Ravens' changes carry promise, risk Offense: The team's switch in backfield personnel and philosophy might be considered a welcome departure after two poor seasons, but such drastic turnover doesn't necessarily guarantee success in the NFL.

September 04, 1998|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,SUN STAFF

After 35 years in the NFL, there are few questions about football that stymie Ravens coach Ted Marchibroda, but he was puzzled when asked to name a team that made the playoffs with an entirely new backfield.

"Uh, uh, I don't know of any," Marchibroda said.

Ravens quarterback Jim Harbaugh, an 11-year veteran, was equally stumped.

"Hmmm, quarterbacks often come into a situation where everyone is new, but not like this one," Harbaugh said. "That's a good question."

It has become the biggest question heading into the 1998 season, as the Ravens embark on a new era at their $223 million stadium at Camden Yards, where they'll play host to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the season opener Sunday.

If the preseason is any indication, the Ravens have solved their most important problem. Yes, they can put enough pressure on opposing quarterbacks to cover up a suspect secondary. But they haven't come up with the other part of the chemistry equation for teams that routinely get into the playoffs.

Where is the consistent running game?

And

Is veteran Errict Rhett the answer at running back, or will second-year player Jay Graham be the man? Can fullback Roosevelt Potts' knee hold up for the entire season? How long will it take for the running backs to adjust to the offensive line?

There have been flashes of brilliance. The Ravens rushed for 197 yards in their 19-14 preseason-opening win against the Chicago Bears, then overpowered the New York Jets for 170 in exhibition No. 2, a 33-0 laugher.

But since then, the running game has gone south. True, the Ravens played their final two preseason games within a five-day span, but 143 of the team's combined 228 rushing yards came from Rhett and the second offense.

Graham? He finished the preseason with 68 yards rushing on 36 attempts and will start the season as Rhett's backup.

Marchibroda hasn't been overly concerned. He has one of the largest offensive lines in the league, led by tackles Jonathan Ogden (6 feet 8, 318 pounds) and Orlando Brown (6-7, 350).

"We'll run the football. I think we'll be all right," Marchibroda said. "I think the offensive line, more than anyone else, needs a week of preparation."

Potts said: "A lot of people don't understand that you can have the greatest running backs in the league, the biggest and most physical offensive line, but that doesn't guarantee success. We're not there yet. You've got to know what to do out there.

"Against the Eagles [a 23-6 preseason victory Aug. 24], we had one guy taking a play off here, another guy taking a play off there. We had some guys going in the wrong direction. We have to play smarter and we will."

Changes no gamble

Potts was in a similar situation with the Indianapolis Colts in 1994, his second full year as a starter. That season, Harbaugh replaced Jeff George as the starting quarterback and Marshall Faulk became the running back for Anthony Johnson. The Colts finished 8-8 under Marchibroda after a 1-3 start.

Ravens quarterbacks coach Don Strock said the Miami Dolphins underwent numerous changes in skill positions in 1983, when the club drafted quarterback Dan Marino and started him with first-year receiver Mark Duper. Wide receiver Mark Clayton was also a rookie in 1983, when the Dolphins went 12-4.

The Ravens say they have an advantage over other teams that have made such drastic changes.

"We don't think this is a gamble. With the exception of Errict coming from Tampa Bay, we have past experiences with the other players," Strock said. "Jay may have limited experience, but he played, even started, for us last year. Rosy's only problem is that he basically hasn't played in two years. He has a few glitches to overcome, but basically he knows the system.

"Ted coached Jim in Indianapolis, so they have a relationship. These guys are young veterans, not rookies. The only person going through a real learning process where everything is entirely new is Errict."

Rhett's problem learning the offense may have been the only thing that delayed his overtaking Graham as the starter, because Rhett certainly was more impressive in the preseason.

Graham has more acceleration, speed and the ability to break off a big run, but Rhett makes better and quicker decisions and runs a lot harder. There are times, though, when Rhett aligns himself wrong and has to get last-second hand adjustments from Potts or reserve fullback Kenyon Cotton.

According to most of the offensive players, the Ravens' system isn't hard to learn, but it has more numbers involved in the terminology than other team's systems. Harbaugh said Marchibroda has given him ample time to digest the offense.

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