Ravens can't afford to rush QB decision

December 17, 1997|By John Eisenberg

There is little doubt that a landslide would have occurred had pollsters toured Memorial Stadium on Sunday asking fans to pick the Ravens' future quarterback.

Final tally: 97 percent for Eric Zeier, 1 percent for Vinny Testaverde, 1 percent for Johnny Unitas, 1 percent for other.

It's hard to blame the fans; they paid a lot of money to watch the Ravens lose a lot of games under Testaverde, before switching to Zeier and winning two in a row.

Still, let's not get too carried away with the perception that has formed in many minds around town since Zeier took over.

He might be the people's choice, but he still has a lot of hoops to jump through before he proves he is a capable starter.

And it's also still too soon to write off Testaverde, as much as no one wants to hear that right now.

Zeier's solid performance probably will douse the team's interest in trading up in the draft for a marquee quarterback, and that's just as well, considering how many other holes have to be filled, and, also, that the team needs to win now to stir some interest and can't afford to develop a project at quarterback.

But other than that, the long-range impact of Zeier's emergence is still undecided.

At the risk of being a killjoy, please remember that he has only won twice at home against non-playoff opponents in meaningless December games.

In other words, he hasn't proved himself on the road, where all quarterbacks prove their real worth.

Nor has he tried to crack a playoff-caliber defense, or been thrust into the crucible of trying to carry a team to the playoffs.

It's not his fault, of course, that he got his chance only after his teammates played their way out of playoff contention.

And he has done more with that chance than many of the Ravens' decision-makers expected.

But it's still too soon just to hand him the keys to the offense without pausing to think about it.

Let's see how he fares Sunday in Cincinnati, against a team closing as fast as any in the league.

And let's see how he holds up in a training camp duel with Testaverde and possibly another quarterback acquired in the draft or by a trade or free agency.

(Jim Kelly? Please. The Ravens denied the rumor about him that surfaced last week, as well they should have. Kelly was out of tread when he retired after last season.)

We won't begin to know the full measure of Zeier's abilities unless he gets the chance to lead the Ravens into 1998, playing games that matter against teams with playoff dreams.

As coach Ted Marchibroda wondered after Testaverde went down with a knee injury three weeks ago, "Is this [late-season chance] really a shot [for Zeier to prove himself]?"

No, not completely.

Still, Zeier obviously has helped his stock immeasurably by making a series of big plays, and, more importantly, by not giving away games with turnovers and other blunders, as Testaverde was doing too often.

It's an encouraging development that is certainly going to make it tougher for Marchibroda to put Testaverde back out there next season, if it comes to that.

Which it could.

Testaverde wasn't playing nearly as well this season as he did a year ago, but he wasn't playing so horribly that he should just be jettisoned. That would be a knee-jerk response, and a mistake.

Teams almost always need two capable quarterbacks, with so many falling to injury during the course of a season.

And it doesn't hurt to have them competing for playing time, either; that keeps them from getting complacent.

As much as the fans probably would prefer not to see Testaverde again, he should be kept, nurtured and given a chance to regain his job.

The guess here is that the Ravens would benefit.

He lost his job only because of an injury, remember, which isn't fair.

And he did complete 57.7 percent of his passes for 2,971 yards and 18 touchdowns while he was in there, which wasn't that shabby.

Who knows, maybe this threat would inspire him to focus better and make fewer mistakes.

And even if he didn't beat out Zeier, he'd certainly make for a solid backup.

It's not as if the Ravens can afford to dump him, anyway, what with him costing $4.3 million against the salary cap either next year or over the next two years, depending on when they made the move.

It sure sounded as if he would at least get to compete for a job next year when Marchibroda said the other day that he would lean toward the quarterback "with the tremendous amount of experience" in a training camp duel, obviously referring to Testaverde.

That sound you heard was the collective groan of the Ravens' season-ticket holders.

Having lived through an 8-20-1 record with Testaverde, they're itching for a change.

Zeier may well prove to be the answer; he is off to a solid start, that's for sure.

But it's still too soon to tell, way too soon.

Knowing that, the Ravens should keep as many options as possible open at this, the most important position of all.

Pub Date: 12/17/97

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