Ravens shift, drive away from risk

September 03, 1998|By KEN ROSENTHAL

It was the first thought that came to Ted Marchibroda's mind after watching Jay Graham struggle in the Ravens' final preseason game.

"If this continues in the opener," the coach said to himself, "I'll have to pull the hook out early."

Imagine the scene:

Graham faltering in the first game at the new stadium. The sellout crowd chanting, "We want Rhett!" The Ravens falling behind 10-0.

Well, it's not going to happen -- at least not the first two parts.

The entire town knew that Errict Rhett deserved to start at halfback, and Marchibroda finally called the necessary audible yesterday, announcing that the veteran would replace Graham against Pittsburgh on Sunday.

In his 12 years as a head coach, Marchibroda could not recall making such an important lineup change four days before a season opener.

Better late than never, Ted.

Starting Graham would have been an enormous risk, and for a coach in the final year of his contract, perhaps even professional suicide.

This is what training camp is all about, right?

Two players compete for a job.

The better man wins.

"It's just been a long time since I feel like I really earned something," said Rhett, who made only seven starts the past two seasons with Tampa Bay.

"I busted my butt in practice every day. It feels good to say, 'Here's something that I earned.' It seems like somebody noticed it."

Marchibroda couldn't help but notice -- Rhett's play behind the second-team offensive line was far superior to Graham's play behind the first unit.

Staying with Graham would have been like staying with the Russian ruble. But to hear Marchibroda tell it, the blame still belongs to the first-team line.

"I don't feel the switch is all Jay's fault or a great portion of it is Jay's fault," Marchibroda said. "I felt good about Jay when the preseason started. I feel good about Jay now."

Running backs coach Al Lavan went even further.

"I've said it before and I'll say it again: Jay ran very well during the preseason," Lavan said. "I'm just as convinced that had Jay ** been running in the same situations that Errict was running in, he would have had as many or more yards."

To Lavan, the question is one of style. Graham is more of a herky-jerky runner, making him appear less decisive. Rhett is more of a slasher, but that doesn't always guarantee he will get better results.

Still, Marchibroda conceded that it's preferable to start the more experienced player in a high-pressure opener, and further put the squeeze on Graham by saying that the emerging Priest Holmes also would get playing time on Sunday.

The Ravens averaged only 2.8 yards per carry in their two losses to Pittsburgh last season. The Steelers had the NFL's top-ranked defense against the rush. Establishing a running game will be difficult, no matter who plays.

But Rhett will fight for the tough yards.

The Ravens can't win unless they control the ball and keep Kordell Stewart, Jerome Bettis and Co. off the field. They've got a better chance to do that with Jim Harbaugh at quarterback, running their new two-back offense.

Harbaugh will make fewer mistakes than Vinny Testaverde, who threw five interceptions against the Steelers last season. Rhett will hit the holes harder than Graham.

"Hopefully, we'll see with Errict no hesitation, and also see our offensive line get off to a good start," assistant running backs coach Earnest Byner said.

The line had better get off to a good start, or else they'll hear about it from Rhett, who claims to have emerged from his mother's womb ready to play football.

"Forget that bottle," he told his mama. "Gimme the ball!"

And a true baby boomer was born.

"I'm fired up if I don't even play," Rhett said. "I'm used to this role. I'm used to being the leader of my team. I'm a leader vocally. I'm a leader mentally, on and off the field."

Can he play for the Orioles, too?

The coaches talked all preseason about building Graham's confidence, praised the second-year back even as he averaged only 1.9 yards per carry.

It was a noble effort, for Graham remains the more dangerous breakaway threat, and still could be the star of Sunday's game, in Marchibroda's opinion.

But rather than gain confidence, he might have lost it.

"That's probably one thing that Errict would have over Jay," Byner said. "He's been more successful during the preseason.

"Jay hasn't really struggled with his running. He's struggled because he hasn't been able to get going as well as Errict. It still lends to questioning. Whatever the reason is, you question whether you're doing the right thing.

"Success breeds confidence. Errict has had success."

Graham was unavailable for comment.

"The guy who doesn't get the nod is in a funk four, five days or longer," Lavan said. "I did say to Jay that he didn't lose the job. The key thing for Jay is his response to the situation.

"He'll eventually come out of it, the hurt and disappointment and pain of not starting. It just takes time. He should be mad at everybody. At the same time, he's got to channel it in the proper direction, which I think he will."

Rhett said he would have accepted a backup role, given his best in either situation. But as left tackle Jonathan Ogden put it: "You've got to give the man a shot."

"If a person earns something, give it to him," Rhett said. "If I don't earn it, don't give it to me. I want to earn everything I get. I don't want nothing handed to me."

He earned it. He got it.

Better late than never, Ted.

Pub Date: 9/03/98

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