In PC move, Harbaugh wins Sunday vote

September 18, 1998|By Ken Rosenthal

It's difficult to get too upset with Ravens coach Ted Marchibroda starting Jim Harbaugh at quarterback. If Harbaugh struggles at Jacksonville, Marchibroda can pull him as quickly as he did last week, and insert Eric Zeier.

At least on the surface, the coach's decision appears clean, safe, almost predictable. He's going with the veteran. He's going with the incumbent. He's going with the player the Ravens acquired for a third-round draft pick last winter.

Controversy avoided.

But maybe not for long.

An equally compelling case can be made for starting Zeier, especially against this opponent, especially with the condition of Harbaugh's right ring finger uncertain.

Marchibroda said that Harbaugh threw better in practice yesterday than he has in a week, but that doesn't settle the issue. "What scares you is the type of injury he has," the coach conceded. "He can hurt the thing at any time."

Zeier's calf muscle is less of a question, so why not start him with the idea of giving Harbaugh extra time to heal? Marchibroda could have justified the move without embarrassing Harbaugh, citing the quarterback's fickle finger.

But he wants the veteran.

He always wants the veteran.

And he has yet to give any indication that he believes Zeier should be the Ravens' No. 1 quarterback in the future, leaving the team unsettled at its most important position.

If Marchibroda won't start Zeier now, when will he start him?

Zeier owns the third-highest quarterback rating in the AFC. He ranks first in fourth-quarter passing. He hasn't thrown an interception in 162 attempts.

By any definition, he's a hot quarterback.

And the Ravens have thrown on Jacksonville in the past.

Michael Jackson can't wait to face the Jaguars -- he has averaged 97.2 yards per game receiving against them, with three touchdowns in five games. Jermaine Lewis has scored three times on just seven catches, one a 42-yard touchdown.

Even with the switch to a two-back offense, Jackson and Lewis need to see the ball more often -- they combined for eight receptions against Pittsburgh, but only two against the Jets. In a game of this magnitude, the Ravens need to air it out, use their top weapons.

They've averaged 263.8 yards passing in their four losses to Jacksonville. Zeier throws better than even a healthy Harbaugh. The Jaguars' pass rush might not be as fierce with three starting defensive linemen injured.

Still, Marchibroda is going with Harbaugh.

"I haven't seen many people throw downfield on 'em," the coach said. "They talk about their corners not being that fast. Yet, we've watched four games, and I haven't seen anyone beat those corners with regularity. It's more perception."

If that's indeed the case, Harbaugh's positives -- his scrambling ability, veteran composure and big-game experience -- might prove even more valuable than Zeier's arm strength against the Jaguars.

After two games, the Ravens are tied for the NFL lead with a plus-five turnover ratio. But with Vinny Testaverde at quarterback, they committed seven turnovers in four losses to Jacksonville, failing to keep Mark Brunell and Co. off the field.

Think back to why the Ravens acquired Harbaugh -- to make big plays in the fourth quarter. Now think back to their four nail-biting losses to the Jaguars -- the three blown fourth-quarter leads, the bungled two-point conversion when Zeier tripped over Jonathan Ogden's leg.

Zeier led two fourth-quarter touchdown drives in a 29-27 loss at Jacksonville last Nov. 30, but failed to take a deep enough drop on the conversion that would have tied the score with 1: 10 left. Harbaugh figures to avoid those mistakes. Of course, he has yet to make it to halftime, much less the fourth quarter.

Whatever, Marchibroda apparently views Harbaugh as less of a risk. Zeier's streak without an interception is somewhat deceiving -- he occasionally makes ill-advised throws. The Ravens also might fear that as a starter, he would experience added pressure playing close to home in Georgia.

That shouldn't enter their thought process.

Zeier was a Parade All-American at Marietta (Ga.) H.S., and set 18 Southeastern Conference records at the University of Georgia. Why should anyone expect him to come unhinged playing in Jacksonville? He's a legend in his home state precisely because of his grace under pressure. He's second only to Peyton Manning for the all-time lowest NCAA interception percentage.

The bottom line is, Marchibroda will look awfully foolish if Harbaugh is less than 100 percent, and again throws poorly. An early interception or two, and the Ravens could fall behind on the road, in a stadium that has been their house of horrors. By the time Marchibroda turns to Zeier, it might be too late.

The coach took the easy way out, and probably the fairest way, considering that starters aren't supposed to lose their jobs because of injuries. Zeier is a team player; he isn't going to complain. But this time, the good soldier might be the best soldier. Not Captain Comeback, but a strong-armed reserve.

Pub Date: 9/18/98

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