New ending a beginning for Ravens

August 04, 1998|By John Eisenberg

The Ravens talk often of a new beginning as they embark on their third season, but a legacy of old, bad endings trails them like a persistent child.

A year ago, they failed to win five games in which they held a second-half lead.

They're 3-9-1 since moving from Cleveland in games decided by three or fewer points.

Finding ways to lose is a characteristic that has marked them more than any other.

Have they put all that behind them? They'd love to think so as they strive to reinvent themselves in workouts at Western Maryland College, but the reality is they can't hone those skills at training camp.

Only when the 1998 season begins will anyone know if they finally have outgrown their deadly habit of giving up leads and losing close games.

In other words, only when they prove themselves steadier in the clutch can they really boast of a new beginning.

"We've had opportunities [before] to make the [game-winning] plays on offense, defense and special teams, and we haven't made them," Ravens coach Ted Marchibroda said. "We have to make those plays this year. That's the next step for us."

It's a huge step the Ravens think they can make mostly because of their new quarterback, Jim Harbaugh, who has led a dozen fourth-quarter comebacks in his 11-year career while building a reputation for not giving away games.

Harbaugh's predecessor, Vinny Testaverde, was his opposite in that regard, a quarterback with a knack for making untimely mistakes.

Testaverde did engineer two strong, late drives last year, one to beat the Giants and another to tie the Jets and force overtime, so it's not fair to say he was always wobbly in the clutch. And it's a cop-out to blame prior ills on a player who is no longer around to defend himself. (Testaverde signed with the Jets after the Ravens let him go.)

But it's fair to say Testaverde was jettisoned largely because some of his teammates had lost faith in him by the end of last season. They had their reasons. More often than not, he didn't come through when big plays were needed.

A change in those fortunes, a seed of clutch play that plants and grows, is what the Ravens want most from Harbaugh. Asked if the quarterback had "a lot to do with" a team's late-game success or failure, Marchibroda said, "A lot of it, sure, he really does."

Harbaugh, 34, said he was "not that familiar" with the Ravens' history of losing close games, but he surely knows why he is here.

"All I can say is I look forward to those situations," he said, "and I don't get nervous, because I found I don't play well when I get nervous."

He has already established himself as a more vocal leader than Testaverde, who was reserved, but again, what the Ravens want from him isn't honed in camp.

"A lot of it is done through example, in games," Harbaugh said. "You can make glib comments, but what you really need to do is perform at the right time. There are a lot of close games in the NFL. You have to win them in the end."

He said he was pleased to shoulder that burden for the Ravens -- "I'm comfortable and confident in the leadership position," he said -- but it's ludicrous to suggest he'll always make the difference either way. The Ravens' defense was just as giving as Testaverde last year; opponents drove to key scores late in five games. Firmer play on that side of the ball is also needed and hardly assured, given the many question marks in the secondary.

"I just don't think we were good enough overall at that time to win those games," Marchibroda said. "We probably should have won some, yes. But I don't think we quite had the talent to win many of those close games. I think when we put ourselves in that position from now on, we'll win those games. We have more veterans and fewer rookie starters. I really feel we'll will those [close] games. "

But Marchibroda, with all his experience, knows that feeling optimistic in August is a lot easier than getting results when you're on the road in November and December and the season comes down to a few plays late in a few games.

The Ravens, until now, have made a habit of faltering in those situations.

Whether they can kick that habit is the issue on which their season will turn.

A new beginning? Let's wait and see.

So close, so far

The Ravens have lost their share of close games over the past two seasons, especially games that went down to the wire (* -- indicates overtime):

Ravens' record in games decided by 7 points or fewer: 7-12-1

Ravens' record in games decided by 3 points or fewer: 3-9-1

Date -- 10/27/96

Score -- Ravens 37, Rams 31*

Skinny -- Stover missed 32-yard field goal with : 04 remaining in regulation

Date -- 11/3/96

Score -- Bengals 24, Ravens 21

Skinny -- Ravens led 21-3 at half; Pelfrey hit 32-yard FG as time expired

Date -- 11/10/96

Score -- Jaguars 30, Ravens 27

Skinny -- Ravens led 17-3 at half; Brunell 1-yard TD run with 1: 50 left

Date -- 11/24/96

Score -- Jaguars 28, Ravens 25*

Skinny -- Ravens led 25-10 after 3 quarters; Hollis hit 34-yard FG in overtime

Date -- 12/8/96

Score -- Bengals 21, Ravens 14

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