OWINGS MILLS — Labor peace in the NFL is nowhere in sight, and the league is heading toward a year without a salary cap.
Despite the stormy outlook with the owners opting out of the collective bargaining agreement and triggering the possibility of a potential lockout of the players in 2011, team owner Steve Bisciotti isn’t concerned about the Baltimore Ravens’ prospects.
Although the Ravens are facing some restrictions as a Final Eight team after advancing to the AFC divisional round, they’re expected to retain the majority of their players and still be able to add a player or two.
"Our roster is going to stay pretty much intact, and I don’t really see it hampering us in our ability to do things," Bisciotti said. "I’m pretty confident that we’ve got a budget that we’re going to spend up to. We will spend as much as most of the teams, if not all of them."
The Ravens are only allowed to sign one unrestricted free agent with a minimum first-year salary of $5.5 million or more. And they’re only allowed to sign other unrestricted free agents when they lose one to free agency and have to sign players to a similar contract to any players they lose to other teams.
"I’m not worried at all," Bisciotti said. "I think we’ve got the best cap guys and the best guys to draft, the scouts and everything. I’m looking forward to the constraints. Because if there are any constraints, then it makes your decisions that much more important and I’m going to rely on the guys that I have."
General manager Ozzie Newsome expressed confidence that the large number of restricted free agents under the six-year rule will create opportunities to improve the team.
He downplayed the suggestion that it will be difficult to upgrade the roster due to the rules.
"When there are restrictions put on the Baltimore Ravens, they’re put on 31 other ballclubs, too," Newsome said. "We’ve got to be better than the other 31 clubs in order to make our football team better under those circumstances. So, I look at it as a challenge. It puts the pressure on us to dig down deep to improve our football team."
The Ravens are anticipating a rich class of restricted free agents around the league.
"With restricted guys, it’s going to be an interesting thing because there are hundreds of them out there," Bisciotti said. "If we lose a couple, we will pick up draft picks and turn around and use those draft picks to sign somebody else’s restricted guys. I think because there are more restricted free agents, I think there will be more restricted free agent deals done this year."
Newsome predicted that a large number of quality players will be released due to the uncapped year.
And he likes the Ravens’ chances of improving through the draft. The Ravens hold the 25th overall pick of the first round.
"When you look at all three of those phases, then there’s an opportunity for us to improve our position in several different positions," Newsome said.
LABOR PAINS: Bisciotti fully expects an uncapped year, and he’s worried about several owners facing financial difficulties.
He said those issues could create "long-term problems for the league," that could possibly lead to no football in 2011.
"I’ve got partners out there right now whose teams are making less money than their linebackers," Bisciotti said. "I think we’ve got an acute problem here with the general profitability of the teams. We always knew this was not a big cash-flow business, but when you’ve got guys like Jacksonville tarping up 10,000 seats to stop blackouts, when you’ve got teams that are voluntarily staying at the minimum of what they have to spend on the salary cap in order to not go upside down financially, then we already have a structural problem. I don’t know what side the fans are going to take. Three years ago if we hadn’t done the deal, we would have forced the players to strike."
Bisciotti characterized the last collective bargaining agreement extension inked three years ago as a bad deal for the owners.
"That puts us in the unenviable position of this thing ending in a lockout as opposed to a strike," Bisciotti said. "There’s no cash flow. If we don’t get this thing back to the point that teams have enough cash flow, then there’s long-term problems for the league. We’re going to have to address that.”
Besides noting the Jaguars’ ongoing struggles to sell tickets, Bisciotti also referenced the St. Louis Rams having issues getting their asking price in a proposed sale.
Referencing the deep-pocketed New York Yankees, Bisciotti is hoping that the NFL is able to return to a salary-cap business model as soon as possible.
"It certainly doesn’t show up in the standings," he said. "If I’m a Yankees fan, I’m upset we’re not winning 130 games with the roster that they have and the money that they pay out. I think it’s a disgrace they only beat the average team by 10 games in the standings with three times the money. I’d fire that GM. You don’t need a GM. All you have to do is buy the guy that was the last Cy Young Award winner every year."
If the NFL goes back to having a salary cap in 2011, there’s a concern that teams could be hamstrung by expensive deals struck during the uncapped year.
"Then, it’s the league’s responsibility to make sure that the teams have a soft landing," Bisciotti said. "That will be the last major negotiating point is exactly how the rosters are affected in that transition back into a cap.
"They could restrict movement for awhile to give you exclusive rights for one more year or stagger them depending on who lost the most. The league is already aware that things that we do to protect ourselves now will not come back and haunt us when we hit the ground running again with the new cap."
As far as baseball’s economic system, Bisciotti, who’s an Orioles fan, doesn’t envision a fix since the Yankees are able to afford the luxury tax.
"I think the genie’s out of the bottle," Bisciotti said. "There’s just no way of solving it."
NO TRADE DISCUSSIONS: Newsome denied receiving a trade request from backup quarterback Troy Smith’s agent.
Smith’s agent, Ralph Cindrich, wrote on his Twitter account following the Ravens’ loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers that the former Heisman Trophy winner wants a change of scenery.
"Ravens QB Troy Smith, Ohio State alum, native + Heisman winner wants playing time," Cindrich wrote. "Ravens notified. Will seek trade after play offs, SB run."
However, Newsome said that request was news to him.
"I have not heard from his agent," Newsome said. "I know his agent personally. I have not heard that."
Smith’s friend, safety Donte’ Whitner, recently lobbied for Smith to play for the Buffalo Bills. And Smith said recently that he dreams of playing for his hometown Cleveland Browns.
It’s believed that Smith has little, if any, trade value. Nonetheless, Newsome said he’ll listen should any team decide to dial his number.
PENALTY PROBLEMS: The Ravens led the NFL in penalty yardage last season.
Flagged 115 times for 1,094 yards in comparison to their opponents’ 88 penalties for 741 yards, the Ravens’ propensity toward being flagged annoyed Bisciotti.
"I’m certainly not happy about it, I’m not going to lie to you," Bisciotti said. "I don’t think it’s just yards. It’s trying to make these young guys understand that springing a guy for a 50-yard punt return by blocking some guy in the back is not worth it. We’ve got to address it."
The Ravens lost four of five games where they were penalized at least nine times.
Although the Ravens went 9-7 and won a playoff game, they were prone to pass-interference and illegal-contact penalties and illegal blocks on special teams.
Bisciotti suggested that players that don’t curtail their tendency to commit penalties will find themselves joining the ranks of the unemployed.
"Some of it is weeding out some players that refuse to practice their technique and find themselves in those positions," Bisciotti said. "I would be the happiest guy in the world if we were 15th in the league in penalties.
"We play an aggressive style of defense and I don’t anticipate nor do I care if we’re ever the least penalized team, but I certainly hope we’re not one of the top penalized teams. That goes without saying."
RAVENS’ FINANCES: Team president Dick Cass stated that the Ravens are doing fine from a business standpoint, especially in comparison to their NFL brethren.
"In terms of where we are in business, we’re doing fine," he said. "We’ve been able to sell all of our tickets, we’ve been able to sell our suites. Sponsorship dollars are basically flat.
"So, we’re doing well compared to other teams around the league. Again, I’m focusing on revenues, not expenses. Just because we’re doing well in revenues doesn’t mean we’re generating a lot of profit because we do spend a lot of money as well."
QUICK HITS: In the wake of New York Jets coach Rex Ryan being fined $50,000 for flipping off Miami Dolphins fans that were reportedly provoking him at a mixed martial arts event, Bisciotti was asked if Harbaugh would be less prone to losing his temper in a similar situation. "I think it was more likely to happen to him than John maybe," he said with a laugh. "Are you kidding me? John is the same way. I heard the guy was badgering Rex pretty good and maybe crossed the line. We all have things we wish we could take back. I’m not paying it for him, no, but that’s Rex." … Asked if the Ravens are a player or two away from being in the Super Bowl, Bisciotti replied: "They say that’s fool’s gold, right? I mean, that you get caught up in that you’re one or two players away. If we win a Super Bowl next year, then Ozzie will probably say that we were those two players away from it. When you look back at Sam Adams and Shannon Sharpe, I would say that those were the couple of pieces that got us over the hump in 2000. Stay tuned. If we win, then we’ll tell you the guys that were the difference-makers in getting us there."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.