Playing time controversies? That's good news for Ravens

September 14, 1998|By Ken Rosenthal

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- For a winning locker room, not everyone had reason to be jubilant.

Quarterback Jim Harbaugh iced his throbbing right elbow and ring finger, his starting job suddenly in jeopardy.

Kicker Matt Stover reacted defiantly upon learning that coach Ted Marchibroda criticized him for a missed field-goal attempt.

Running back Errict Rhett, normally the team's most animated player, was notably subdued.

The Ravens finally arrived yesterday, and not simply because they won a road game against the arrogant Bill Parcells and his overrated New York Jets.

No, they arrived because they created potential controversies over playing time, forcing several important decisions entering Sunday's game at Jacksonville.

They've got choices now -- Eric Zeier instead of Harbaugh, Jay Graham instead of Rhett, free agent Cary Blanchard instead of Stover.

They've also got a coach in the final year of his contract, a coach more than willing to make changes and scream at his players when appropriate.

Ask Stover, who heard it from Testy Ted after missing a 44-yard field-goal attempt with the Ravens leading 17-10.

Or ask special-teams ace Bennie Thompson, who got his own earful from the coach after getting penalized for a personal foul in the fourth quarter.

Marchibroda needs to stick with Zeier, alternate Rhett and Graham and request that the front office sign Blanchard immediately.

The Ravens might not be the elite team that owner Art Modell promised, but they sure are getting interesting.

The stakes are higher. The competition for jobs is more intense. And Marchibroda no longer has to worry about hurting his starting quarterback's feelings.

Harbaugh can handle being benched. Besides, Marchibroda has easy out if he names Zeier to start against Jacksonville -- Harbaugh's injuries.

When healthy, Harbaugh offers more intangibles than Zeier, and better scrambling ability. But Zeier clearly has a better arm, and who can deny his progress?

In six games since replacing Vinny Testaverde in Jacksonville last Nov. 30, Zeier has completed more than 60 percent of his passes, throwing for 1,355 yards, nine touchdowns and no interceptions.

He entered yesterday's game with 3: 00 left in the second quarter and the Ravens on their own 1-yard line. All he did was complete a 39-yard pass on his first play, and lead a 99-yard touchdown drive to give the Ravens a 14-7 halftime lead.

Marchibroda said the pass to Michael Jackson down the left sideline might have been the turning point of the season. Jackson marveled at Zeier's confidence on the play.

"He said, 'Take your time beating him, I'm going to put it out there,' " Jackson said. "I'm excited when a quarterback says something like that."

Could Harbaugh have made that pass? Not in the condition he's in right now. He bobbled two snaps and threw two poor passes, and conceded that his injuries affected his play.

Zeier, meanwhile, completed 13 of 20 passes for 173 yards despite a bruised right calf. The Ravens scored only one offensive touchdown, but might have produced more second-half points if not for conservative play-calling, Stover's miss and Roosevelt Potts' fumble in Jets territory.

Harbaugh said all the right things afterward, and he should reclaim his job once he is healthy.

What if Zeier is too hot to remove at that point?

The Ravens should have such problems.

Frankly, their biggest concern is at running back. Rhett looked slow, rushing five times for only 12 yards before Marchibroda pulled him. Graham had his moments, but his results weren't much better -- 13 carries for 31 yards.

Graham seemed ebullient afterward, joking that he had to shake off the "cobwebs" after failing to play against Pittsburgh in the season opener. Rhett, on the other hand, appeared visibly disturbed over getting benched.

"I was kind of bothered a little bit. I didn't know why," said Rhett, who returned for the Ravens' final series in the fourth quarter and broke a 46-yard run. "But everything is for a reason."

Who will start against Jacksonville? It doesn't matter. Opponents are putting seven and eight men in the box, knowing the Ravens are inclined to run out of their two-back offense. The solution is more play-action, more downfield passing on first down.

In any case, Marchibroda seems confident that the Ravens will get their running game untracked. He no longer can express such confidence in Stover, who has missed nine of his last 12 field-goal attempts, dating to last season.

Stover converted a 29-yard attempt to give the Ravens a 17-7 lead in the third quarter, but his fourth-quarter miss could have proven costly.

"I don't mind Matt missing a field goal if he boots it through," Marchibroda said. "I thought he was hesitant on this one, and I told him that."

Stover bristled at Marchibroda's remark.

"I didn't hesitate. I hit it good. It just went off to the right," he said.

Stover cited "extenuating circumstances," but the snaps and holds were fine. He declined to elaborate, saying, "It's on me right now. You can write that. Stover missed it wide right. No excuses."

No excuses, and to quote the title of a book about a certain New York football coach, "No medals for trying."

The Ravens are past that now.

Play Zeier. Use the best running back. Sign a new kicker.

Just win, baby.

Pub Date: 9/14/98

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