Ravens' hole could cave in without a win

September 26, 1998|By JOHN EISENBERG

Well, it didn't take the Ravens long to land in a thorny situation.

Just three games into a season that kicked off with raised expectations, they'll play a win-or-else game against the Bengals tomorrow night at Camden Yards.

And they'll play it with their second-string quarterback and third-string running back in the starting lineup.

Not exactly comforting.

They'll also play without their middle linebacker and defensive anchor, Ray Lewis, who has an injured elbow. Nose guard Tony Siragusa also might not play.

Thorny? Thorny.

The Ravens can't hide in this one. They have a ton at stake. They'll have trouble convincing anyone that they're improved if they can't beat a fellow AFC Central also-ran at home.

They don't have to beat Jacksonville or Pittsburgh, but they do have to beat the Bengals and Oilers at home. That's the least they need to do to prove they're better than the same, old Ravens of before.

In other words, they have to win tomorrow night, period.

If they don't, they're probably looking at a 2-6 record halfway through the season.

It's quite a moment to pair Eric Zeier and Priest Holmes in the starting backfield for the first time, as Ravens coach Ted Marchibroda has done.

For those scoring at home, that's two starting quarterbacks and three starting running backs that Marchibroda has chosen to start in the past three weeks.

He'd better find an answer and stick with it before the season slips away along with his future here.

Indecisiveness is the No. 1 killer of NFL head coaches' careers.

Not that Marchibroda is wrong to turn to Zeier, who has played well for three weeks in relief of Jim Harbaugh and clearly deserves to start.

In fact, Marchibroda is at least a week late in making this move, and maybe two weeks late.

It's not that Harbaugh is a bust. He's injured. Basically, he can't throw. So don't judge him yet. Only when he's healthy and capable of playing at his usual level will we know if trading for him was smart.

Meanwhile, Zeier is a capable relief pitcher. He doesn't have Harbaugh's track record or upside potential, but he can win games.

If Harbaugh isn't fully healthy, starting Zeier is the smart call.

Starting Holmes, a second-year player who was no factor on offense as a rookie, is a much bigger risk.

If he is so terrific, why did he pass through the entire 1997 draft before signing with the Ravens as a free agent? Why has Marchibroda never even mentioned him as a possible starter until selecting him to this week?

Sure, he has improved this season and might develop into a better back than Jay Graham or Errict Rhett. Anything is possible.

But this move smacks of desperation, and also of Marchibroda's bizarre unhappiness with Rhett.

Yes, Rhett has been slowed by a mild hamstring strain, and yes, he's a solid plodder unlikely to break games open.

But if Marchibroda wasn't going to play him, why did the Ravens trade for him in the first place?

It makes no sense to trade for a player to start at a position and then bench him with the position wide-open.

L Of such self-defeating logic are losing football teams made.

Graham obviously can't start. He isn't hitting holes hard. He isn't using the speed Marchibroda covets.

To say that Holmes also can't start isn't fair, but he's a gamble, having never started an NFL game.

Rhett clearly is the short-term answer. He practices hard and runs hard with a style suited to the sledgehammer system Marchibroda has installed. He can produce yardage in solid, professional chunks.

The Ravens need that kind of dependability as they struggle to avoid falling into a deep hole so early in the season.

The sooner Marchibroda gives Rhett the job and leaves him alone, the better off the team will be.

And the sooner Marchibroda sticks with any back for two weeks in a row instead of flip-flopping, the faster the running game will develop. (Provided the line starts blocking as it can instead of piddling around.)

What's a really scary thought? Rhett, Graham and Holmes weren't starters last year. Nor was fullback Roosevelt Potts. Zeier started only a couple of games late in the season.

Of all the players in the Ravens' backfield mix, only Harbaugh started with any consistency a year ago. And a general rule is that you start if you're good and don't start if, well, never mind. You get the drift.

Ah, but let's not get carried away. Winning cures all doubts, and if the Ravens beat the Bengals tomorrow night, they'll take a 2-2 record into their bye week with a chance to 3-2 against the Oilers at Camden Yards on Oct. 11.

At this point, with 13 games left, they have plenty of time to show the improvement of which they have boasted.

But they have to win tomorrow night to have any chance.

And they have to win with yet another reconfigured offensive backfield.

Thorny? No doubt.

Pub Date: 9/26/98

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