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Ravens mortgaged future for title, with no regrets

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By JOHN ROMANO, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published September 15, 2002

Their memories of the Super Bowl are priceless. Which is fitting because it cost a fortune to get there.

You do remember the Ravens, don't you? Winners of Super Bowl XXXV at Raymond James Stadium? The confetti, the fireworks, the revenge of Dilfer?

They went on the clearance rack soon afterward. Marked down, priced to move. In the time it took to play 17 games, the Ravens went from the best the NFL has to offer to perhaps the worst. All in the name of the salary cap.

This is the reality of today's NFL. It also is the debate.

Is it better to shine brightly for the briefest of moments or shuffle along at better than average for a longer stretch?

The Ravens have won 42 games and reached the postseason twice since 1997. The Bucs have won 48 and made the playoffs four times. Yet the Ravens have won a Super Bowl and the Bucs have not.

Which scenario would you prefer?

* * *

Mind you, the Bucs have been aiming at the Super Bowl all these years and still have it in their sight. But, before this season, they proceeded without stretching the salary cap out of shape.

The Ravens, on the other hand, went for broke. And coach Brian Billick is not apologizing now that they are.

"When you come out of it, whether it was a three-year window or a four-year window, the pressures that are on you are certainly different when you're sitting there, in my case, with a ring on one finger and a new contract in the other hand," Billick said.

Once a team of veteran mercenaries, the Ravens are now the youngest group in the NFL. They may even be the youngest in the ACC. Tampa Bay will show up with seven rookies this afternoon, 12 fewer than Baltimore.

More than half the starters from Super Bowl XXXV are gone. Trent Dilfer was dismissed before Super Bowl rings were handed out. Tony Siragusa retired. Shannon Sharpe, Sam Adams, Rob Burnett and Qadry Ismail were allowed to seek fortunes elsewhere.

The Ravens spent heavily to build a contender but did not have the means to keep it together. So did they pay too much for one season of glory?

Maybe you should ask fans in Jacksonville. Or Minnesota. Those teams were on the cusp of the Super Bowl around the same time as the Ravens, but fell short. And now they are going through the same rebuilding pains.

"Compared to those who have made the same type of transition and haven't had the same championship success, the pressures that come to bear from (media), the fans, the organization as a whole, certainly does change the perspective," Billick said.

Baltimore, admittedly, is an extreme case. With proper planning, a Super Bowl team can keep its nucleus together for several years before feeling the salary-cap pinch. The Cowboys, for instance, won three Super Bowl titles before falling apart in the late 1990s.

That model is closer to what the Bucs have been after. Building through the draft and adding key free agents at appropriate times, Tampa Bay has been a playoff contender for five years without serious salary-cap concerns.

The results have been impressive, but not fulfilling. Four playoff appearances and a sold-out stadium are not quite enough.

So Tampa Bay spent heavily with cash and draft picks for coach Jon Gruden. And then, in a departure from seasons past, the Bucs invested even more heavily in free agents, knowing the salary-cap risk they were taking.

There may not have been a player of Brad Johnson's or Simeon Rice's stature, but the Bucs signed a small army of veterans in the offseason.

Between Marco Battaglia, Ken Dilger, Kerry Jenkins, Rob Johnson, Joe Jurevicius, Keenan McCardell, Roman Oben and Michael Pittman, the Bucs handed out around $40-million in contracts, including almost $10-million in signing bonuses.

The hit will not be felt this season. Maybe not even next. But by 2004, you can count on the Bucs to complain about salary-cap issues.

"You have to grab the prize when you can," said McCardell, who left Jacksonville in a salary-cap move. "When those ducks are lined up, you have got to knock them down.

"There is only one prize in this league and that is the ring. They don't give you a ring if you're good for 10 years. What do you tell people then? That you were pretty good for a long time? No. You want to get that ring that says you played for the best team in the league."

For the Bucs, it is a risk worth taking. John Lynch, Warren Sapp, Mike Alstott, Keyshawn Johnson, McCardell and Derrick Brooks will be past their prime in two years. The lack of high draft picks will be felt by then too.

One way or another, the Bucs are looking at a rebuilding job down the road. By then, no one will remember how much was spent. Only what was bought.

If you don't think so, just ask the Ravens.

At least the ones you can find.

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