Rhett solid hitter in middle, but Graham can find fences

August 15, 1998|By Ken Rosenthal

Ted Marchibroda's preference for hardened veterans would seem to give Errict Rhett the edge at running back. But the Ravens' coach is equally enamored of big-play threats, which is why he's leaning toward Jay Graham.

One will start and one will come off the bench, and it probably doesn't matter what Marchibroda decides, for each could get 10 to 15 carries per game. Still, it's Graham who possesses the greater upside, Graham who excites the coaches more, Graham who will start again tonight against the New York Jets.

It's a fascinating competition, a clash of youth and experience, of opposite personalities and running styles. However it turns out, it's a step forward for the Ravens, the first genuine training-camp battle at a skill position in their three-year history.

Rhett, 27, twice gained 1,000 yards for Tampa Bay. Graham, 23, ran for 154 yards in his first career start last November. These are legit backs. Graham won't disappoint like Earnest Hunter. Rhett won't cheat the team like Bam Morris.

"Somehow, I just sort of feel that Graham will start. He gives us more dimensions," Marchibroda said this week. "I'm not afraid to put Rhett in anytime Graham gets tired. We won't lose that much."

Graham, a slashing back with breakaway speed, could help the Ravens get the lead in the first quarter. Rhett, a straight-ahead, slippery-type runner, could help them hold it in the fourth.

Then again, Rhett is such a fierce competitor, he might give the offense an immediate spark at the start of games. Graham, still largely unproven, could open the season as a change-of-pace back, then evolve into something more.

Marchibroda could play it either way, but he keeps talking up Graham as an inside-outside threat. Even in his 1,000-yard seasons, Rhett averaged only 3.6 yards per carry. Graham averaged 3.7 as a rookie last season, and his speed offers a huge advantage.

"With Jay, you've got a chance for a home run every time he touches the ball," running backs coach Al Lavan said. "The defense knows it. They know it's not a matter of saying, 'This guy will run 10 to 15 yards and then we'll make a tackle on him.'

"With this guy, if you don't get someone over there, he can go the distance. That changes the entire psychology on defense, I would think. It certainly changes the psychology on offense."

Indeed, the Ravens won't emerge as a serious playoff contender until they develop more playmakers on both sides of the ball.

Ray Lewis and Peter Boulware qualify on defense, and eventually Duane Starks might reach that level. Jermaine Lewis qualifies on offense. So did Michael Jackson two years ago. So might Patrick Johnson in time.

Then there's Graham.

"He just needs to play," Lavan said. "So much of what he's experiencing is new to him. Yet each time that Jay plays, he gets better. During the course of the game, he gets smarter. It's not so much me talking to him, but him talking to me -- what's going on, why it's going on."

Graham still must improve his pass-blocking, the deficiency in his game that made Marchibroda reluctant to use him in the one-back offense last season. After missing the final three games with an ankle injury, he also needs to prove he is durable.

He returned to Baltimore on Jan. 5 to rehabilitate the ankle, and added bulk in the Ravens' off-season program, increasing his weight from 212-215 pounds to 220-plus. Rhett, also 5 feet 11, is listed at 211 pounds.

"It was frustrating," Graham said of his inability to play last December. "I never had to deal with an injury like that before. I've had injuries, but I've always been able to come back pretty soon.

"That injury was worse than a sprained ankle. It was a bone bruise compounded by a sprain, a weakness compounded by the fact that I kept bruising it. It couldn't heal without rest. I kept pushing it and reinjuring it."

Now, he is healthy. Now, he will get his chance. He isn't fiery like Rhett, who claims there are two personalities inside of him, "Errict" and "Rhett." No, he's simply one of the most likable Ravens, a terrific mimic who keeps his teammates laughing, easy going as either "Jay" or "Graham."

Rhett enlivens a huddle, an attribute lauded by new quarterback Jim Harbaugh. But who knows how quickly he'll regain his effectiveness after playing in only nine games in '96 and carrying the ball 31 times in '97? For that matter, who knows how he would react to a backup role?

Graham brings a youthful excitement, a more dynamic talent. Lavan said he'll make big plays as he grows more decisive, gets a better feel for his blockers. Marchibroda, too, believes that Graham will only improve.

"He's bigger and faster than Rhett," Marchibroda said. "The biggest thing he needs is playing time. He hasn't been there enough yet running. His confidence level will grow with each success he has."

And if he doesn't start?

"I'd be disappointed," Graham said. "I feel like I'm at the point where I have to make plays for the team. I'm working hard to get to that level. It's very important for me to contribute at the level I should contribute at."

He knows it, everyone knows it.

It's time for Jay Graham.

Pub Date: 8/15/98

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