Hey, coach, Rhett right man for halfback job right now

August 29, 1998|By John Eisenberg

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Jay Graham made his fourth straight start in the Ravens' 14-6 exhibition victory over the Giants last night.

Time's up.

Errict Rhett, not Graham, should start at halfback when the Ravens open the regular season against the Steelers in eight days.

Rhett is more experienced, more accomplished, and had a much better preseason.

It's an obvious call, a no-brainer, but Ravens coach Ted Marchibroda said after last night's game that Graham would start against the Steelers.

Huh? Could it be that Marchibroda, the only man with a vote that counts, is also the only man who doesn't recognize Rhett's clear superiority at this point?

True, it won't matter who runs if the offensive line continues to block as poorly as it has in the past two games. The starters were even less effective last night than they were against the Eagles five days ago.

But the line is a strong unit that should come around, which means Marchibroda needs to get his most effective halfback on the field, particularly because he has committed the Ravens to a strong running game.

Marchibroda is stuck on starting Graham because he loves Graham's speed and upside possibilities, and because he knows what he'll get with Rhett: a back whose career per-carry average of 3.5 yards is hardly imposing.

But Rhett is the right man for the job right now.

In fact, Rhett is clearly the right man for the job right now.

Rhett, 27, is a proven, capable veteran who has rushed for 2,853 yards in his career and twice surpassed 1,000 yards in a season. Graham, 23, is an unproven, second-year player with 299 career rushing yards.

Rhett also was better by a decisive margin in the four-game exhibition season, not that that's the ultimate barometer. But Graham gained just 2 yards on eight carries last night to finish the exhibition season with 68 yards on 36 carries -- sorry totals. And that was with the starting line in front of him.

Rhett, meanwhile, gained 37 yards on six carries last night to finish preseason with a team-high 203 yards. He broke off right guard for 23 yards and a touchdown in the third quarter last night, deftly following his fullback's blocks. It was a veteran run, a professional run, a run that should have opened Marchibroda's eyes.

But it didn't, apparently.

Asked after the game if Graham would start, Marchibroda said, "I think so."

With all due respect, that makes no sense.

A colossal, stadium-opening game against the Steelers isn't the right time to extend an experiment and hope for the best from a young guy with potential.

It's the time to cut short all experiments, get your best players on the field and go for a win the franchise desperately needs.

Come up with an excuse, Ted, a reason to change your mind. Using Graham against the Steelers would be an ill-timed experiment, no doubt about that. Graham often looked tentative in the exhibition season, hitting holes too softly and without authority. His considerable game-breaking skills weren't evident. His longest rush was for all of 9 yards.

No, Rhett didn't exactly break games open either, although his touchdown run last night was big. Still, what he did mostly was take handoffs, head straight for his holes and steadily produce, just as he did in the two years he started in Tampa.

That's why the Ravens traded for him in the off-season, and that's why they should stick him in the starting backfield and let him run.

They need his straight-ahead, no-nonsense approach, particularly because Graham hasn't shown he deserves the starting job.

True, Rhett hasn't had a 100-yard game since December 1995, (( when the Browns were still in Cleveland. And the longest run of his career is just 35 yards.

But he's a hammer who will run hard, upfield, and between the tackles for four quarters.

He also brings a terrific, upbeat attitude to the huddle; after sitting for two years in Tampa after losing his job to a contract dispute and Warrick Dunn's arrival, he doesn't care whether he starts, or comes off the bench, or whatever. He just wants to run.

And he should.

Sure, Graham could prove better in the long haul. He has tons of potential, as he showed in his memorable 154-yard performance against the Eagles last year. His breakaway speed always will infatuate Marchibroda. Coaches fall in love with that kind of talent.

That speed is why Marchibroda named Graham the starter going into training camp, even through Graham has started only three games in his career.

That speed is also why Marchibroda has continued to stick with Graham through the exhibition season, even though he has produced little and Rhett has fared much better in relief.

But at this point, sticking with Graham is a bizarre decision. Maybe later, but not now.

Time's up.

The Ravens are staring straight ahead at their biggest game since their first game at Memorial Stadium two years ago.

They need their best halfback on the field. It's Errict Rhett. By a wide margin.

Pub Date: 8/29/98

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