- The Washington Times - Monday, July 30, 2001

WESTMINSTER, Md. For the Baltimore Ravens, the upcoming season isn't so much about repeating as Super Bowl champions as it is winning Super Bowl XXXVI.

"We're not hiding from the fact that we are champions," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "We're not jumping on a soapbox and saying that we are absolutely going to repeat. I have read every book from every coach that has ever won a championship and tried to come back and win another one just to get an idea of what they thought the priorities were.

"If there is a recurring theme, we're going to try to win a Super Bowl. The fact that it is a repeat is coincidental. We're not coming back just to repeat. We're the only team in the NFL that can do that, but going after the Super Bowl in itself is enough of a challenge."

Pencil in the Ravens as early favorites to win Super Bowl XXXVI in New Orleans on Jan. 27. Everything is in place. The Ravens are a powerhouse.

The Ravens' record-setting defense returns 13 of its top 14 players. Last season's defense set NFL records for fewest points allowed (165) and fewest rushing yards allowed (970) in a 16-game schedule.

Middle linebacker Ray Lewis, the NFL's defensive player of the year and Super Bowl XXXV MVP, anchors the suffocating defense perhaps the greatest ever depending on who you ask.

"Physically and mentally we're still the champs until proven otherwise," said Ravens fourth-year cornerback Duane Starks. "It's time to go out and prove that it wasn't a fluke that we made it last year. I would definitely say that we got stronger [in the offseason]. True enough, we lost some key guys on our team on defense and offense, but we've got some guys that can step in right into place. It's all going to fall into place and it's going to be better than last year."

The only loss from the Ravens feared defense was strong safety Kim Herring, who signed a free agent contract during the offseason with the St. Louis Rams. Corey Harris, a 10-year veteran, was an adequate replacement for the injured Herring during the Ravens' playoff run. In essence, Herring lost his job to Harris during the playoffs.

"Last year I came in [training camp] with an opportunity to start," Harris said. "My whole approach is to prepare as if I am starting. I'm not going to approach it differently now that I'm a starter and Kim is gone. The minute you let your guard down in terms of preparation, somebody that is hungry and is preparing and doing that little extra takes over."

The Ravens reported yesterday to training camp for a 5 p.m. team meeting. Unlike last season, the Ravens' sixth training camp at Western Maryland College will have all players signed and healthy.

The Ravens have no contract holdouts, no off-field legal issues, and no injuries. A return trip to the Super Bowl couldn't have started more favorably for the men in purple. The only apparent distraction the Ravens will have to deal with in training camp is four crews from NFL Films shooting footage for a six-week series on the team that will be telecast on HBO.

"If you take it one-year removed, and sit here thinking about last year at this time, that this team was dealing with coming off the Ray Lewis situation, Larry Webster's situation [substance abuse suspension], two players holding out, Travis Taylor and Tony Siragusa, and all the things that we had to deal with going into that training camp," Billick said. "Now think about where we are today. Everybody is in camp, signed, no pending holdout or re-negotiation, and absolutely no qualifications on any player physically. Where we are today and where we were a year ago, this ain't bad."

The quarterback position was the one glaring weakness last season. The Ravens astutely took care of that problem in the offseason by signing Pro Bowl quarterback Elvis Grbac to replace Trent Dilfer, who went 11-1 last season as the Ravens' starter.

Grbac passed for a career-high 4,169 yards last season with the Kansas City Chiefs. Dilfer is still unemployed. The Ravens also added veteran backup Randall Cunningham as an insurance policy.

Besides Dilfer, the only other free-agent loss from the offense was starting center Jeff Mitchell, who signed with the Carolina Panthers. Mitchell's departure was tempered by the signing of former Pro Bowl tackle Leon Searcy from the Jacksonville Jaguars.

The Ravens will reconfigure their offensive line by moving right guard Mike Flynn to center. Kipp Vickers, a former Washington Redskin, will start at Flynn's guard spot and Searcy will start at right tackle for Harry Swayne, who will back-up both line positions on the right side.

The defending Super Bowl champions already have the "Big Easy" in their sights.

"I think we have a good shot because we have all of our coaching staff back, we have all of our players back except for Kim Herring, who was a starter on defense," said defensive tackle Siragusa, about repeating. "We've made some great additions on the offense."

Note Former backup Ravens offensive tackle Spencer Folau signed a free-agent contract with the Miami Dolphins. Folau started four games last season filling in for injured right tackle Harry Swayne.

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