The Baltimore Ravens remain a prime contender for the services of Lawrence Phillips, but Coach Brian Billick acknowledged yesterday that the free agent running back "will have some choices."
Billick got an up-close feel for the competition when he met with Phillips for about two hours Wednesday in the Atlanta airport.
"Lawrence had just returned from San Francisco after working out for the 49ers," Billick said. "Ray Rhodes [head coach of the Green Bay Packers] was on his way in -- and Wade Phillips [head coach of the Buffalo Bills] also was en route."
The Washington Redskins also have expressed interest in Phillips but do not appear to be among the top contenders.
Billick said Phillips probably would meet with Ravens owner Art Modell and other high-ranking team officials next week at the team's training complex in Owings Mills, Md.
The Ravens strongly considered taking the 6-foot, 230-pound Phillips with the fourth pick in the 1996 draft but opted for offensive lineman Jonathan Ogden. So Billick, who replaced Ted Marchibroda as coach after last season, was the only significant team official not to have already spent time with Phillips.
Phillips also will meet next week with NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue because he may have violated the league's anti-violence policy while with the Miami Dolphins. An incident in a Florida nightclub slightly more than a year ago involving a woman he allegedly struck resulted in Phillips being sentenced to six months probation. About a month after Phillips was arrested, the Dolphins cut him.
This will be Phillips's first meeting with Tagliabue, a league source said. Phillips could be fined or suspended, with a fine the more likely option. League spokesman Greg Aiello said teams are free to sign Phillips.
The Dolphins claimed Phillips after the St. Louis Rams, who drafted him with the sixth pick in the 1996 draft, released him. In his 19 months with the Rams, Phillips was arrested three times and spent 23 days in jail. With the Rams, he gained a total of 1,265 yards. But his average gain was just 3.3 yards.
Interest in Phillips escalated after he rushed for 1,021 yards on 194 carries last season for the Barcelona Dragons of NFL Europe.
As a senior at Nebraska, Phillips was one of the most talented running backs in college. However, he also was sentenced to a year of probation for assaulting a former girlfriend.
"We'll see whether the shock of these incidents [while with the Rams and Dolphins] have made an impression on him," Modell said. "I like to give people second chances."
Meanwhile, the NFL has agreed to help the Ravens restructure a large portion of their debt after a number of insurance companies decided to call in about $55 million in loans.
The NFL will borrow enough money to pay off that obligation, a league source said, and the Ravens are committed to paying the league back within about a year. The source added that only two teams, the Cincinnati Bengals and Oakland Raiders, voted not to support the move. Total cost to the Ravens, when fees and prepayment costs to the insurance companies are included: about $61 million.
"This was a tremendous accommodation," said Modell, who plans to repay the league by selling a portion of the team. Modell said there has been "lots of interest" in buying into the team and that an investment banker will help evaluate the offers.
"Ultimately," the NFL's Aiello said, "this won't cost the league anything. . . . The Ravens continue to operate normally [including] the normal process of player contract signings as well as making all [other] required debt payments on time and in full."
The Baltimore Sun, which reported the story in yesterday's editions, estimated the Ravens' total debt as of two years ago, after an earlier restructure, at about $185 million.
The Ravens also have asked the league to change the terms of a $29 million relocation fee imposed when Modell moved the team from Cleveland to Baltimore after the 1995 season, offering to pay more if the time frame were extended. The matter could be considered as soon as late July.