Time is near for Ravens to gamble on QB

November 15, 1998|By JOHN EISENBERG

SAN DIEGO -- The San Diego Chargers probably ar beginning to wish for a do-over on their decision to stake their future to rookie quarterback Ryan Leaf, who has had problems on and off the field and will watch today's game against the Ravens from the bench.

But even if Leaf is a bust, the Chargers' instincts in acquiring him were sound.

At some point, any team with high intentions needs to gamble on a franchise quarterback.

The Ravens certainly do.

No, it's hardly a safe course of action, as the Chargers are discovering. You trade a bundle of players and/or draft picks, throw a ton of money at a guy you don't even know and hold your breath. The risks are enormous. Look what's happened to the Redskins after Heath Shuler failed to become the cornerstone they'd expected.

But putting yourself in such jeopardy with a young franchise quarterback is the right way and maybe the only way to build a winning team that will last.

A Vinny Testaverde, 35, or a Jim Harbaugh, 34, can fill the position well and deliver short-term success. But at their age, they're Band-Aids more than building blocks.

Not that the Ravens were wrong to trade for Harbaugh last winter instead of paying the high price for Leaf or Peyton Manning, who went one-two in the 1998 draft. The Ravens had too many other problems that needed addressing, and still do. It's a bad idea to focus all their efforts on one position, important as it is.

Nor would it have been wise to start over at quarterback just as the new stadium was opening. Fans who pay big money for tickets tend to want to see wins, not developmental projects.

For that reason and others, Harbaugh probably will continue to start for the Ravens for at least another season, and that's fine. Given health and a capable team around him, he can win.

But the Ravens will never win too big until they target a suitable franchise quarterback and take the same gamble the Chargers did with Leaf.

The only quarterback the Ravens have drafted since coming to Baltimore is Wally Richardson, the current third-teamer, a seventh-round pick who doesn't project as a starter.

Richardson and Eric Zeier, picked in the third round in 1995, are the only quarterbacks the Browns/Ravens have drafted in the '90s other than a couple of throw-in selections when the draft still lasted 12 rounds. That's no way to find a franchise quarterback.

Not that you can't find one somewhere other than at the top of the draft. Joe Montana was a third-round pick, for crying out loud. Jake Plummer went to the Cardinals in the second round last year. The Lions mined Charlie Batch in the sixth round this year. It can happen.

Still, at the very least, the Ravens should spend one of their higher picks on a young quarterback with high-end possibilities. Maybe not a superstar, but one with profile and potential. It's time.

They also could make a trade, as the Bills did in obtaining Rob Johnson last winter. Johnson has gone on to lose his job to Doug Flutie, of course, and might want a divorce. Paying attention, Ravens?

And there's always the big step, the one the Chargers took, trading an assortment of assets for a top-five pick around whom you think you can build. The 1999 draft could have some interesting candidates, from Kentucky's Tim Couch to UCLA's Cade McNown to Central Florida's awesome Daunte Culpepper, 250-pound Terminator.

The risks in that are higher, but so are the rewards if the quarterback develops into Troy Aikman or Drew Bledsoe. That's why you take the gamble and take on the headaches.

Of course, the lesson in Leaf's example is you have to make sure you're targeting the right guy. Leaf has all the physical tools, but scouts wondered about his maturity long before the draft, and Leaf has gone on to offend fans, reporters, coaches, teammates and folks in Pullman, Wash., where he was kicked out of two

bars and a convenience store during his bye week.

Oh, and he also has burped up some brutal passing performances. How about a combined 5-for-30 at Kansas City and Denver?

He's still young and has all sorts of time to develop, but it's no wonder San Diego coach June Jones finally benched him for Craig Whelihan, a veteran who isn't as talented but knows what to do at least. Leaf just wasn't giving a professional performance.

"It's tough for a rookie quarterback to come into this league today," Ravens coach Ted Marchibroda said. "The defenses have changed, and there are so many different types. I think what [Leaf] is going through is what all young quarterbacks have to go through."

The Chargers hope that the problem is that simple, that experience is all he's missing, that Leaf isn't the next Heath Shuler.

But even if he is, bully for them for making the major-league play that all winning teams make at some point. Taking the risk that all winning teams take.

As relieved as the Ravens are that Leaf is their opponent's problem today and not their own, they're just treading water until they take the same gamble in some form.

Pub Date: 11/15/98

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