Ravens look like seers on Zeier XTC

September 13, 1998|By JOHN EISENBERG

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- At the time, it made little sense: Why would the Ravens trade for Jim Harbaugh, relegating Eric Zeier to the bench, and then sign Zeier to a two-year contract worth $2.6 million?

Why would they spend precious salary cap money on a guy they had just layered over?

Well, now we know why. Zeier played in the Ravens' season opener against the Steelers last week, and he might play again today against the Jets at the Meadowlands, depending on Harbaugh's sore elbow and injured finger.

Zeier might end up playing a lot this season, more than anyone expected.

In other words, the Ravens weren't wrong to invest real money in their backup quarterback. You could even argue that it was one of their shrewdest moves.

With the way NFL starting quarterbacks dropped all over the place last week, and with Harbaugh, 34, in the latter stages of a career that has included numerous injuries, Zeier, 26, might have a more important role than anyone expected this season.

He could even end up with a shot at the No. 1 job at some point, although the Ravens obviously prefer Harbaugh and won't change their minds anytime soon.

Anyway, the point is that a pricey backup quarterback is a necessity now more than a luxury. Carrying on without one is like driving a car without insurance.

With defensive players bigger, faster and stronger than ever, and with defensive coordinators emphasizing creative, new ways to blitz and crunch quarterbacks, starting quarterbacks are on the verge of needing help from the rules committee to keep from getting hurt all the time.

Eight starters around the league, including Harbaugh, were knocked out of their season openers last week. It was a frightening flurry of sprains, bruises, breaks and tears.

And considering the tawdry collection of backups that came on in relief, Zeier is nothing if not an asset for the Ravens.

Rich Gannon? Dave Krieg? Doug Flutie? Danny Wuerffel? Steve Walsh? Zeier has more upside potential than any of them.

His merits as a permanent starter remain debatable, but he has thrown more than 300 pro passes, so he's no neophyte, and he also has shown he can run a team capably, generate support in the huddle and win. You can't ask for much more from your backup.

The Ravens could do a lot worse, let's put it that way.

"What I bring to the table," Zeier said, "is always being prepared and mentally ready to come in. Every [NFL] quarterback has the physical ability to make the throws. But being mentally ready is a big part of being successful."

How does he prepare himself mentally when he has no idea if he'll play?

"I prepare as if I'm going to start, regardless of the circumstances," he said. "I tell myself that I'm going to play, and not only that, I'm going to play early in the game. That's how I train my mind."

That approach came in handy last Sunday when Harbaugh went out with an injured finger in the second quarter. Zeier finished the game, completing 16 of 27 passes for 240 yards and one touchdown in a 20-13 loss.

The Redskins' Trent Green had a similar day in a 31-24 loss to the Giants and kick-started a quarterback controversy. He might take Gus Frerotte's job.

Zeier, meanwhile, is stuck in the same position, playing only if Harbaugh can't. And that's OK with him, it seems.

"I understand the position I'm in [behind Harbaugh], and I accept it," Zeier said.

Not that he's content, mind you. After going 2-1 as a starter for the Ravens at the end of last season, he'd obviously love to play.

"You'd love to take the snaps, of course," he said. "You're not a competitor if you don't feel that way."

But he's no boat rocker. In fact, he's the opposite. Ask if he sees each chance to play as a chance to prove himself as a potential No. 1, and he smiles and shakes his head.

"Obviously, that's how people are going to look at it, and I understand that," he said. "But that's not how I view it. If [getting to play] leads to something down the road, great. But my mind isn't on that. My mind [when he plays] is on my job. To be honest, whether I start or come off the bench doesn't matter."

It matters to the Ravens. If they'd believed in Zeier as a starter at the end of last season, they never would have traded for Harbaugh.

And let's face it, there are reasons why Harbaugh has had a better career. He doesn't throw better than Zeier at this point, but his reads are somewhat faster and he is more dependable overall.

Still, the Ravens showed confidence in Zeier when they agreed to give him $2.6 million. At the very least, they felt he could come off the bench and pitch.

L And, as the saying goes, you can never have enough pitching.

Pub Date: 9/13/98

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