For Zeier, the future isn't now Quarterback: Praised for his talent and temperament, second-year man Eric Zeier plays a waiting game as the Ravens' backup behind Vinny Testaverde.

November 29, 1996|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

He is two years into his job, and the adjustment goes on for Ravens quarterback Eric Zeier.

Zeier spent four seasons standing in the pocket at the University of Georgia, including two marvelous years that made him the best passer in Bulldogs history, and one of the best quarterbacks to grace the Southeastern Conference.

Since he was drafted in the third round by the Cleveland Browns in 1995, Zeier has spent most of his game days standing on the sidelines as a backup. He'll be in that same role Sunday, when the Pittsburgh Steelers come to town.

It is not a role that Zeier relishes. He would rather be a playmaker than an understudy. But, while he soaks up the game by following its nuances from the bench, sharpening his tools on the practice field, watching videotape endlessly and consulting with his coaches and starting quarterback Vinny Testaverde, Zeier has come to grips with the fact that his time will come.

"It's not a position I want to be in. I don't think anybody who is a backup wants to be in that position," Zeier said. "I'm in a position I've never been in before. You don't want to accept it, but you've got to take it and learn what you can from it. The more I absorb, the better I'm going to be in this league."

Those sound like the right words to Ravens quarterbacks coach Don Strock, who made a pretty good living coming off the bench in relief in his playing days. While working with his quarterbacks, Strock is focused mainly on the present -- how to win this week with Testaverde. But he has an eye trained on the future, and that's where the development of Zeier assumes a high priority.

In Zeier, Strock sees a guy with talent, smarts and fire. Zeier showed plenty of each while setting 67 Georgia passing records and 18 SEC marks. Strock sees a passer who asks the right analytical questions about his trade and carries the proper chip on his shoulder. He sees a guy who will be ready when his time arrives, and he likes Zeier's restless nature.

"I don't want him here if he doesn't want to play, and believe me, Eric wants to get out there," Strock said. "He has enough cockiness and self-assurance about him. It's hard for a young guy to be patient, but he has to be patient. He's got a good future in the game.

"The toughest thing about being a backup is, when they tell you to play, you have to produce. You've got to be able to move the team and score."

And therein lies the built-in disadvantage in the life of a backup. During the week in practice, the starter gets most of the work on the field. But should he falter or get injured, the backup is expected to step in and move the offense with the proficiency of a starter.

Zeier knows firsthand how difficult that can be. For the first 10 games of the season, he did not take a snap under game conditions, since circumstances never allowed it. The Ravens were playing too competitively, Testaverde was playing too well and staying healthy, and Zeier never had a chance to mop up late in a game.

His chance came suddenly against the San Francisco 49ers two weeks ago, when Testaverde went down with bruised ribs in the first half. Zeier trotted onto the field for the first time since the preseason three months earlier. His performance had the highs and lows expected of a guy in need of more work. A touchdown pass. An interception. A sack and lost fumble that led to a 49ers score. Ten completions in 21 attempts for 97 yards.

And Zeier, who started four games as a rookie with Cleveland, might not get another chance to play in his second season.

"The hardest part about being a backup is you don't get enough repetitions in practice, but you have to play like a guy who does," said Testaverde, who was a backup for much of his rookie season with Tampa Bay in 1987.

"You have to stay focused as a backup. You can't goof off one week, because that's the week you'll get your opportunity. You have to work hard, week in and week out, without getting a pat on the back."

Sunday is Zeier's key learning day. From his customary perch on the sideline, next to Strock, he watches the game as closely as anyone, especially when the offense is on the field.

"You're looking to see what the defense is doing," Zeier said. "I'm thinking, 'Where would I go with certain throws? What checks would I make against certain defenses? How are the cornerbacks breaking on the ball? Are the safeties cheating up in certain situations?' When Vinny comes off the field, I'm listening to him and Strock, telling Vinny what I see, things like that.

"Eventually, when you're out there playing, you get to the point where you can just feel what's going to happen. That's the way it was for me in high school and college."

Zeier, 24, stepped in as Georgia's starting quarterback midway through his true freshman season and never looked back, although he said he needed two years to refine his skills.

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