With Harbaugh, Ravens opt for steady over spectacular New passer makes impact with leadership skills and ability to improvise


September 04, 1998|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

When the Ravens traded for quarterback Jim Harbaugh in February, they knew they were not getting an awesome physical specimen with arm strength that would remind anyone of Dan Marino or John Elway.

The Ravens already had seen enough of a similar specimen: Vinny Testaverde. During two up-and-down years, Testaverde amazed and hurt the Ravens, often by canceling out great plays with disastrous decisions.

In Harbaugh, the Ravens are banking on leadership and stability at the game's most critical position. They also are banking on his track record. In his 11 seasons, Harbaugh has taken his teams to the playoffs six times.

During the preseason, Harbaugh gave fans a glimpse of his talent, as a passer and a runner. In the equivalent of two preseason games, Harbaugh threw for 320 yards and a touchdown with two interceptions, although one resulted after a carom off an official's head. Harbaugh also flashed his running ability impressively, rushing nine times for 81 yards.

"We're happy with Jim. What you saw of Jim in the preseason is what you're going to get in the regular season," coach Ted Marchibroda said. "He's going to run with the football at times. Other times, he's going to get the ball in the air and get the job done. Either way, he's a winner."

The Ravens would like to see Harbaugh stay put in the pocket more, and with a much better offensive line protecting him -- led by All-Pro left tackle Jonathan Ogden -- than the poor group he left behind in Indianapolis, he probably will stay put more often.

Quarterbacks coach Don Strock is adjusting to Harbaugh's daredevil, improvisational ways.

"Jim is a guy who plays by the seat of his pants more than most guys," Strock said. "There are many times when that's OK, and there are times when you don't want to see it. But you don't want to hold him back."

As good as the Ravens feel about Harbaugh, they feel equally good about the depth at the position, because of the emergence of fourth-year backup Eric Zeier.

After riding the bench behind Testaverde for nearly two seasons in Baltimore, barely getting a chance to show his talent, Zeier replaced an injured Testaverde in the Ravens' 13th game last season and led them to a near-comeback win over the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Zeier then started the final three games, going 2-1, and finished the season with a quarterback rating of 101.1. He did not throw an interception in his final 115 attempts and threw seven touchdown passes over the last four games.

"I always knew I could play. I didn't know if I could win," Zeier said. "Coming into this season with a lot of confidence makes a big difference."

Second-year man Wally Richardson rounds out the rotation as the No. 3 quarterback. Richardson, who did not attempt a pass in his rookie season, had an unsuccessful trip to NFL Europe last spring, but did appear in the last two preseason games this year.

Scouting report

Strengths: Jim Harbaugh plays a heady, low-mistake brand of football, which is what the Ravens need after two years of Vinny Testaverde. Eric Zeier brings a home run arm off the bench.

Weaknesses: Harbaugh is not blessed with an arm that can produce points quickly and consistently with the deep ball. He is depending on a good running game as much as anyone.

Skinny: If they intend to make the playoffs, the Ravens need to establish leads early, instead of relying too much on Harbaugh to bring them from behind.

Preseason grade: B. Harbaugh showed impressive mobility and leadership, and his skill at avoiding the key mistake should settle the offense.

Pub Date: 9/04/98

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