Ravens' performance proves too much ado about nothing

September 07, 1998|By John Steadman

Massive ballyhoo. Hype, drum-beating, flag-waving. Maybe more noise than was heard in the city by the Chesapeake than any time since Francis Scott Key was holding his ears to muffle the sound while diligently writing his immortal words as the War of 1812 went on around him. The most extensive marketing project in the history of new and old Baltimore led up to the highest of expectations. Top marks for creativity. A nonstop blitz.

The largest crowd to see a pro game in the history of Baltimore, 68,847, had gathered in a carnival-like atmosphere. Then the Ravens, with bombs bursting in air and cheers resounding, came to center stage as the climax to this unrelenting buildup. They fell flat on their posteriors. A collective pratfall of embarrassing proportions. At times there were indications vaudeville was on the rebound.

Men and women involved with the promotion had labored long and hard, leaving no dollar unturned, to create an appropriate party mood for the official opening of this showcase stadium built with $223 million of your money. It was more a civic event than a scrimmage for real against the highly respected Pittsburgh Steelers that Jack Sell, an old Pittsburgh sportswriter, used to refer to as Rooney U.

But imagine the worst of Baltimore scenarios. This was it. When the thrill of the day is John Moag, executive director of the Maryland Stadium Authority, carrying a football and running 100 yards, goal line to goal line, and looking the part of Whizzer White, then you realize all too remorsefully that this was the play of the day, even if it happened in the pre-game ceremonies.

Before Jim Harbaugh could get into his rhythm at quarterback, he was pushed off-balance after letting the ball go in a passing attempt and fell with his right hand trapped under him, suffering a chipped bone in his ring finger. A freak accident. He was in agony leaving the field and since he couldn't turn around to throw left-handed, his afternoon came to an abbreviated and painful halt.

The Steelers didn't exactly annihilate the Ravens. The Ravens were able to do that to themselves. Three times the field-goal kicker, Matt Stover, missed makeable placements in a performance that was more like Smokey Stover than the usually reliable Stover himself. There is reason to wonder if the presence his new holder, Kyle Richardson, assuming the role formerly held by Greg Montgomery, since released, didn't inadvertently play havoc with the psyche of the kicker.

In the world of kickers, there's a strange mind-set. Even the slightest alteration, or mental adjustment, such as a ball having one ounce less air than normal or turf that's too thick, has been known to bother their effectiveness. Even though they have been together through training camp, Stover may have looked down and saw a strange pair of hands about to take the snap from center and put it where X marks the spot. Three makeable field goals were missed or the Ravens would have had the Steelers in at least temporary trouble.

Any time you can force Kordell Stewart to throw, he's doing the opposition a favor. The Ravens, as poorly as they played, still had a chance to win it in the fading minutes of the last period but it wasn't to be. A gift touchdown occurred after punter Richardson got a bad snap from center. He dribbled the bouncing ball once or twice, back to the 5-yard line, providing the Steelers with a charitable score and the invitation for a seven-point margin of victory.

The Steelers caught some of the same ball-bobbling virus when Richard Huntley, touchdown-bound, got within 12 yards of the goal line after a powerful run, and, when seized from behind by Duane Starks, caused him to lose total control. Instead of a touchdown it was a touchback, the ball shooting out of his hands as if it were a squirting watermelon seed and scooting through the end zone, or the Ravens would have been closed out, 27-13.

Had the play become pivotal to the final result, the disappointed Huntley might have wanted to walk back to Pittsburgh in his cleats. Right there, the Ravens were telling each other they knew why the team had made Starks a first-round draft choice. Plays like that, which you can't practice, happen about once in the life of a franchise. Now we've seen it.

The crowd was loud, screaming at such a level that it overrode the public-address announcer. Before the end came, the spectators were departing in droves, leaving blocks of vacated purple seats. A 4-0 preseason took expectations to unrealistic levels. Now the Ravens have to come back against the New York Jets next Sunday at Giants Stadium. This is a team that was sleepwalking when the Ravens restrained themselves almost a month ago but still won, 33-0.

Could the Ravens have been too carried away with the circumstances of opening a new stadium that they allowed themselves to become too emotionally involved with what was going on around them? A possibility, but after all, this shouldn't have in any way hampered a professional performance. All was in readiness for a show to remember. It turned out to be one to forget. A clunker.

Pub Date: 9/07/98

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