Ravens pull reverse, give Rhett start Marchibroda replaces Graham at tailback for Steelers opener

Change 'for good of club'

Preseason showing figures in decision

September 03, 1998|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

After mulling over the decision for several days, Ravens coach Ted Marchibroda announced yesterday that Errict Rhett will replace Jay Graham as the starting tailback in Sunday's regular-season opener against the visiting Pittsburgh Steelers.

Marchibroda, who was sticking by Graham as late as Monday, when he twice declared the second-year player from Tennessee was still his starter, ultimately could not pass up Rhett's veteran presence, not to mention his preseason performance.

Rhett, who came on board in a trade with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in February, led the Ravens in rushing yards (203) and carries (51) while working almost exclusively with the second team. Graham, a third-round draft pick in 1997, struggled badly throughout the preseason, rushing 36 times for only 68 yards, a 1.9-yard average.

Marchibroda said he had been thinking about making the change since watching Graham rush for 2 yards on eight carries in the preseason finale against the New York Giants last Friday. He attributed part of Graham's problems to a first-team offensive line that did not perform up to par.

"The change is not being made because of what Jay didn't do. The change was made for the good of the ballclub," Marchibroda said. "I thought, with the situation that Jay has been through, it would be best to go with Rhett.

"I felt good about Jay when the preseason started. I feel good about Jay now. Jay will certainly play in this game. He could end up being the star of this game. The first game is a little bit different than the other 15. Many times it's best to go with a veteran who has been there."

The Ravens love Graham's potential. He started only three games in 1997, and he gained 154 of his 299 total yards in one game against Philadelphia. He missed most of the last five games with an ankle injury he suffered in that same game.

Graham was unavailable for comment after practice yesterday. Rhett was most available.

"I busted my butt in practice every day. It seems like somebody noticed it," Rhett said. "Hard work pays off. Nobody gave me this. I worked my butt off and earned it. But I'm going to go 110 percent whether I'm going in there first or second. It doesn't matter to me. I just go all out on every play.

"It's just been such a long time since I felt like I really earned something. That's the greatest feeling in the world, after all I've been through."

Rhett, a second-round pick out of Florida in 1994, is trying to resurrect his career. After putting together back-to-back, 1,000-yard seasons in his first two years, Rhett ran into contract trouble, then depth-chart trouble with the Buccaneers.

In 1996, he held out through the season's first seven games in an attempt to gain a new contract. The ploy failed miserably, as Rhett got no new deal and lost a year of service. Still, he returned to lead the team in rushing, despite playing in only nine games. Last year, he rode the bench behind rookie sensation Warrick Dunn, carrying just 31 times for 96 yards.

Rhett, who will make $450,000 in salary this year, will be an unrestricted free agent after this season.

"I like Jay, and part of [his problems] has been our fault, but Errict had better numbers in the preseason. You've got to give the man a shot," left tackle Jonathan Ogden said.

"I like the way [Rhett] just runs north and south. He doesn't do too much dancing in the backfield. He just tries to hit the hole. If it's not there, he makes something happen, without doing too much lateral stuff. But Jay is going to get some runs, too. He has to look at it positively. We have to go out and block for both guys."

"Jay Graham is more of a quick runner. Errict Rhett is more of a downhill runner who is going to break tackles," right guard Jeff Blackshear said. "He's a grit. He's going to go hard every single down, whether he has the ball or not. But it really doesn't matter whether they start Errict, Jay or Priest [Holmes]. It won't change our tempo."

Marchibroda also said he plans to use second-year tailback Holmes in the backfield rotation against the Steelers.

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