In Friday's preseason loss to the New York Jets, there was no better player among the Ravens than quarterback Eric Zeier. And the toughest part about Zeier's job is that, in four months, he might look back on 1997 and point to that August night as the highlight of his season.
Such is life through the eyes of a backup.
Heading into his third season -- not to mention the end of a three-year contract he signed as a third-round pick of the Cleveland Browns in 1995 -- Zeier is long removed from the weekly highlight reels he generated as a star at Georgia, where he set 67 school records and 18 Southeastern Conference marks that still stand.
As a pro, Zeier has become a master at biding his time. Studying film. Getting as much as he can out of practice repetitions. Staying prepared for the moment when he must transform himself from a man on the sidelines to the man at the controls.
It's a maddening, hurry-up-and-wait job.
"Trust me, it can be frustrating," said Ravens quarterbacks coach Don Strock, who knows of what he speaks. Strock spent most of his 17 NFL seasons in a backup role.
"I've gotten into a game as early as the fourth snap, then went 12 weeks without playing again. You have to watch film, know the game plan, know all of the coverages. The true value is, you're here. Then, you have to make the most out of your opportunity when you get in there."
Lately, the opportunities have been few for Zeier. He started four games as a rookie in Cleveland but virtually disappeared behind starter Vinny Testaverde last year. Despite being a 4-12 team, the Ravens were usually too competitive for Testaverde to leave the game.
Zeier's only chance came on Nov. 17 in San Francisco, when Testaverde went down midway through the second quarter with a rib injury. Zeier came on to complete 10 of 21 passes for 97 yards and a touchdown in a 38-20 loss.
"The situation didn't arise last year for me to play very much, and I couldn't do anything about that," Zeier said. "Obviously, you want to play. It's difficult, but it's part of the game. Any time you go get into a game and do some things well, it's very gratifying. As long as I go out every day and feel like I'm contributing and making progress, I can live with that."
Zeier, 24, contributed heavily throughout a productive second half against the Jets last week. He completed 17 of 22 passes, including 12 straight, for 207 yards and two touchdowns. His biggest mistake was underthrowing Jermaine Lewis on a play that should have gone for a score but wound up as an interception.
This is a potentially pivotal year for Zeier. After this season, he will be a restricted free agent. The Ravens could keep him by extending his contract, tendering him a one-year offer or exercising first refusal rights. And unless Zeier gets a chance to produce, he still might appear as an unproven commodity on the free-agent market.
"I really don't put extra pressure on myself thinking about what's going to happen after this year," Zeier said. "Right now, my focus is on this team, this year. I enjoy being on this team, being a part of this community. At the end of the year, we'll see what happens."
He is making the most of his preseason chances. In two second halves of action, Zeier has completed 29 of 42 passes for 345 yards.
"Eric has gotten us in position to either win or tie both of those games," Strock said. "This is his second year with our system, and he's a smart, fiery, competitive guy who we're very comfortable with. He's a young guy with a long career ahead of him."
Zeier will make $175,000 this season, which he acknowledges is not bad compensation for a guy who is essentially paid to practice and to be available on emergency notice.
"I've cut way down on my mental errors already, and a lot of times things don't happen for a quarterback until his fifth or sixth year in this league," Zeier said. "I'm still young and healthy. I'm not out there taking shots. It's not a panic situation. I've still got plenty of time left."
Strock agreed with that assessment, but offered a warning.
"The only way to stay working in this league is to be productive," he said. "You have to be productive when you get your chance, or you'll be a healthy, waived quarterback."
Pub Date: 8/12/97