Zeier keeps fire inside Ravens: With a new $2.6 million contract and confidence from last year's finish, backup quarterback Eric Zeier patiently waits for his chance to show what he can do.

July 25, 1998|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

It has become a knee jerk reflex with Eric Zeier. Ask the Ravens' veteran backup quarterback to talk about himself, and he winces.

Ask him to reflect on that exhilarating December last season, when Zeier proved to himself, the Ravens and the rest of the NFL that, yes, he could play in this league. Zeier smiles with self-deprecation, then showers his coaches, linemen, running backs and receivers with compliments.

Ask him what it's like to go from an unknown commodity to a sought-after free agent -- a process that transformed Zeier from a low-paid passer into an instant millionaire. He acknowledges the benefits of financial security, then dismisses money as a distraction to a career that should always be about winning football games.

Zeier wants everyone to know that dollars and celebrity will not change the fiery, level-headed young man who rewrote the Southeast Conference record books as a star quarterback at Georgia, then tasted heaps of humility as a pro while riding the bench as a backup.

Then, suddenly, Zeier drops his guard and lets his swagger show. He is reminded of the career-defining moments he etched late in 1997, after replacing the now-departed and much-maligned Vinny Testaverde. He is reminded of the 2-1 record he posted as a starter, of the seven touchdowns he threw last year, of the way he quickly won over Baltimore fans with his ability to create big plays and control mistakes.

"I always knew I could play. I didn't know if I could win," said Zeier, whose only interception came on his first pass in a midseason game in Pittsburgh. He did not throw another in his final 115 attempts.

"Now, knowing that I can win, that makes a big difference. I can make every throw that has to be made at this level. I bring `D leadership and I don't make a lot of mistakes. Intangibles make the difference between whether you're going to be a successful quarterback, or you're just going to be a guy with a lot of tools who can't get the job done.

"And when you start thinking about all the external things and personal stuff, that's when you get into trouble. It's all about putting your team in a position to win games."

As Zeier enters his fourth season, having signed a two-year, $2.6 million contract -- an offer originally made by Atlanta that the Ravens matched to retain their restricted free agent -- Zeier prepares for another year of sitting and watching. Jim Harbaugh is the new top gun in town, the guy with the playoff experience and savvy who is here to pull the Ravens into playoff contention.

And Zeier, the young gun with the best arm, is ready to assume the role of understudy with his trademark enthusiasm. The chemistry that began when Harbaugh came here in a February trade with Indianapolis is in full development.

"Eric is a very competitive, smart guy. I had a sense that he was a good teammate and a no-nonsense guy the first time I met

him," Harbaugh said. "We're both in each other's corner. I'm not out there hoping he botches a snap or throws an interception, and I know he's happy for my success.

"The bottom line is we're out there to make each other better. That's what will make the Ravens a better team."

Looking back, Zeier said he thinks backing up Testaverde for three seasons, starting with 1995 in Cleveland, frustrated him early but taught him valuable lessons he has recognized recently.

"I learned how to keep in shape and stay mentally sharp during the week, how to make every rep count in practice, how to work on the little things," Zeier said. "That's tough to do when you don't get a chance to play."

Zeier's chances have come in up-and-down fashion. As a rookie, he replaced Testaverde in Cleveland by starting four games with mixed results. He won his first start by throwing for 310 yards, then inexperience bit him during three straight, mistake-prone losses.

The next year, the Browns moved to Baltimore, and Zeier's opportunities ceased. Except for playing one half in a loss to San Francisco, where he replaced an injured Testaverde, Zeier's live action consisted of preseason games.

Having a quarterbacks coach like Don Strock around eased Zeier's psyche. Strock, after all, turned the job of backup quarterback into an art form during a 17-year career.

"Eric came from Georgia, where he threw like 80 times a game, into this [situation]," Strock said. "It was tough on him. We talked about that a lot, but I don't think he ever lacked confidence. He's got great football instincts and big-play capabilities, as we all found out."

Zeier's maturity was evident after he replaced an injured Testaverde against Jacksonville last Nov. 30, and nearly led the Ravens to a fourth-quarter, come-from-behind victory. After he was named the starter three days later, Zeier responded with big play after big play, and the Ravens had two straight victories. His 92-yard completion to Derrick Alexander in a 21-19 win over Tennessee was the longest pass play in the league last year.

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