- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 30, 2002

WESTMINSTER, Md. Michael McCrary walked into the Baltimore Ravens' lunchroom, and it felt as though he had mistakenly walked in on the wrong team or somehow entered a whole other dimension.

"I felt like I was in the 'Twilight Zone,' going back to college," said McCrary, a defensive end who grew up in Falls Church. "I was like, 'Dang.' Everywhere I looked. I would go into the lunchroom, and it's all these college guys."

The confusion is understandable.

So many of the players that McCrary had sweated with, competed with and won with were gone 28 in all from last season's AFC wild card team. The offseason purge of the Ravens' roster a massive, salary-cap driven overhaul on a scale the NFL never before has seen included many of the players who helped the Ravens to the Super Bowl championship in 2001.

The numbers are as startling as the list of departed players is long.

Only 16 players remain from the team that won Super Bowl XXXV two seasons ago. Sixty-two of the 82 players now in camp have two or fewer years of NFL experience. So many of the big-name players synonymous with the Ravens' success are gone: Shannon Sharpe, Rod Woodson, Jamie Sharper, Duane Starks, Sam Adams, Sam Gash, Rob Burnett, Qadry Ismail, Jermaine Lewis, Leon Searcy, Randall Cunningham, Elvis Grbac, Tony Siragusa.

"There are so many new guys, we don't have the veteran feel we did last year," tight end Todd Heap said.

Coach Brian Billick has earned the reputation of being an offensive genius. With all the unknown, young players in camp, he finally will get a chance to prove that he is indeed an innovator.

"These young kids are showing they're ready and they know what to do when they're told what to do," said Billick, who has a 35-19 record after three years at the Ravens' helm. "We have to tell them all the right things and cover all the bases. It's exciting. It takes me back to my college days. I haven't been with a team this young in quite awhile."

The defense, over the past two seasons regarded as one of the best in NFL history, took the brunt of the cost-cutting hits. Only four starters remain from last season: perennial Pro Bowl middle linebacker Ray Lewis, speed-rushing linebacker Peter Boulware, up-and-coming cornerback Chris McAlister and McCrary.

Without question, Ray Lewis is the leader of the Ravens. And now, he is almost alone. His closest confidants, Sharpe and Woodson, are gone.

The most dominant defensive player in the game today isn't worried that the Ravens lost eight starters from last season's defense and most of those players with the exception of safety Corey Harris were starters on the 2000 defense, arguably the greatest defense ever assembled.

"Go back to the year before [2001] and name me how many starters New England had on their Super Bowl team before they won it," Lewis said. "Fate takes its own course no matter how you do it. All you can do is work hard and everything else will take care of itself. But I've never been a loser, and I didn't come here to start losing now."

The prognosticators don't agree. The Ravens are projected to win between four and seven games and finish third or fourth in the newly created AFC North.

"I don't mind [the forecasts] at all, because what they don't see is going to hurt them," said offensive lineman Edwin Mulitalo, who will switch from left guard to right tackle. "They bury us, that's fine with me."

There are plenty of questions on offense, too.

The line, which lost Adams, Searcy and Kipp Vickers, is expected to be just adequate. Running back Jamal Lewis returns after missing all of last season following knee surgery, adding further mystery to the ground game. The receiving corps, minus Sharpe, Ismail and Jermaine Lewis, appears mediocre at best.

Much of the Ravens' success this season depends on quarterback Chris Redman, a third-year player who has spent the past two seasons carrying a clipboard. Redman, who has served as an understudy to Trent Dilfer, Tony Banks and Grbac, took only two snaps last season and has only three pass attempts in his career. Compounding Redman's lack of game experience is that he will be directing an offense that in large part has not played together.

"There's a lot of new faces here and everything," said Redman. "We're happy when we can get a little extra work in. I just want to play and go out and have fun. Hopefully, we can jell together in this camp."

The exodus of personnel was not restricted to players. Marvin Lewis, architect of the Ravens' feared defense, moved an hour south to Redskin Park. Washington hired Lewis to run its defense, signing him to a incentives-laden contract that could pay him more than $1million this season and makes him one of the highest-paid coordinators in the league.

Jack Del Rio, the Ravens' former linebackers coach, is now the defensive coordinator of the Carolina Panthers. New defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, trying to compensate for all the lost talent, is considering a 3-4 defense because the unit is deepest at linebacker with Lewis, Boulware and blossoming star Adalius Thomas.

"We have a lot of great talent. They're just young and have no experience," Boulware said.

Ray Lewis summed up the defense's situation pretty much the same way.

"The leadership role definitely has to pick up and at the same time it keeps old players like me young," said Lewis, who is 27. "We have a very energetic group, which is a great thing. And as long as we're flying to the ball, we don't always have to know where we're going as long as we get there and we're trying to get somebody."

Note The Ravens waived rookie defensive end Robert Malone from Alabama State. The move left the training camp roster with 82 players.

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