James Roe knows the deal. As the Ravens' fifth receiver, he understands why his playing time is so limited. But as a second-year player, he is understandably frustrated by his lack of game-day activity, although he is too smart and feels too fortunate to complain about it.
So Roe simply improves, quietly and steadily, on the smaller, unlighted stage known as the practice field. On a typical day, he is out there looking smooth, showing off a fluid move here, a head fake there, catching everything that's thrown to him.
At 6 feet 1, 187 pounds, Roe cuts a graceful figure, and history suggests he will be making noise on Sundays before long.
He certainly did on plenty of Saturdays at Norfolk State, which was a Division II power in Roe's day. Over four seasons, Roe caught 239 passes for 4,468 yards and 46 touchdowns. Among all receivers in NCAA history, only Jerry Rice (4,693) was more productive. He has since proven his worth to the San Francisco 49ers.
The picture has changed dramatically for Roe since the Ravens made him a sixth-round draft pick last year. So far as a professional, he has 17 receptions in two preseasons. He has yet to catch a regular-season pass. Actually, in 21 regular-season NFL games, he has barely been on the field.
"In a way, it's been hard not being able to go out there and contribute on Sunday. Being out there for every down in college, you get used to that," Roe said.
"But I know I've learned a lot about this level since last year. I just feel the Lord will bless me when my time comes. I'll be ready."
"All [Roe] needs is an opportunity to play," said Derrick Alexander, a fourth-year receiver who forms, along with Michael Jackson and Jermaine Lewis, a productive trio that does little to assist Roe's playing time.
"He's doing his job as well as anyone does," Alexander said. "He doesn't drop many passes. We get fined $5 for each drop in practice, and the rest of us always get fined more than James does. It won't be long before people find out who he is."
Ravens coach Ted Marchibroda likened Roe's predicament to Indianapolis' Aaron Bailey or Jacksonville's Keenan McCardell, two unknown young receivers who blossomed after several years in the league.
"Somewhere along the line, he needs a chance to play. But right now, James is stuck behind a pretty good group. He has to wait his turn," Marchibroda said.
"He's a high-character kid who is very hard-working and has great hands. He's also a much more confident receiver this year."
The oldest of six children who was raised in Richmond, Va., Roe hasn't lacked football confidence since his senior year at Henrico High -- his first season at that level-- when he emerged as an All-State player.
Syracuse was one of the few schools to recruit Roe, but he failed to attain the necessary SAT scores to qualify with the Orangemen. He ended up at nearby Norfolk State.
After winning a starting job midway through his freshman year in college, Roe never stopped producing. He recorded 22 100-yard games, and caught two or more touchdown passes in 16 games.
During one, 15-game stretch, he caught an astounding 28 touchdown passes and averaged 140.5 yards per game.
"No question about it, my best points are my hands and the aggressive way I go and get the ball," Roe said.
"A lot of NFL scouts said I ran good routes, although I realized they are much smoother at this level. I basically have deceptive ++ speed. I know how to run with the football."
Roe, 23, immerses himself in bowling or video games to get away from football. He devotes the rest of his time to his family. He plans to marry his fiancee, Orrhea Ross, next spring. They have a 3-year-old son and a newborn daughter.
His parents, who work in a Nabisco factory, make it to the majority of the Ravens' home games. With more tutelage from Alexander, Jackson and receivers coach Richard Mann, Roe figures he'll be playing in front of Mom and Dad again before long.
"I'll get the opportunity. Derrick, Michael and Jermaine have been playing excellent football," Roe said.
"By just sitting back and learning from them, I'm only going to get better."
Next for Ravens
Opponent: Pittsburgh Steelers
Site: Memorial Stadium
When: 1 p.m. tomorrow
TV/Radio: Ch. 11/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)
Line: Steelers by 2
Pub Date: 10/04/97