Since future is now, Ravens need to turn over new Leaf

December 23, 1997|By Ken Rosenthal

The Ravens' starting quarterback next season should not be Eric Zeier or Vinny Testaverde. Nor should it be Jim Harbaugh or Jim Kelly.

Priority One should be to trade up and get Washington State junior Ryan Leaf -- if, as expected, he enters the draft.

Indianapolis is likely to select Peyton Manning No. 1. Arizona selects No. 2, but doesn't need a quarterback, and likely would trade the pick.

Ravens owner Art Modell needs to get on the phone with our old friend Bill Bidwill immediately.

This isn't about next season. This is about the next 10 years.

The Ravens probably figure they could make the playoffs if they reduced the burden on their quarterback by strengthening their running game and defense.

Well, the idea isn't to make the playoffs, it's to win the Super Bowl. And you're not going to win a Super Bowl with any of the available veteran options.

Zeier is a backup. Testaverde is a flop. Harbaugh had one good year. Kelly should stay retired.

Leaf?

He's a 6-foot-6, 238-pound specimen who set virtually every single-season passing record in the Pac-10, a conference rich in quarterback tradition. And he's a leader who guided Washington State to a record 10 victories and the Rose Bowl.

He might be the next great NFL quarterback. Or he might prove as big a bust as Heath Shuler.

The Ravens need to find out.

They could always find another veteran if the experiment failed. But they can't dismiss the chance to draft a franchise quarterback.

The Dallas Cowboys built their Super Bowl teams around Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin.

Jonathan Ogden, Peter Boulware and Ray Lewis don't play skill positions, but the addition of Leaf would create the potential for a similar nucleus.

This isn't about going 9-7 next season and losing in the first round of the playoffs. This is about securing a first-round bye in 2001 and going all the way.

The question is, do the Ravens have the patience and vision to build a Super Bowl contender? Or are they too worried about another mediocre season damaging PSL sales?

Here's a fact they might want to consider: 100 teams have played in the first round since the addition of a second wild-card team in 1978. Only three have reached the Super Bowl.

A playoff berth is a meaningful achievement, but only as a step in the process. This franchise made the playoffs with Testaverde in 1994 and is a dismal 15-32-1 since.

Coach Ted Marchibroda described Zeier and Testaverde yesterday as "two quarterbacks that can play in this league," adding that he expected both to return. But owner Art Modell said trading up for a quarterback was a "possibility."

The Ravens would need to jump from No. 10 to No. 2 to secure Leaf, but such a move is hardly unprecedented. Both Seattle and Oakland jumped eight spots in the last draft to get into the top three.

"If that's a viable option and we decide to take it, all we have to do is use that precedent," said Ravens vice president of player personnel Ozzie Newsome.

With so many teams in search of a quarterback, the Ravens probably would need to exchange at least three of their top four picks to obtain Arizona's No. 2.

Seattle traded its No. 11 overall pick and second- and fourth-round selections for Atlanta's No. 3, with the teams also exchanging third-round choices.

Oakland traded wide receiver Daryl Hobbs, its No. 10 overall pick and second- and fourth-round choices for New Orleans' No. 2 and a sixth-round selection.

Arizona wants a running back and might not be willing to fall to No. 10. San Diego picks fourth, Chicago fifth. Both teams probably would love a shot at Leaf. Indeed, there's a distinct possibility that the Ravens will strike out.

In that event, they would need to become more run-oriented on offense -- Marchibroda mentioned the need for a fullback yesterday -- and build the defense to a point where it could bail out a struggling quarterback.

Say this for Zeier -- he avoided mistakes after replacing Testaverde in the final 3 1/2 games, throwing seven touchdown passes and no interceptions. Still, he was sacked 15 times, and it's difficult to imagine him carrying the Ravens for an entire season.

Testaverde? Maybe he took too much blame for a season in which his running game was inconsistent and his receivers were either physically or mentally out of it. But he's a poor leader. And after 11 NFL seasons, he's out of excuses.

Indeed, the Ravens probably will just let him go if they get Leaf. They'll take a $4.3 million salary-cap hit if they dump Testaverde before June 1. But if they wait until after that date, they'll be charged $1.6 million in 1998 and $2.6 million in 1999.

A small price for quelling a fan insurrection, don't you think?

Baltimore fans aren't stupid. They're willing to wait the three years it would take Leaf to develop. But they don't want to be teased with false promise.

Just think -- Ravens vs. Colts in the new stadium, Marchibroda vs. his old team, Leaf vs. Manning.

It would be a fresh start at quarterback, a fresh start for the franchise. It would be a lot more promising than another season of Eric Zeier and Vinny Testaverde.

Pub Date: 12/23/97

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