Pay it Backward?

November 08, 2008 | Thyrl Nelson

It’s certainly no secret that the Ravens will have a lot of difficult decisions to make this off-season. There’s the pending free agency of Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs and Bart Scott, the now seemingly up in the air status of Chris McAllister and the team’s still glaring need for a playmaker at wide receiver. And since we are only at the midway point in the season, my guess is that a number of new needs, issues and/or question marks are likely to arise before this season wraps.


I’d also say that it’s hardly breaking news that unless they are certain that the salary cap will go away in 2010 and beyond, as has been speculated, there’s no way that they’ll be able to address all of the above. How to prioritize and handle each of those situations will likely be the subject of much debate in the coming weeks and months.


If I were charged with prioritizing these needs, Suggs would have to be at the top of the list. While his career certainly hasn’t reached the magnitude of Ray Lewis’, at 26 years old and with 6 seasons under his belt, Suggs certainly represents the most value of all of the Ravens’ pending free agents. My preference would be to sign Suggs to a 4 or 5-year deal and keep him in Baltimore. Suggs can do a lot to negate the loss of McAllister too, as a solid pass rush is one of the primary prerequisites of a solid secondary. The Ravens have been doing a decent job of proving that over the last few weeks.


If signing Suggs long term isn’t in the cards, then it’ll be important to get something for him that comes close to fair market value. They could put a non-exclusive franchise tag on him and allow him to negotiate with other teams, at that point they allow Suggs to establish his own market value, and absent some crazy “poison pill” deal, the Ravens would still get a chance to match it. Further, it would award the Ravens two first rounders if they elected to let him go. Regardless, dealing with Suggs’ situation or electing to put it off for another year with another franchise tag has to be regarded as the team’s top priority.


For my money, the cornerback situation has to be resolved next. If McAllister is going to be out of the picture, then the Ravens need to get some more bodies into it. Although they are holding their own right now, the Ravens secondary certainly doesn’t feel like that of a big time contender going forward. I have always felt that McAllister was the most important component of the defense, and maybe the biggest reason for the sustained run of defensive dominance that we’ve enjoyed as fans for a decade now. Replacing his services will be no easy task, as I am afraid we are likely to become much more aware of as the second half of this season plays out.


Bart Scott, I fear, will probably be a victim of the Ravens’ inability to resign everyone and will likely be the odd man out, I’d guess. At just 28 years old, and in only his fourth season of full time action, letting Scott walk could turn out to be a mistake. But given the team’s history of developing linebackers, the Ravens have to feel relatively confident about cutting some corners with Scott. It’ll also be interesting to see if Scott, unlike other former Ravens linebackers is able to flourish in another system and winds up being worth the money that he commands in free agency.


Filling the need at wide receiver has been an ongoing theme for this front office for as long as I can remember. So although I look at this once again as a position of need in this off-season, my faith in the ability of this team to adequately scout wide receivers has been shaken. For that reason, I’m not even sure that I’d want the Ravens to go out and spend highly in the draft for a wide receiver again, and I’m guessing with all of the in house contract issues to be dealt with, the Ravens probably won’t be big players in free agency either.


So where does that leave Ray Lewis? He’ll be 34 at the beginning of next season, and while I’ll be the first to tell you that 35 is spry, it’s probably not the best age to be spending mega-millions of dollars on, especially in signing bonus money. I truly appreciate the job that he’s done here, and would love to see him ride off into the sunset as a Raven. But realistically, I can’t see paying him for another 4 years based on the magnificent season that he’s having this year.


It’d pain me to see Lewis go elsewhere to finish out his career, but likely no more than it pained Niner’s fans to see it happen with Montana and Rice, or Cowboys fans with Emmitt Smith, or Chargers fans with Junior Seau, or Dolphins fans with Jason Taylor. That’s the modern NFL. And if the Ravens are looking to build the most competitive team for now and the future, it’s likely that future will see a new face of the franchise sooner than we think. I’d say that Joe Flacco is growing nicely into that role so far.


At the end of the day, maybe it’s Ozzie’s fault that he’ll have to make that decision. I’m no capologist, but it seems that Ozzie’s not either. Accolades are easy to pile on Newsome based on his accomplishments here, but cap management has certainly been a deficiency. We can all remember the cap purge that took place after 2001, and to Newsome’s credit, he built the roster to rebound quickly. But at least from my perspective, the Ravens always seem to be up against it cap-wise.


It doesn’t seem that we have any more stars than other teams, yet when names like Roy Williams (not that I would have given up the king’s ransom that the Cowboys did to get him, nor do I ever expect that Ozzie would have either), but when players like that become available, the Ravens always seem to be immediately out of the running due to cap space. Other teams, like Dallas and Washington, seemingly loaded with big contracts routinely find ways to fit more star salaries under their caps, while the Ravens seem to have to cut corners just to retain their own free agents.


Sometimes I think that the Ravens have been way too human as an organization. It’s a business in the NFL, and at times the club has seemed to allow emotions to dictate how they handle personnel matters. This has been especially true when it comes to coaches. I can’t think of any staff that has been scalped as routinely for coaching vacancies over the last few seasons. Perhaps the Ravens have been too accommodating when it comes to allowing their coaches the freedom to explore other opportunities.


When Josh McDaniels name started surfacing for head coaching interviews last season, he declined to interview with anyone after meeting with Bill Bellichick and feeling that he wasn’t ready. My guess is that Bellichick’s message was along the lines of the Patriots needing an OC who was going to be with the team for an extended period, and if he had interest in pursuing other opportunities, that they might have to find someone with more similar priorities to those of the team. That’s just me guessing, but that’s seems to be the way that they do things in New England. No player is bigger than the team, and unless your name is Tom Brady, then you are replaceable.


That’s how the Patriots have handled player contracts over the years too. They let go of Lawyer Malloy in a highly publicized incident that was likely meant to send a message to the rest of the team. When Deion Branch held out he was traded, others who commanded big paydays in free agency have been allowed to walk from New England. And whether by design or not, their team first concept seems to keep individual players from achieving too much recognition, thereby cutting down on the costs of retaining them.


Along with all of their on the field success, the Patriots have been clear about their intentions to run the team in a cold and businesslike manner. They’ve seen a great deal of success on the field as a result, and the really strange side effect is that former superstars, ready to humble themselves and accept role player positions and pay, flock to the Patriots in spite of those methods. Winning is the best deodorant.


In a perfect world, it’d be right to overpay Ray Lewis to stay put, and ride off into the sunset and Canton as a lifelong Raven. Short of the salary cap being repealed, it just doesn’t make sense from a football standpoint. Ray Lewis has truly left it all on the field each and every time he suited up as a Raven. He’s played through pain, and due to his dedication, leadership and natural talent has elevated the play of every man who has had the privilege of sharing a huddle with him. He ushered in the new era of Baltimore football by creating an aura of dominance on his side of the ball. But perhaps above all, he has been paid handsomely for it too.


Although he still seems nearly every bit the player he was at his prime, Lewis has had difficulty getting through an entire season in recent years. At his age, the kind of money he’ll likely get on the open market is a dangerous proposition. And as we are all too familiar with as fans, these types of deals can hamstring a payroll for years after the player’s performance level dips below their cap number. 


Let’s see how he finishes the season first, but the Ravens have a lot of decisions to make this off-season, and none will likely be more difficult than the decision on whether or not to give Ray his money. Based on the numbers that are being speculated, I’d say no. From a risk reward standpoint, the Ravens would be much better to let him walk too. If you pay him and he winds up stinking up the tail end of the deal, it’s wasted money and cap space. If you don’t and he lights it up with someone else after signing a big money deal, it’ll sting, but that’s all, and you’ll get a compensatory pick in return.


We all know what the perfect world solution would be, but we also all know that it’s not a perfect world. In this case, it’s the NFL and it makes no sense to “pay it backward”.