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8 Upper

Crow and Raven

By Tom Scocca | Posted 12/29/1999

As I sat on the 7-yard line at PSINet Stadium on Boxing Day, watching the Ravens shut out the Cincinnati Bengals, it occurred to me that some of my past writings about the team have, ah, proved less sound than I'd hoped. There was, for example, the column where I said the following: "The Ravens are a team of destiny. Their destiny just happens to be 6 wins and 10 losses."

The win over the Bengals was, if anyone's counting, the Ravens' eighth of the season. In the interest of accuracy and fair play, I hereby eat my words. I am putting them in my mouth and chewing. Look: Arens to be 6e a teany. Thand 10 loseir dee Ravestiny justm of desti happ wins ses thns.

With a victory over the wholly beatable New England Patriots next week, the Ravens could end up 9-7. A while ago, I wrote that even the .500 mark was out of reach. "Any talk of an 8-8 finish can cease," I said. Well. 8 finik oAny talf an ceaan 8-sh cse. Gulp.

What can I say? I miscalculated. I said the Ravens could never beat a superior team, and they turned around and laid a whipping on the Tennessee Titans. And I knew that the Ravens feast on carrion, but I underestimated just how many rotting carcasses there were in the AFC Central—particularly in Pittsburgh, where the pathetic Steelers had already been slain by the Browns and gnawed on by the Bengals by the time the Ravens swooped in Dec. 12 to peck out their lifeless eyes.

Still and all, these are not entirely glad times for the Art Modell Organization. Two weeks ago, after much scurrying and many brave press releases, Modell agreed to bring in local businessman Stephen Bisciotti as a 49 percent partner in the Ravens, with an option to buy the whole franchise in four years. Modell, despite a sweetheart stadium deal and a willing fan base—despite charging $5.25 for a beer—somehow couldn't maintain enough cash flow to satisfy his many creditors. As reporter Jon Morgan explained crisply and mercilessly in The Sun on Christmas Eve, the owner then went trolling for an investor to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to bail him out, in exchange for a minority share of the franchise. Instead, Bisciotti spent more hundreds of millions of dollars to force Modell out.

But the key to Morgan's story comes at the end. There he reveals that Modell's actual personal investment in the Cleveland Browns, back in 1961, consisted of $25,000. That's it. Twenty-five large, padded out to more than $3.9 million with loans, and Arthur Modell was an NFL owner. When he fired Paul Brown, the founder and soul of the Browns—that's the Browns—franchise, that was all the footing he had. Twenty-five thousand measly bucks was what separated Modell from the little people of Cleveland, entitling him to rip away their team. If one Sunday's Browns crowd of 70,000 had chipped in 40 cents apiece, they could have bought out Modell's real stake in the team and given him a 12 percent profit.

Modell's whole NFL career is the biggest mass of horseshit since the days of King Augeas. No wonder Art of the Deal thought he could find some sap to pay off his debt this time around. He was riding on 38 years of pure fiction. He had no visible means of support. The notable philanthropy, the Prominent Citizen status—these came from the pretend wealth of a pretend businessperson.

Even now that he's up against the very real money of Bisciotti, he won't admit defeat. After the deal was done, he told The Washington Post he wasn't necessarily going to lose control of the team in 2004. "A lot can happen between now and when the option comes due," he said. "I'd be willing to buy back the option."

The best response I heard to this news came from Joe "Mr. Wrong" MacLeod. "Yeah," Joe said. "And you know all those games the Ravens lost? They really won them."

In fact, Modell's pet coach came frighteningly close to taking just that position as he smirked his way through his press conference after the Bengals blowout. Missing the playoffs, coach Billick! said, "really doesn't matter." The Ravens' four-game winning streak, he said, showed that the team appreciated the importance of winning in December. Good teams win in December. That good teams also don't lose so much in October went unremarked.

And The Genius kept spinning, enough to do Modell proud. "This was a helluva schedule," he informed the assembled press, apparently confusing the AFC Central with the NFC Central. One couldn't help wondering just where, say, the 7-8 Green Bay Packers might be if they'd had four games with the expansion Browns and the rancid Bengals instead of the Buccaneers and the Vikings.

Over the winter, Billick! said, the players would be urged to think about the things that cost the team their many close losses. His own coaching decisions—such as using Scott "Water Buffalo" Mitchell and rag-armed Stoney Case at quarterback for six weeks while Tony Banks held a clipboard—were not mentioned.

At one point, someone brought up the Halloween loss to the Bills, when a coaching blunder allowed Doug Flutie to convert a fourth-and-15 on the winning drive. "I know what happened in Atlanta," The Genius snapped. "I know what happened in Cincinnati."

He was referring, of course, to the Ravens' two clutch wins. But the answer revealed more than he intended. Sure, four or five Ravens' losses could easily have gone the other way. But so too could two or three wins. That's what mediocrity is about. You can speculate the record up or down, but the facts remain the facts.

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