Seated outside Monday afternoon at the posh Breakers hotel, the site of this week's NFL owners meetings, Steve Bisciotti, well-tanned and sharply-dressed, appeared as relaxed as ever.
The Ravens owner doesn't have to be consumed by a bounty scandal, like the New Orleans Saints, or a salary cap penalty leveled by the NFL, like the Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys. Those two topics dominated the first full day of the meetings.
But his organization, which came seconds away from representing the AFC in the Super Bowl just two monthsago, still has plenty on its plate.
In an interview with the Baltimore Sun on Monday, Bisciotti spoke about several of the issues facing the Ravens, including the desire to get quarterback Joe Flacco and running back Ray Rice signed to extensions and the team's free agent losses.
We can start in a million places, but since we're at the owners meetings and the prevailing topics here have been player safety and the bounty issue, I was wondering what your initial thoughts were when you heard about the bounty situation and the punishment the New Orleans Saints received?
I'm going to leave it up to the commissioner to decide the punishment because there were 150,000 pages of documents and everything else. I'm really not privy to all the details, so I trust that the commissioner made the penalties that he felt were appropriate. I don't hear New Orleans bitching about it. I'm sure they were shocked and certainly hoping for less. But they seem to be taking it in stride. I will say I'm proud of New Orleans [owner] Tom Benson and [coach] Sean Payton to take responsibility for it.
When you heard about the situation and the punishment, did that result in you calling your people and making sure it wasn't happening in Baltimore?
No. You know what, it might be one of the great benefits of having [general manager] Ozzie Newsome at the helm. I think [coach John Harbaugh] and he have created a pretty good relationship. I didn't worry. I was shocked that it existed in the NFL. It's so silly when you think about it. These players are making hundreds of thousands of dollars a game. How can they be motivated by a $500 or $1,000 payment? It just doesn't compute to me.
A couple of your players, including Terrell Suggs and Ray Lewis, have said at different times over the past couple of years that the NFL has gone a little overboard with penalties and fines for hits and being overly protective of the quarterbacks. Do you think the NFL has gone overboard with it?
I think the NFL has done a great job with it. I really do. I think if you find a problem that you've got to fix, you may err on the side of caution, and get people's attention. The funny thing is these young men were taught to tackle correctly at a very young age and most of the hits that are drawing flags are not form tackles. They can say that you are taking something important out of the game, I disagree with that. I've seen more instances where a guy tries to hit a kill shot on a receiver and he bounces off and runs 40 yards for a touchdown. If you just wrapped him up, it wouldn't make SportsCenter but it would have saved his team a touchdown. We were taught to have your eyes up and your arms extended and to wrap guys up, and we did drills for that in high school. If you tackle the way you were taught to tackle, most of these things will go away. I do think it's an adjustment for the players. I do think that sometimes when you see things in slow motion, some of those hits are unavoidable. When a receiver catches the ball and drops his head in a natural desire to cover up, sometimes he leads himself into that defensive player. I think that's a bit of a flaw that maybe we'll have to do a better job in terms of the appeals process and realize that some of these are unintentional.
They say time heals all wounds. Are there still times you think about that final minute of the AFC championship game and how close your team was to being in the Super Bowl?
Only mornings, afternoons and nights. Other than that, no.
Is there a concern that you guys have gotten so close, but you've been unable to win the big game?
win his trophy in what, 33 years? I know he won a couple of championships before they termed it the Super Bowl, but … we're talking about 33 years that Art waited to get his. 'The Drive' and 'The Fumble' will always be a part of him. He probably thinks that he should have gotten it 15 years earlier, but that's the way this business is. You're competing with 31 other teams. But yeah, the closer you get, the more it hurts. But your alternative is to root for mediocrity. There's no other way.
Where are you guys at in terms of two of your stated offseason priorities, signing Joe Flacco and Ray Rice to contract extensions? How optimistic are you about getting deals done?
They don't give me updates really. [Vice president of football administration Pat Moriarty] and Ozzie have their numbers. They're deep into, I'm sure, both of them. All I know is they're suiting up for me this year. To me, that makes it easier for me to see. I'll always watch with interest as most of our fans do, and all I can do is go back on our track record of all of our other great players and it always seems to work out. Interestingly enough, even the ones that we franchised over the years, there wasn't a lot of animosity. I think our players realize that the Ravens negotiate earnestly and I think the agents know that, too. Just like you didn't hear much about Ray Rice, we didn't hear much about Suggs and [Haloti] Ngataeither when those came up. And you didn't hear much about Chris McAlister way back when. I just can't involve myself with it. I can't interject because it's not my place.
Are you concerned with the possibility that Ray Rice could hold out?
It's realistic in the sense that other players do it. It's not too realistic in the sense that, the kind of young man that Ray is. This is all up to his agent's strategy, but Ray is not the kind of guy that, I think, needs to pursue that angle. If his agent convinces him that he has to, Ray is not the kind of guy that we fear will come in out of shape. If he does it, he does it. But I don't think we're going to see a drop-off in his performance this year.
You've been through this before, losing a bunch of guys in the offseason. But was the first 10 days of free agency, where you lost several long-time core Ravens like Jarret Johnson and Ben Grubbs, more difficult to accept than usual?
You just get used to it. I think Pat came up with 10 or 12 different salary cap scenarios with or without all of those players. When [team executives] came to spend a few days with me in Florida, we went through all of them and every one of the scenarios included losing a lot of guys. Which ones was it going to be, we didn't know. I have a tendency to expect the worst and be more thrilled that we got [Brendon Ayabandejo] back and Jameel McClain. I'm really excited about Jameel. He's young. Most of the guys we lost were done after their second or third contracts. Jameel was the exception in that he was a two-year starter at the end of his first contract. The others were either backups or they were on their second or third contract. I was really pleased for that reason that we were able to retain Jameel.
There have been different projections of where you are under the salary cap. Do you feel like you still have enough financial flexibility to fill some holes before the draft?
Yeah, sure. We're prepared to not do anything more in free agency if we don't create cap room. We know how to create cap. You can do that by cutting more players, ask players for reduction in pay, restructure contracts or get Joe or Ray signed to long-term deals. Those are four specific mechanisms that we can do to create cap space. To prioritize them, I'm not sure because it would depend on what we are clearing space to acquire.
It seems that every year at this time, the questions start to be asked on whether this is the final go-around for Ed Reed and Ray Lewis. Have you had any discussions with those guys that lead you to believe that maybe this is their last year?
No, I haven't. I know it's a year-to-year thing with both of them. We have Ray under contract for two or three more years. I think we only have this year left with Ed. We'll either have to get him signed to an extension, he has to say that he's done or we have to face the possibility of seeing him play in another uniform. That's the reality of this.
Give us a glimpse of what it's like to work with Ozzie Newsome on a regular basis:
In a highly-charged, competitive business, he is the voice of reason. I've never gotten an answer from Ozzie in a timely fashion because I tend to want answers right away and Ozzie has to sleep on it. I have learned that Ozzie's insistence that we talk about it tomorrow has been beneficial to both John and myself. I like his skill set and I think it works in our favor that he does tend to like to think things over and we usually come up with better decisions because of it.
Is it as simple as Director of Player Personnel Eric DeCosta will replace Newsome when he's ready to retire?
There is no doubt that our main plan for life without Ozzie would be Eric DeCosta as the GM. Like I've said, it's impossible to guarantee that, but we did again restructure Eric's contract in a way where I think he's off the market for a few years. He's very happy with us and happy working with Ozzie. They have about the best relationship in football in terms of working in front offices. I'm very lucky to have both of them helping them build our team.
With your history going to camp as a kid with your father, was moving training camp out of Westminster and to the team complex in Owings Mills full time one of the most difficult decisions that you've had to make?
Sure it was. I have said on record that it was very difficult for me, but football has changed so dramatically. I bet back in 1967 when I was there, there were probably eight coaches on the staff and now there are 20. There was no such thing as a computer department and now we've got eight people that have to assist with the technology. Most of their conditioning was push-ups and sit-ups and jogging around the field. Trying to move weights out there and the trainers and everything, it just proved prohibitive. Like I said, it's up to us. We made the decision that was in the best interest of our team. It's one of the few times where what's in the best interest of the team isn't in the best interest of our fans. That's why I regret it so much. As far as the fan interaction, we have to focus on what we can, and that's the kids. We just have to find ways to do that.
What are some of the plans for the open practices?
I don't know how far that's gone. I'd certainly like to get one in Annapolis. I do know that John is committed to getting a few practices open to the public. We're going to work hard to get kids access to these players. That's the one thing that I regret. That's what was so special to me. I can assure you my father wasn't pushing kids out of the way to get autographs like I see some of those people doing right now. It's really sad for the kids that autographs have become such a lucrative business for some of these people. To see people holding up $300 helmets and $400 jerseys and knowing that they are just moneymakers for them, those are the people that we will limit whatever access we make.
A prominent story line this offseason has been the quarterback carousel around the league and Peyton Manning changing teams. Are you more convinced than ever, especially with how he played in the AFC championship game, that Joe Flacco is the guy to get the team to where you guys want to go?
Not more. I'm as convinced. The question has never been raised behind closed doors, 'Are we sure Joe is our guy?' Not once. Not by anybody, not by scouts, coaches, ownership. It just does not come up. What he needs to do to improve always comes up, but that comes up with every player in our personnel meetings. He has to get better, but every one on our team has to get better. He's no different except that he gets a disproportionate amount of attention.
You said last offseason that you liked offensive coordinator Cam Cameron "coaching under fire." Did you have any doubts that Cameron deserved to return to lead the offense?
There was no doubt in my mind and I'd kind of like to clear that up because that's been repeated so many times, that I like Cam under fire. All I meant was that he was under so much scrutiny, that when John's decision to retain him was set, what I meant by that was I like any talented competitor that is being questioned. All that does is raise the level of their game. I could have used Joe in that scenario. That phrase 'under fire' just stuck. The scrutiny on Joe doesn't make Joe play worse. I think it makes him play better. I like when people doubt me. I think every great competitor uses that as fuel. It's just the way it is.
There has been more and more speculation about Peter Angelos possibly being ready to sell the Orioles. Would you have any interest in that or possibly putting together a group of investors to buy the Orioles?
No. You know, I've talked to [
] just friend-to-friend over his desire to participate, somehow someway, long term, but I've never talked to Peter about it and I've never expressed to Cal that I have interest in joining an investor group with him. I certainly would love to help that happen, but I have my hands full as far as how much interest and time and money I have dedicated to sport already. I've been in Florida all winter and I certainly read the reports in The Sun about his apparent interest. But he's never said it and I heard him deny it when it was bandied about. There is a saying, everything is for sale. If Peter says that he has no intentions of selling and then he turns around and sells the team a year or two from now, I don't think he was being deceptive. It might mean that the right time in his life and the right opportunity came along that made him reassess that situation. I have not heard from him that there is any intention. From what I understand, his sons are as involved in the organization as they ever have.
Do you feel that where you guys are at, this coming year could be as good of a chance as you're going to have to win the Super Bowl?
Yeah, I always do. We've always had stalwarts. We've had a lot of players spend a lot of years in the organization and the longer they stay, the better we get. As you see, Torrey Smith does in his rookie year what we would have been thrilled for him to do in his second year. What do you expect from Torrey? You don't just turn around and say, 'He gave us 60 receptions so we're going to plug him in for 90.' It doesn't work that way. We lost some guys last year and the one thing that I'll say is, I think we're good at the timing of giving people the opportunity to play. With the salary cap issues that teams face, the old adage is that we might have to get rid of a guy too soon as opposed to a year too late really holds true. We gave guys like [Dennis] Pitta and [Ed] Dickson and Torrey opportunities that wouldn't have existed had we not cleared some roster spots for him. We're in the same situation now by losing guys like Cory Redding and J.J., and Ricky Williams retiring. Guys like Anthony Allen and [Paul] Kruger and [Pernell] McPhee and Arthur Jones and [Sergio] Kindle. It's time. The only thing that I will say is most of the time when we go into the season wondering whether the young guy will adequately fill that hole, we are vindicated nine out of 10 times. I can't think of an instance. Then, if it's not a young guy, it's bringing in a guy like [Bernard] Pollard for Dewan Landry and Vonta Leach to step in for Le'Ron McClain. We can fill those holes. As long as the core stays there, then I think we are capable of dealing with this inevitability. Right now, you can plug [Jah Reid] in at guard, but it doesn't mean that he won't have competition from the draft or free agency, or the guys that we have. And it doesn't mean that he can't beat out somebody else from the line for a different spot or God forbid, we have an injury. We're going to have some good young talent that's going to get a chance. [Tackle] Ramon Harewood is a forgotten man, but he's a hard worker and we've liked what we've seen from him the last two years. He's going to be given an opportunity to compete.