out of the Pro Bowl.
    --CB Tom Knight will have surgery on a finger.
    --FB Ovie Mughelli will have arthroscopic surgery on his shoulder.

Quote to Note
"I am very cognizant of the perceptions and what people think you need to do correct your staffs. I do hear the fans and the talk. That is something I have to consider in the decisions I make. But I don't think anybody would want me to arbitrarily do anything in this organization based on the perception of what public opinion is. I am cognizant of that but I am also always going to do what is in the best interest of the club." -- Coach Brian Billick on his reasoning behind sticking with offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh.


CINCINNATI BENGALS

Training camp quarterback competitions are widely blamed for poor Bengals seasons in 2001 and 2002 -- especially the latter, when an ill-prepared Gus Frerotte started the first three games after getting precious little preseason work with the starting offense.

Conversely, the quick decision made by rookie head coach Marvin Lewis a year ago to start Jon Kitna and stick with him is one of the reasons the Bengals ended up 2003 with a .500 record and 13th in scoring.

Lewis again has promised to make a quick decision for the 2004 season. He said he and offensive coaches would decide by the May minicamp whether Jon Kitna or Carson Palmer will be the 2004 starter.

Asked if the choice would be made after getting a good look at both quarterbacks, Lewis said, "We're probably not going to do that. We're probably going to make a decision and say, `This is the way we're going to go.' When that decision is going to come, (it) probably won't be public until it's time to go on the field."

Kitna was the only NFL quarterback to play each of his team's offensive snaps in 2003.

The job was Kitna's to lose, and asked if the 2004 quarterback would enjoy the same job security, Lewis said, "Right. I just think that is better for our football team and, you know, the best for us to go forward."

Though Kitna had a career high 26 touchdown passes and was selected as a second alternate for the Pro Bowl, Lewis did not commit the job to Kitna in his post-season news conference on Dec. 29. Lewis' comments were interpreted as opening the door for Palmer to become the starter.

Kitna has said he has offered to restructure his contract, which expires after the 2004 season. Palmer won the Heisman Trophy in 2002 and was the first overall pick in the draft.

"They're not in the most enviable position," Kitna said of the Bengals. "They draft the No. 1 quarterback, and then the other quarterback goes out and comes on with the team."

The Bengals finished 8-8 after going 2-14 in 2002.

Kitna won the Bengals' training camp quarterback competition in 2001 against Scott Mitchell and Akili Smith. He lost the job in 2002 to Frerotte and replaced Frerotte and Smith to start the final 12 games. Kitna applauded Lewis' decision to name a starter early.

"If they had said there was going to be a quarterback competition, I would have told them I would be the No. 2 guy," Kitna said. "I've seen what happens when you don't settle on a guy. Training camp competitions are not good for the team."

Coaching Carousel
As he marked the one-year anniversary of his hiring as Bengals coach on January 14, Lewis was working to replace the first member of his original staff to depart.

One-year Bengals wide receivers coach Alex Wood was headed to Arizona to become Dennis Green's offensive coordinator. Lewis declined comment on the departure or any possible replacements.

Former Redskins offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, one of four Washington assistants let go Jan. 13, was believed to be Lewis' first choice to replace Wood. Lewis and Jackson worked on Steve Spurrier's staff in 2002.

FA Update
Coach Marvin Lewis has avoided specifics about which players he would like to re-sign, but he talked openly in a recent interview about his three unrestricted free agent offensive linemen.

Center Rich Braham and guard Mike Goff are two of the Bengals unrestricted free agents, and Lewis expressed interest in re-signing them for 2004. As for O'Dwyer, whose contract also expires on March 2, Lewis said, "I don't think, realistically, Matt's going to come back. He's going to try to seek a job somewhere else."

Unrestricted free agents: S Rogers Beckett (possibly to re-sign with Bengals, though Lewis said he wants to upgrade the secondary); RB Brandon Bennett (great locker room guy, willing special teams player likely to return for relatively low price); C Rich Braham (re-signed last year as backup, became starter; team owes him a good raise); OG Mike Goff (could be back and not expected to attract much interest elsewhere); QB Shane Matthews (hard to figure, given unsure starter situation with Jon Kitna and Carson Palmer); OG Matt O'Dwyer (played with bad foot before going on IR; unlikely to be back); S Mark Roman (says he wants to come back, might get lost in secondary makeover); DT Glen Steele (tough, a pro, but Lewis likely to go a different direction for line depth).

Restricted free agents PK Shayne Graham (will be back); WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh (mystery man who stuck with team, though he was injured most f season); LB Riall Johnson (good on special teams; Lewis likes his smarts); RB Rudi Johnson (will get big raise from Bengals, a top offseason priority); S Kevin Kaesviharn (got maximum results from ability but might be let go in favor of new secondary players); OG Victor Leyva (has not been developed by team); TE Tony Stewart (solid No. 2 tight end earned Lewis' respect this season).

Feeling a draft
The Bengals are slotted to draft No. 17 at this time, their lowest first-round pick since 1991. The Bengals will have flexibility not common for them in recent years with series of top-5 picks that forced them to take higher-priced skill players. Look for the Bengals to draft defense, possibly at safety, though a defensive pick at any position would not be a surprise.

Lewis won't get specific about players the Bengals might consider in the draft, but he has laid out some positions of need: "It's too early right now for me to give you much information regarding the draft. I haven't seen one player on tape. But we need to address our offensive line, defensive line, receiver, linebacker, secondary and running back areas this year as we go forward."

Lewis does want to see some 2003 draft picks, particularly linebacker Khalid Abdullah and cornerback Dennis Weathersby, compete for regular playing time on defense. Weathersby recovered from the Easter shooting and saw limited playing time. "We are hopeful that Dennis becomes a big part of our defense next year," Lewis said. "He has demonstrated he has the skills and athletic ability to be a pro."

Most Bengals coaches took off the week of Jan. 12-16 before heading to Mobile, Ala., on Jan. 18 to coach the North all-star team in the Senior Bowl.

"There are certain parameters of being very simple," Lewis said of the game plan and plays. "You're not trying to trick each other. The emphasis on being able to show the NFL coaches and scouts what they want to see in practice and being able to competitively play a game where the emphasis is on playing not thinking."

The Senior Bowl provides a close-up look at draft-eligible players that Lewis said is a "very accurate" predictor of NFL ability. "You learn who are the guys with the competitiveness," he said. "You really leave out of there with a sense of who can do what."

Medical Watch
Several Bengals are recovering from post-season surgeries, and coach Marvin Lewis expressed appreciation for how many of his players played hurt.

"I think it shows the guys wanting to play because most of these guys carried these things around all year and no one knew about them other than us," Lewis said. "And they just kept playing. They fought through the pain and kept getting the treatment and made it through the season."

Only three players -- linebackers Adrian Ross (knee) and Dwayne Levels (knee) and guard Matt O'Dwyer (foot) -- were placed on the Injured Reserve during the season.

The players who recently underwent surgery: Ross, linebackers Brian Simmons (shoulder) and Khalid Abdullah (shoulder), cornerbacks Artrell Hawkins (knee) and Jeff Burris (shoulder), defensive tackles John Thornton (shoulder) and Oliver Gibson (knee), guard Eric Steinbach (elbow) and offensive lineman Scott Rehberg (knee).

Cornerback Dennis Weathersby (shoulder) and wide receiver Peter Warrick (knee) might be facing surgery soon. Warrick, who had arthroscopic surgery on his knee on Dec. 19, might have "re-manipulation of the knee."

Quote to Note
"We have to play better with technique, effort, finish. The major players are here. We will add some new, but we just need to play better." -- Coach Marvin Lewis on fixing holes in his 28th-ranked defense.


CLEVELAND BROWNS

Turns out that Ted Tollner wasn't Butch Davis' first choice to be offensive coordinator after all.

Davis said that his top choice was always Terry Robiskie, whom Davis promoted from receivers coach to run the team's offense.

Of course it's always easy to say the guy you hire was the top choice from the get-go, but that's what Davis maintained. Even though the first person he asked permission to interview was Tollner. No matter, Davis maintained Robiskie set the standard for the coach who would run the new offense.

Which was about the only real specific bit of information Davis offered when he introduced Robiskie as the team's new coordinator.

Even Robiskie was unusually vague when asked questions.

To wit, Robiskie:
--gave no specifics on which quarterback he might favor, Tim Couch or Kelly Holcomb;
--said the most important thing he wanted in an offense was that it be "tough";
--said teams need balance to win;
--said every day is a challenge for a coach.

If those tenets sound like they could apply to every offense of every team in the league, well they could.

But that's what Robiskie and Davis offered when queried about the team's direction.

About the only hint into the future that the pair gave was when they talked about identity, and wanting one.

Davis said the Browns need a handful of plays that the players know will work no matter the defense or the time of day. Robiskie offered that in the past few years the Browns might have become too enamored with the team's receivers.

"Maybe we got a little caught up with the wide receivers making all the plays," he said.

Robiskie also offered that to win teams need to stop the run and run the ball. He said he'd like to add a fullback -- if the Browns can find one -- and no doubt would like to beef up the offensive line, which isn't exactly a revelation since everyone who's been within 100 miles of the Browns facility knows the team needs a beefed-up offensive line.

So with Robiskie calling the plays, the Browns plan to do what Davis has said he wanted to do since he was hired three years ago: Be a balanced offense that can run the ball.

Coaching Carousel
The team stands solidly behind Butch Davis as its coach and de facto general manager, so he's not going anywhere.

Davis has hired Terry Robiskie to be the team's offensive coordinator, and now needs to fill out his staff by hiring a running backs and receivers coach.

The Miami connection lives. Davis started to fill out his staff when he hired Rob Chudzinski of the University of Miami to be the team's tight ends coach. Chudzinski had spent the last three years as the Hurricanes' offensive coordinator. He is considered a bright young coach very capable of bringing strong ideas to an offense.

Chudzinski grew up near Toledo as a huge Browns fan. He said he cheered for the Kardiac Kids and could probably name every starter from the 1978 Browns team. That's a position that will go over well with the fans.

With the hiring of Chudzinski, the Browns changed Steve Hagen's coaching responsibilities. Hagen had coached the team's tight ends; he now will coach quarterbacks.

Chudzinski coached Kellen Winslow Jr. at Miami, and he has been the object of much speculation by fans thinking the Browns will draft him. Chudzinski, though, wouldn't even venture that Winslow would be a top 10 pick if he declares himself eligible for the draft. The most Chudzinski would say was "He's an unbelievable player."

FA Update
WR Dennis Northcutt (Looking for the big free agent payday. St. Louis would be a logical destination if the Rams want to sign him), OG Shaun O'Hara (Seems to fit Denver's style; he's small, mobile and though he won't bulldoze people he can be effective when used right), P Chris Gardocki (Team says it wants him back, but it probably won't happen, which is too bad given Gardocki was more than dependable in his five seasons in Cleveland), LB Brant Boyer (Proved very valuable as the year went on and the team probably will try to bring him back, but the Browns are not known for blowing players away with their financial offers), DE Tyrone Rogers (Valuable backup and role player and quality guy who will help any team in that role), CB Lewis Sanders (Has talent but is hurt too much to demand a large payday), OL Barry Stokes (Versatile, gritty, but not overflowing with natural talent. Stokes gets the most of what he has, though, and may be attractive to teams as a versatile player who can fill in at several spots), RFA WR Andre King (Solid special teamer, fourth receiver probably will be back), RFA G Paul Zukauskas (Seems to be improving each season but probably will return to Browns).

Feeling a draft
The Browns will draft seventh or eighth, and the clear priority is an offensive lineman. Tackle Robert Gallery of Iowa is the logical choice. But two Miami players also will draw the Browns eye: safety Sean Taylor and tight end Kellen Winslow. Both are impact players who fill a Cleveland need.

Medical Watch
The Browns ended the season with 14 players on injured reserve -- from Courtney Brown to Aaron Shea to Steve Heiden. That left Butch Davis saying that his top priority for this offseason is to get his team healthy.

It's not a new theme. The Browns have suffered an inordinate amount of injuries every year Davis has been coach. Two years ago he brought in Buddy Morris because he thought Morris' position-specific training regime would help alleviate injuries. Instead the number has increased.

Davis has commissioned a huge study in-house to try to find out what, if anything, can be done to avoid the injuries.

Rookie safety Michael Lehan probably will have surgery to repair a damaged labrum in his shoulder this offseason. Lehan played the last six or seven weeks without being able to life his arm past his shoulder. The team also feels good about the rehab of Courtney Brown, who ruptured a biceps tendon. The team believes Brown can come back from that injury easier than he did the microfracture surgery on his knee in 2002, and the Browns are cautiously optimistic that he will return in '04.

Quote to Note
"We always had the feeling that we could get it done in the running game. We could line up and tell you we're coming. We could line up and say we're coming in this direction and we're bringing it. But at the same time when it got to a point where we had to make a play in the passing game, we felt comfortable." -- New offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie, on his attitude when he was coordinator of the Raiders under Art Shell.

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