McAlister: 'I'm a lot better off'

WESTMINSTER -- If the eyes offer a glimpse into the soul and the film really never lies, then his mirror and image on the football field delivered a troubling truth to Chris McAlister. For McAlister, an honest self-assessment didn't only center on his status in the game.

Whether it was a bout with maturity, dealing with the Baltimore Ravens' losing, underachieving season or the responsibility that accompanies banking $17.5 million in guaranteed money, something was missing for the talented, enigmatic cornerback.

It wasn't only defined by declining statistics, or not being selected to the Pro Bowl for the first time in two years. And it wasn't all about how quarterbacks didn't pay him the same respect of avoiding his side of the field as they targeted his territory regularly.

They were mere symptoms of a greater problem, and McAlister said he recognized that something had to change: himself. He realized that he needed to grow up.

"It was a big issue for me the past two years," said McAlister, limited to one interception last season as he missed two games with hamstring and toe injuries. "Just seeing where I could have made my improvements about the decisions that I'd made on and off the field, at this point, I'm a lot better off in the choices that I've made, which I think will affect me and my play on the field."

McAlister, 29, has described himself in the past as the black sheep of the Ravens' family. Although he has a history of off-field problems, McAlister remains one of the most physically gifted defenders in football.

At 6-foot-1, 206 pounds, the imposing defensive back represents a blend of size, speed and aggression. When his mind is in the game, McAlister can compete with the top wideouts in football.

"McAlister didn't have a great year last year," said former NFL lineman Mark Schlereth, an ESPN analyst. "He's definitely a top-notch corner, but. I think he's only scratching the surface of his potential."

When McAlister isn't focused, though, a season like 2005 can result as he dropped, by his own estimation, six or seven interceptions.

"For me, last season was not one that I can look back on and say I played my best week in and week out and it's all about being consistent," said McAlister, who has 16 career interceptions since being drafted in the first round in 1999. "That's the thing I worked on most this offseason, coming back out there and giving this team what I can give them. I really couldn't tell you what it was other than maybe a lack of focus and paying attention."

Of course, going 6-10 and dropping to the basement of the AFC North was a definite factor in McAlister's outlook.

"Losing affects everybody," McAlister said.

One change McAlister decided to make after the season was to dramatically increase his presence with his teammates

McAlister was absent in the past for the majority of the offseason because he went back to his native Southern California, but this year he bought a house in the Baltimore region and regularly haunted the Ravens' training complex.

He's hoping that renewed commitment will help him recapture his Pro Bowl form.

"I'm the one that sets the standard," McAlister said. "I know my capabilities. It's my goal, my job and my duty to this team to come out and play like I have in the past."

Unlike previous campaigns, there are no contractual disputes or legal issues clouding McAlister's mind. His base salary for this season is $5.5 million and he's due $6.5 million in 2007 and $8 million per season beginning in 2008 until his contract concludes in 2010.

Instead of complaining about the locker room atmosphere as he did notably in 2004, McAlister seems to be trying to shed his loner reputation.

While teammates respect McAlister's skills, they seem to have also recognized that his approach and attitude are starting to catch up with his vast athleticism.

"Definitely, C-Mac is one of the top three corners in the game," said cornerback Samari Rolle, McAlister's camp roommate. "He's big, fast can run. Every year, it's not going to be there.

"Sometimes, you just got to come back and refocus. He's had a great camp. I think he'll have a great year."

While McAlister can still accelerate to track receivers on the field, he appears to be slowing down off the field.

McAlister, who was arrested in Virginia during training camp in 2003 and charged with driving under the influence with the charges being subsequently dropped, was benched in 2003 prior to the San Diego Chargers game for violating curfew and missing practice days before kickoff. He hasn't had incidents like those in years.

Entering his eighth season, McAlister said that having a young daughter has made him adjust his lifestyle.

"When you've got a four-year-old telling you what to do," McAlister said, "you've got to change a little bit."

Aaron Wilson writes for Ravens Insider and the Carroll County Times in Westminster Maryland.

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