On closer look, Ravens will win for losing

December 22, 1997|By JOHN EISENBERG

CINCINNATI -- The Ravens recorded the greatest defeat in their history yesterday at Cinergy Field.

Their 16-14 loss to the Bengals was so beneficial in so many ways that you almost expected the players to douse coach Ted Marchibroda with a Gatorade bath as the final seconds ticked off the clock.

With losses this profitable, who needs wins?

It may have seemed like a "bah, humbug" end to the season -- another close loss, blah, blah -- but it was actually a holiday gift to the Ravens' fans: a defeat that smelled as sweet as a rose, unlike the Ravens' 20 prior defeats, most of which smelled about as sweet as a spoiled piece of fish.

Sure, a victory yesterday would have enabled the Ravens to finish their second season with an encouraging three-game winning streak, but, well, who cares about that?

Those good vibes wouldn't have lasted one minute beyond next year's first frustrating defeat.

Instead, there was yesterday's "loss" with byproducts that will be far more lasting and helpful.

You almost need more than one hand to count the gains.

For starters, the loss dumped the Ravens into last place in the AFC Central, which means they'll have an easier schedule next season. (The higher you finish, the tougher your schedule the next year.) The Ravens could have finished in third (oy) with a win yesterday and a victory by the Steelers over the Oilers, but the Steelers took a snooze and the Ravens fell to last.

Of course, they also finished last in 1996, and having the easier schedule didn't seem to help them much this year, did it? They went 3-8-1 after September, to finish at 6-9-1.

But the reality was they weren't good enough to take advantage of such a break this year, and they might be good enough next year if they have another strong draft and plug in a few key additions.

If they wind up contending for the playoffs, they'll give thanks every day for yesterday's loss.

A third-place schedule would have been far tougher.

The fifth-place schedule also means that the Colts will come to town for a game at the new stadium at Camden Yards, resulting in an epic, citywide emotional meltdown. How much fun will that be? Hey, let's just start the hype right now. Who wants to volunteer to deliver the bogus room service order of 50 hamburgers to Jimmy Irsay's hotel room?

Remember, Baltimore's Dream Game never would have landed on the schedule if the Ravens had come back to win yesterday, instead of finding another way to lose.

Yes, it's kind of a backdoor way to give the fans what they want, but, hey, it got the job done.

The loss also meant that the Ravens wouldn't fall any lower in next spring's draft, as they had done with those two wins over Seattle and Tennessee in the prior two weeks. Enough of that stuff. The wins were nice, but draft slots are life and death, particularly for a team that needs help in a lot of places.

As much as they wanted to win yesterday, the members of the Ravens' front office probably weren't that upset when a close late-game call went against them.

They're going to spend hours in the coming months deliberating about what to do with their first-round pick, with the options including trading up to try to get Peyton Manning or Ryan Leaf.

In other words, they need a first-round pick that's as valuable as possible. Yesterday's loss probably saved them three or four slots. Every little bit helps.

The loss also included just the right amount of uncertainty at quarterback, where Eric Zeier played reasonably well, but just that.

A third straight strong performance by Zeier might have convinced the Ravens that they were set at quarterback with Zeier and Vinny Testaverde -- a dangerous concept, to say the least.

Zeier proved a lot in his three-game outing, but he still looked tentative at times yesterday, particularly early in the game.

"If there's a trend, it's that he starts slow and comes on," Marchibroda said.

It's just not clear yet whether Zeier is ready to become a full-time starter, which means the Ravens probably need to think hard about acquiring a capable quarterback to throw into their mix. Jim Harbaugh is one of several who could be available.

And yet, as much as yesterday's loss showed the Ravens where they need help -- quarterback, secondary, running back -- it also was a hard-fought loss that allowed the players to end the season with a positive attitude.

Even though they didn't begin to play better until they were out of playoff contention, they did play better down the stretch.

"This was a good test today, playing a hot team on the road, and I think we passed the test," Marchibroda said. "We played a number of young players, and we competed hard. I think, finally, the players are beginning to believe they're a good team."

True enough, it seemed.

"We're OK now, and we're going to be good pretty soon," said defensive end Michael McCrary. "We played with heart and enthusiasm down the stretch, which is encouraging. With so many young players developing right in front of you, you can't help but feel optimistic."

What more could a team want from a loss?

The Ravens wound up with an easier schedule, a dream home game, a better draft pick -- and still, an upbeat ending to their season.

Who said that defeat doesn't know perfection?

Pub Date: 12/22/97

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