Eisenberg: NFL Ground About to Shift

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Just before the "State of the Ravens" press conference began Wednesday, Jim Zorn slipped quietly into the room and sat down in the front row. For the next hour, the Ravens' new quarterback coach listened to his new bosses – Steve Bisciotti, Dick CassOzzie Newsome and John Harbaugh – answer questions about the team and the league. They exuded competence and confidence, experience and stability. I wondered if Zorn could believe what he was hearing.

A few weeks earlier, he had been fired as the head coach of the Washington Redskins, who are undergoing yet another organizational facelift under owner Dan Snyder. Originally hired as the team's offensive coordinator, Zorn was surprisingly promoted to head coach, given a marginal team and unceremoniously dumped after two seasons.

The Redskins' latest makeover might go better with Bruce Allen as general manager and Mike Shanahan as coach – guys with winning track records – but to date under Snyder, who bought the team in 1999, they've been impatient, unstable, and inconsistent. And they have a losing record.

It would have been interesting to see Bisciotti invite Zorn up to the podium Wednesday and ask him to give a lecture about how the NFL's other half lives, shuffling desperately from year to year for a winning combination. Let's just say a "State of the Redskins" press conference wouldn't go nearly as smoothly. For that matter, with nine of the NFL's 32 teams having lost 10 or more games in 2009, such an event would be downright embarrassing in a lot of places. I would pay money to see a "State of the Raiders" press conference with Al Davis in charge, but I don't think the team's fans would be comforted by what they hear.

As the Ravens' Big Four answered questions Wednesday, I found it hard not to step back and consider the big picture. Is their team perfect? No. Do they make mistakes? Sure. But Bisciotti is a hands-off owner who lets his football people do their jobs. Cass is a major behind-the-scenes figure in the league. Newsome is among the best in the business. And Harbaugh has won three playoff games in his first two seasons. Their organizational flow chart is as clear as a blue sky in springtime, and their grip on the steering wheel is tight.

Understandably, people get worked up about more immediate issues such as how the team is going to get better at wide receiver, but what's really important, whether you agree or disagree with what they do, is you know they have entertained a healthy debate, turned the issue over and over repeatedly, and reached a consensus. Their corporate culture produces a steady hum of solid decision-making. You can have your quibbles with what they do at times – everyone does – but before you start getting carried away, think about Jim Zorn and what he has experienced.

It's especially important now because of the NFL's uncertain future. If, as expected, the current collective bargaining agreement is allowed to expire and the league operates without a salary cap in 2010, teams will face a whole new set of circumstances. And another thing I took away from Wednesday's press conference was that it's going to be more unpredictable than anyone thinks. When Newsome said more players than usual might get cut, my ears perked up. There's no telling which wide receivers might end up here, and here's guessing at least one will come out of nowhere.

A few teams are going to go wild without an economic structure, either spending foolishly or slashing payroll. Bisciotti said he expected the vast majority (28 of 32, he said) to continue to operate normally, meaning there could be a couple of outliers on either end. The Ravens won't be one. They've been know to take risks (Terrell Owens, Steve McNair) but only when they feel one is warranted and without departing from their basic philosophy.

Barring a last-minute agreement, the ground is about to shift in the NFL. How teams handle the uncapped landscape could go a long way toward deciding how well they fare in 2010. Some are going to fall down, and some are going to stay balanced and remain upright. After listening to the Ravens Wednesday, I would bet they're one of the ones still standing.

John Eisenberg worked in the newspaper business for 28 years as a sports columnist, with much of that time coming at the Baltimore Sun. While working for the Sun, Eisenberg spent time covering the Ravens, among other teams and events, including the Super Bowl, Final Four, World Series and Olympics. Eisenberg is also the author of seven sports-themed books.

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