Last week in this space, we suggested that one remedy for the possible loss of tailback Jamal Lewis to federal drug charges would be the upgrade of the Baltimore Ravens' passing game, specifically in the addition of wide receiver Terrell Owens.
Uh, you're welcome, Ozzie Newsome.
Just kidding, of course, since Newsome is a whole lot smarter than are we. But the acquisition of Owens by The Wizard of Oz in a Thursday afternoon trade clearly is a sign the Ravens intend to better balance their offense in 2003, whether Lewis is around or not. The team's wide receiver corps ranked among the worst in the NFL, filled with retreads and young players who had not fulfilled their potential, and Owens is a pretty dramatic way to elicit a quick fix.
If quarterback Kyle Boller shows improvement in his second season, and Owens shows he can behave himself, the Ravens can be Super Bowl contenders. Of that double-edged sword, the latter part of the equation is the more essential, and that's where the veteran leaders on the Baltimore roster, like Ray Lewis, will be key.
Any team that dealt for Owens -- and the only other franchise believed to have been in the hunt was Philadelphia -- had to be convinced of the structure in its locker room and the collective strength of its character. From talking with some Eagles officials and coaches, it's clear they believed that quarterback Donovan McNabb and others would help control the well-documented Owens petulance. And, obviously, the Ravens feel the same way.
Said one team official: "Everybody knows who runs the show here. This is still Ray Lewis' team and Terrell can't be dumb enough to think otherwise. He's going to now be surrounded by strong-willed people. He doesn't have to be the leader here. All he has to do is follow the lead and make plays."
There are certain to be times when Owens, who has averaged more than 80 receptions over the past five seasons, won't be happy not getting the football. Even with Owens on board, the Baltimore offense isn't suddenly going to become a latter-day version of the run-and-shoot and, let's face it, Boller remains in his apprenticeship. But the Ravens, who had more than enough salary cap room to take on Owens' current contract as is, will quickly demonstrate their ardor by opening negotiations on a long-term deal. They will do everything in their power, but only within reason, to make Owens feel at home.
Most important, they will subtly hint as to who runs the locker room, and let Owens know in their own way precisely what is expected of him.
Getting a playmaker of Owens' stature for a second-round draft choice is a steal. But the 49ers were hell-bent on ending the tempestuous relationship and, when the Eagles would not deal their first-round pick, the huckstering of Owens became essentially a giveaway. But even at a bargain price, the deal only works if Owens works to exorcise his demons, to allow the spotlight to find him rather than forever seeking it out.
We've got a hunch that, if the heretofore incorrigible Owens doesn't commit himself to snuffing out those demons, the Ravens won't have to hire an exorcist. Ray Lewis, either literally or figuratively, will knock them out of his new teammate. There are precious few personages in the NFL who draw the kind of respect that the Ravens passionate middle 'backer merits from everyone around him.
Owens would be wise to assimilate that lesson the easy way.
Around the league
How ticked are New York Jets officials with unrestricted free agent corner Antoine Winfield, who on Thursday night essentially backed out of a six-year, $30 million contract the team spent nearly two days negotiating and which ESPN.com reported as an agreement in principle? Uh, suffice it to say the Jets won't be footing the bill for the kind of dinner and night on the town to which they treated Winfield and agent Richard Katz on Wednesday evening. Katz is telling friends in Cincinnati that Winfield never signed the deal and that is true. But the agent certainly recommended that the five-year veteran officially autograph the deal. Word is that Winfield balked when his wife decided that she really didn't like Long Island very much and wanted to visit some more teams. But the Jets suspect that a team or two was able to reach Winfield, probably on his cell phone, and whisper to him that they could beat the New York proposal. No telling where the Jets will turn now for a cornerback, perhaps to free agent Ahmed Plummer of San Francisco, because they've got to get someone of solid caliber into the position. Part of the ire of jets officials is that, while they were spending two days wooing Winfield, they lost ground in making contact with free agents at other positions, like wide receiver.
Even the personnel men leaguewide who feel Clinton Portis is a terrific young back are in agreement that the Washington Redskins got hoodwinked on the trade that sent corner Champ Bailey and a second-round draft choice to Denver. Even as a straight-up deal, one-for-one, the Broncos would have had an edge, because cornerback is one of the most premium positions in the league, by any measure. But to have thrown in a second-round pick along with a four-time Pro Bowl cornerback who is just 25 years old was viewed as ludicrous. Then again, once Redskins owner Dan Snyder ill-advisedly made linebacker LaVar Arrington his top defensive player -- something about how Arrington wanted to be a Redskin for life and Bailey didn't -- he had no recourse but to get rid of the corner. There is only room for one stud defender and Snyder chose Arrington, while 31 other owners would have retained Bailey because of the position he plays. The addition of the second-round pick in the trade simply compounded the first mistake. Snyder typically overpays for everything and the trade for Portis was simply the latest example. From the Denver standpoint, the deal is a windfall, particularly when one considers that Mike Shanahan could have picked names out of a hat with some of his cornerback additions and done better. Shanahan signed Dale Carter as a free agent and that didn't work out. He drafted Willie Middlebrooks (2001) and Deltha O'Neal (2000) as first-rounders. Last time we checked, Middlebrooks was barely playing and O'Neal has been switched to wide receiver. In fact, the Broncos this week granted O'Neal permission to talk to other teams to see if he could work out a trade. So to those misguided Mile High souls who have e-mailed us to suggest the Broncos paid too high a price for Bailey, well, take a good look at the history behind why they desperately had to get a corner of his caliber.
One more miscalculation by Snyder in the big trade: He figured that, if you cut Arrington, the linebacker would bleed Redskins colors. Well, take a knife to almost any player in the NFL and what oozes out is green. Remember, Arrington is now walking around with a chip on his shoulder because he feels the Redskins shortchanged him by a cool $6.5 million in the blockbuster contract he signed three months ago. How happy do you think Arrington, who can be as surly as anyone in the league, is going to be playing for an organization he feels bilked him? By the way, sources tell us the $6.5 million in question comes in a 2006 roster bonus the team has the discretion to guarantee. It is not, according to the contract language, a binding guarantee.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the seven-year, $98 million contract Peyton Manning signed this week is that he will have received the entire $34.5 million signing bonus by this time next year. Some teams stretch out the signing bonus distribution for as long as three or four years. Others, of course, split it between an initial signing bonus and a second-tier option bonus. But Manning will receive a little more than $16 million by Dec. 4 of this year and the balance by March 5, 2005. One has to wonder how the Colts, who rank last in the NFL in stadium-related revenues, can fund such a huge amount. The other compelling element of Manning's deal: By 2006, just the third season of the new contract, Indianapolis will almost certainly have to restructure it. That year, principally because of a $9 million roster bonus, Manning's salary cap charge rises to $17.766 million, or only about $650,000 less than the whopping $18.4 million that the Colts were being charged a week ago, when their quarterback was still on the books as a "franchise" player. Manning will earn base salaries of $535,000 (2004), $665,000 (2005), $1 million (2006), $1 million (2007), $11.5 million (2008), $14 million (2009) and $15.8 million (2010). In addition to the $9 million roster bonus in 2006, there is a $10 million roster bonus in 2007. So, in essence, the Colts bought themselves two seasons to try to win a Super Bowl before they are again potentially hamstrung by a high cap number for the game's premier player.
At a recent meeting in Orlando, owners discussed what is known as the "NFL Trust," a fancy term for the league's long-term business plan. The current plan is set to expire and, while it won't be a marquee item for fans or even most of the media, the "NFL Trust" is going to be a hot (but also esoteric) topic at the annual league meeting in Palm Beach the last week of this month. Dallas owner Jerry Jones, of course, continues to push for more autonomy from the NFL on some marketing and revenues issues. Older owners, such as Mike Brown of Cincinnati, are insistent the league doesn't need to alter the way in which it does business. But the forward-thinking Jones has a few more allies than people think -- one of them is said to be Houston Texans owner Bob McNair -- and he will make things pretty interesting in the meetings.
McNair, by the way, apparently wants to begin realizing some results from his huge investment in the Texans. The Houston owner strongly hinted during Super Bowl week that, after two losing seasons, it is time for the Texans to make a quantum leap toward respectability. This week alone, the Texans spent nearly $30 million in upfront money to retain defensive lineman Gary Walker and sign a pair of unrestricted free agents, offensive tackle Todd Wade (Miami) and defensive tackle Robaire Smith (Tennessee). It's not yet known where Smith will play in coach Dom Capers' favored 3-4 front. But at 310 pounds, with more quickness than was utilized when he played inside in the Titans' 4-3 alignment, he could be very effective at end. Just a hunch, but the Texans' spending probably isn't over yet, since they could make a play for Antoine Winfield now that it appears the corner's deal with the New York Jets has fallen apart.
For those inquiring minds who want to know what kind of cap hit the Minnesota Vikings would absorb if they traded Randy Moss, which they aren't going to do, this answer: About $1.7 million-$1.8 million. Moss currently counts roughly $8.8 million against the Vikings' cap this year. Were he to be traded, the "acceleration" in his deal would give him a cap number of approximately $10.5 million. Given the amount of cap room that Minnesota currently enjoys, an additional $1.7 million or so is nothing. But Moss is going nowhere. Have some Vikings officials phoned counterparts in the NFL seeking counsel on how to handle Moss and trying to get a gauge on his market value if the team ever decided it was time for him to go? Yep, they have. But it's a good bet No. 84 will be lining up for the Vikings for at least one more season.
It shouldn't take too long for the NFL restricted free agent market to swing into gear. Last season, the Redskins signed four restricted free agents to offer sheets, got all four when their teams didn't match, and perhaps initiated a trend. This year, there are a number of intriguing guys who will draw some interest. If a team signs a restricted free agent, the incumbent franchise has seven days to match the offer sheet or accept a draft pick as compensation. Here is one NFC personnel directors ranking of the top restricted free agents who would merit compensation of a fourth-round pick or lower: Pittsburgh defensive end Rodney Bailey (compensation: sixth round), Atlanta linebacker Matt Stewart (fourth), Philadelphia tailback Correll Buckhalter (fourth), Baltimore guard Bennie Anderson (none), St. Louis cornerback Jeremetrius Butler (fifth), Houston free safety Marlon McCree (seventh), Denver guard Ben Hamilton (fourth), St. Louis defensive end Bryce Fisher (seventh), Indianapolis tailback Dominic Rhodes (none) and Arizona cornerback Renaldo Hill (seventh).
The Steelers' failed pursuit of unrestricted free agent Marcus Washington did not bode well for incumbent strongside linebacker Jason Gildon, who could soon be released. The Steelers desperately wanted to supplant Gildon with Washington, an emerging star who played his first four seasons in Indianapolis. During his Thursday visit, Steelers officials tried to force the hand of Washington, tell him they needed an answer on his interest in the team before he left town. Washington considered the suggestions heavy-handed, left for his visit with the Redskins, and will sign with them. But his rejection of the Steelers doesn't mean Gildon is now safe. Pittsburgh is tentatively scheduled to visit with an old friend, Philadelphia linebacker Carlos Emmons, who began his career with the Steelers. The team will also attempt to re-sign Clark Haggans, who is said to be seeking a deal worth $2.5 million per year, perhaps an unrealistic aspiration. No matter, the Steelers appear intent on finding an alternative to Gildon, who will be 32 this summer, and whose production has declined the last few years.
One of the best, and most financially reasonable deals completed in the opening days of free agency was the Cincinnati Bengals addition of former Tampa Bay linebacker Nate Webster, who will almost certainly will step into a starting job. Webster has only six starts in four seasons, is viewed as too small to be a full-time player, and many teams regarded him only as a special teams guy. But the Marvin Lewis scheme figures to be a very nice fit for Webster, a very aggressive hitter, and a guy who plays a whole lot bigger than his physical dimensions. If Webster pans out in the middle, it will enable Lewis and coordinator Leslie Frazier to slide Kevin Hardy, who played the "Mike" spot in 2003, back to the outside, where he is more comfortable. Webster signed a five-year contract worth $11.3 million and including a $2.5 million signing bonus. That might seem like a lot for a player with so few starts but the guess here is that, by about halfway through the season, the Cincinnati investment will look like a good one.
A mystifying move by the Chargers this week in signing Doug Flutie to a new three-year contract. If San Diego really is now leaning toward choosing a quarterback with the first overall choice in the draft, the retention of Flutie, who could serve as mentor, isn't a very good sign for the future of Drew Brees, who clearly regressed in 2003.
Don't be surprised if the Arizona Cardinals, who plan to be aggressive in free agency but without chasing some of the overpriced talent in the pool, sign unrestricted defensive end Eric Hicks, who has played his entire six-year career with the Kansas City Chiefs. Hicks, 27, is an interesting guy, one who is becoming even more compelling now that the defensive end pool is being emptied out, thinned by the signings of Jevon Kearse with Philadelphia and Grant Wistrom in Seattle. In 2000, Hicks posted 14 sacks, then was misused under now-deposed Chiefs defensive coordinator Greg Robinson. Over the last three seasons, Hicks has just 17½ sacks, but even the average of those three years has to look good to the sad-sack Cardinals.
Speaking of defensive ends, look for the Washington Redskins to keep tabs on what is going on with a couple guys released earlier this week, Marcellus Wiley of San Diego and Jacksonville's Tony Brackens. Even with the additions this week of end Phillips Daniels and tackle Cornelius Griffin, the Redskins still need some outside pass rush help. The scheme that will be installed by new coordinator Gregg Williams should help to produce more pressure but there remains a need for more quickness. The Washington staff is said to be particularly intrigued by Wiley, coming off a terrible year in San Diego.
The Tampa Bay Bucs failed to land defensive tackle Darrell Russell last year, when the league lifted his 18-month suspension, but their success the second time around figures to be a lot better. ESPN.com has learned that Bucs defensive line coach Rod Marinelli flew to the Bay Area on Tuesday night, and huddled with Russell just after the start of the free agency signing period. Russell doesn't have a lot of teams interested in him, especially after he again demonstrated his lack of maturity during his fling with the Redskins in the second half of 2003, but he is said to have learned an important lesson from blowing that opportunity. The educated guess here is that he ends up with the Bucs, probably on a minimum salary contract, and probably for just one year.
The breakdown on the Jevon Kearse contract with the Eagles was initially misreported in this space. Essentially, Kearse received a $16 million signing bonus, one of the largest upfront payouts for any defensive player in league history and part of a deal that made "The Freak" the highest paid defensive lineman in NFL history. In addition to the $16 million in upfront money, Kearse will receive roster bonuses of $2 million each shortly after the first and second seasons of the contract. The base salaries are $535,000 (for 2004), $825,000 (2005), $2.14 million (2006), $5.2 million (2007), $6.46 million (2008), $7.72 million (2009), $8.98 million (2010) and $10.24 million (2011). There are annual workout bonuses of $125,000 for 2005-2008.
Word is that the Dallas Cowboys certainly didn't overpay on the four-year contract to which Keyshawn Johnson has agreed. Some sources claim that, of the $20 million in the deal, as much as $9 million is in the fourth season of the contract. If that's the case, the contract is more like a three-year deal for $11 million.
Punts: The Falcons plan on locating a viable backup to quarterback Michael Vick and, toward that end, visited this week with free agent Billy Volek of Tennessee. But keep your eye on the Falcons and deposed San Francisco starter Jeff Garcia. There is some smoke there, folks, for sure. . . . The signing of defensive tackle Ted Washington by the Raiders could help the team regain one of its own. Defensive tackle Rod Coleman, who opted out of the final two seasons of his contract in Oakland, quietly visited with the Raiders' new staff this week and liked what he saw. What he liked more, however, was the addition of Washington, who would be a perfect complement to the cat-quick Coleman. The five-year veteran has two other suitors but the Raiders really intrigue him now. . . . The Rams' interest in Drew Henson is stronger than many people suspect. And, yep, that's another sign that St. Louis remains uncertain about its quarterback situation. . . . Although University of Miami star Sean Taylor did not have a great workout at the school's pro day last Saturday, the safety still remains a likely top 10 selection in the draft. . . . The Denver media has stirred up a lot of hype for the pending visit of former Oakland tailback Charlie Garner. They might not be so excited if they knew Garner is supposed to have surgery before his visit and might not be quite the answer to filling the void left by the departure of Clinton Portis. . . . Former first-round wideout David Terrell, a bust in his three seasons in Chicago, could flourish in the offense being installed by new coordinator Terry Shea, whose blueprint has to be better than the dink-and-dunk style of predecessor John Shoop.
Stat of the week: According to the NFL Players Association, 35 players participated in every one of their teams' snaps in 2003. And of that group, not surprisingly, 32 were offensive linemen. The three who weren't: Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna, Carolina strong safety Mike Minter and Minnesota free safety Brian Russell.
The last word: "This draft is so deep at (wide) receiver that one of our scouts said that, of the three wide receivers who went in the first round last year (Charles Rogers to Detroit, Andre Johnson of Houston and Bryant Johnson to Arizona), there are 10 guys this year who would have gone before them." -- Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio on the quality and quantity of highly regarded wide receiver prospects this year.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.