Holmes joining Zeier as starter No surprise on QB, but Ravens' move on tailback unexpected

September 24, 1998|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

Eric Zeier expected the news, Priest Holmes did not and the Ravens are heading into the fourth game of the regular season with yet another backfield combination on offense.

Coach Ted Marchibroda officially changed quarterbacks yesterday by benching Jim Harbaugh and elevating Zeier to his first starting role of the year. He also made a surprising move by choosing Holmes as his starting tailback against Cincinnati Sunday night.

This will mark the first start of Holmes' two-year pro career, and it sends second-year man Jay Graham to the bench after his first start of 1998, a 67-yard rushing effort on 20 carries against Jacksonville last weekend. Graham was relegated to third-team back at yesterday's practice, behind veteran Errict Rhett, who has not seen regular duty since accounting for 92 yards from scrimmage as the starter in the season opener against Pittsburgh.

Since relieving Harbaugh after he suffered a hyperextended ring finger on his throwing hand in the second quarter of the Pittsburgh game, Zeier has replaced Harbaugh in the second quarter each successive week.

Marchibroda said he wants to give Harbaugh time to heal completely, and he no longer could ignore Zeier's production: 42 for 72, 602 yards, three touchdowns, one interception, a rating of 93.6.

Zeier also impressed Marchibroda in going 2-1 as a starter at the end of last season.

"Over the course of the year, we're going to need two quarterbacks, and Eric deserves the opportunity to play. Jim was hurt. He is still not 100 percent throwing the football. Eric is," said Marchibroda, who added that the job is basically Zeier's to lose.

"We'll find out from here on in what [Zeier] can do. We have to see if he can play for 13 games. We don't know that at this time."

The Ravens (1-2) thought enough of Zeier in the off-season to retain his services by matching the two-year, $2.6 million offer Atlanta made to him as a restricted free agent. Marchibroda is eager to stretch opposing defenses more with deep passes, one of Zeier's strengths.

"I had a feeling it was going to go this way. I was mentally prepared for whatever was going to happen," said Zeier, who was drafted in the third round out of Georgia by the Cleveland Browns in 1995. "I'm a better player than I was at this time last year -- much better prepared.

"This is definitely not a time to sit back and say this is what I've been working for. My preparation doesn't change. The way I approach the game doesn't change. The best part [about starting] is getting acclimated to game speed with everyone else from the first snap. Jim is a great guy and a great quarterback. We both want to win."

Harbaugh, for whom the Ravens gave up a third-round pick in a February trade with Indianapolis, enjoyed a solid preseason, but has been ineffective since getting hurt in the season opener.

"I'm very disappointed with the way things have happened," Harbaugh said. "I pictured me playing and us being 3-0. It will tough being in the stables, but I haven't lost my confidence.

"Eric has played well, and that's where we're at. Hopefully, I'll feel better physically and then be able to give 100 percent down the road."

"I'll bet [the quarterbacks] are more relieved about this than we are," left guard Wally Williams said.

"It makes no difference to me. It doesn't change our game. We still have to go out and block. This will give Jim an opportunity to rest and help Eric prepare better."

Marchibroda's decision to shake up the tailback position by naming his third starter this month came as a mild shock to Holmes.

The Ravens signed him as a rookie free agent out of Texas last year, and have watched him blossom into a special teams force who made noticeable strides as a runner during the off-season after his rookie year.

Holmes, who averaged 5.1 yards in the preseason, opened the regular season as the team's third-down back, then basically disappeared from its offense in the next two games.

He carried once for 3 yards against the New York Jets in Week 2, then functioned mainly as a flanker in Sunday's 24-10 loss in Jacksonville. Holmes caught one pass for 3 yards, and did not carry the ball once.

"When I got the call to come upstairs [yesterday], I thought it was about some great special teams plays I've been making," Holmes said. "I was very excited. One of the things I have to do now is stay calm.

"I don't look at it as taking their jobs," added Holmes, referring to Rhett and Graham. "There are certain things the team had to do for us to get to the next level. One of the things they asked me to do was be a starter. I'll take it and I'm going forward with it. I still have expectations to be great."

"It's been on my mind for a while," said Marchibroda of his decision to start Holmes.

"Priest deserves to start. I believe he's an excellent athlete who can do the job. His work ethic is tremendous. He'll get a fair opportunity. We're not putting him in there so we can think about taking him out."

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