1997 report card

December 23, 1997|By Mike Preston and Gary Lambrecht

Running backs

Compared to 1996, the Ravens committed more to the running back, but they never realized the backfield production they envisioned in their one-back attack. Bam Morris spent the first four games serving a league-imposed suspension for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy, during which 14-year veteran Earnest Byner filled in admirably. Morris rejoined the team and quickly became its main ground threat, although he tailed off late in the season, finishing with a 3.8-yard average. Rookie Jay Graham showed promise, especially with a 154-yard effort against Philadelphia in Week 11, but the ankle injury he suffered in overtime that day pretty much ended his season. Privately, the Ravens have questioned Graham's ability to play with pain. The Ravens never developed a complementary, two-back package, and they finished with only seven rushing touchdowns. -- C

Quarterbacks

Vinny Testaverde did not approach his Pro Bowl form of a year ago. Although he showed enough skills to throw for 2,971 yards and 18 touchdowns and performed well at times in the clutch -- his masterful fourth quarter in a 24-23, come-from-behind victory against the Giants and his last-minute, 80-yard touchdown drive to force overtime against the Jets come to mind -- Testaverde will mostly be remembered for the 15 interceptions and the costly fumbles that caused the offense to sputter, and led to his benching in favor of Eric Zeier. The Ravens' third-year backup started the final three games and looked increasingly comfortable making big plays while scrambling out of the pocket. Although he took too many sacks, Zeier showed he has a place on the roster by throwing for 855 yards, six touchdowns and no interceptions in 97 attempts over those three starts. -- C

Receivers

One of the team's biggest strengths coming out of training camp turned into one of its puzzling areas during the regular season, although the emergence of slot receiver Jermaine Lewis (648 yards) was a bright spot. Problem was, between injuries to Lewis, Michael Jackson and the inconsistent play of Derrick Alexander and the Ravens' midseason commitment to the running game -- which elicited some complaining from the pass catchers -- the receivers never found a productive rhythm. Jackson finished with 10 fewer touchdowns than a year ago, battled back and shoulder injuries and dropped too many passes. Alexander dropped so many passes (lateness for two team meetings didn't help) that he was benched briefly. Still, he rebounded to lead the team with 1,009 yards and nine touchdowns. Tight end Eric Green came back from off-season knee problems to record 65 catches for 601 yards and five touchdowns. He was even better as a blocker. -- C

Offensive linemen

The Ravens like to boast about their big offensive line, and what's not to like about left tackle Jonathan Ogden? All he did was surrender just two sacks and make the Pro Bowl in his second season, making his controversial seven-year, $15.5 million contract look pretty sensible after all. Ogden and right tackle Orlando Brown form the bookends any team would covet. The Ravens also saw right guard Jeff Blackshear become a more consistent force, while backup center Quentin Neujahr proved to be capable insurance behind Wally Williams, who missed the first six games while recovering from an Achilles' tendon injury. Free-agent acquisition Leo Goeas had an up-and-down year at left guard. He lost his starting job temporarily to second-year man Ben Cavil, before suffering a season-ending pectoral muscle injury in Week 11. This group faded late, giving up too many sacks and failing to ignite the running game. The Ravens still have to find a starting left guard. -- B-

Defensive linemen

Week after week, this was the team's most productive group. Starting with the interior line, tackles James Jones, Tony Siragusa and backup Larry Webster made the Ravens tough to run on, which was a major reason they gave up 96 fewer points than in 1996, when their defense ranked dead last. Jones was simply the team's most underrated player, combining durability with run-stuffing ability and a solid pass rush up the middle. At his healthiest, Siragusa shut off running lanes in the middle as well as Jones did. And Siragusa's injuries allowed Webster to flourish in his backup role. Left end Rob Burnett made a courageous return from a serious knee injury to give the Ravens solid production. Right end Michael McCrary played the entire season with an ailing left knee, yet still gave the Ravens the relentless, pass-rushing threat they envisioned when he signed as a free agent last spring. Late-season acquisition Keith Washington also provided some unexpected depth. -- B

Linebackers

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