Billick runs in overdrive at talk of QB

January 28, 1999|By KEN ROSENTHAL

He wants to speak with Jim Harbaugh. He wants to pursue Brad Johnson. He wants to develop a young quarterback. You could call Brian Billick a 78-rpm coach for a 33-rpm organization. Or you could say his mind is going at 56K, while his team's operates at 14.4.

Whatever, he appears the right man to choose the Ravens' next quarterback. Ravens vice president David Modell said yesterday that the decision will be "Billick's call, absolutely, no question." So, at least there's one thing the team didn't sell to PSINet.

Billick has been the Ravens' coach for little more than a week. He has yet to watch films from last season. But he already has formed impressions of Jim Harbaugh, Eric Zeier and Wally Richardson, as well as virtually every other quarterback in the NFL.

"In Minnesota, there were years we knew we wouldn't take a quarterback, but that's where my focus was," Billick said. "Three or four years down the line, you might be in the market for a quarterback. I wanted to have familiarity with those athletes from the very beginning."

So, ask him about a quarterback, any quarterback.

Harbaugh? Billick recalled the Minnesota Vikings trying to acquire him from Chicago in 1994, and said he has been "a big Jim Harbaugh fan for a long time."

Zeier? Billick recruited him as an assistant coach at Stanford, and remembered him at Georgia as "just one of those guys who made things happen."

Richardson? Billick watched film of him coming out of Penn State, and described him as a "very sharp individual" with "a good grasp of the game."

Maybe Richardson can play, maybe not.

But at least Billick acknowledged his existence.

Each of the Ravens' three quarterbacks likely would perform better under the creative Billick than they did under the conservative Ted Marchibroda. But none of them is likely to overwhelm the new coach on film.

The quarterback Billick knows best -- the quarterback he seems to covet most -- is Johnson.

"Not only is he a great football player, he's a great person," Billick said. "The city of Baltimore would be better for having Brad Johnson here. That can be said of a number of athletes. But that's certainly an avenue we're going to look at. We're going to explore them all. That is one of them, if indeed Minnesota is of a mind to allow that to happen."

Well, the Vikings are not of that mind yet, but give them time. They owe Johnson a $1.15 million roster bonus on March 1, so they seem likely to explore a trade in February. Billick said the two-starter arrangement could be "untenable" even if the Vikings were willing to pay Cunningham $5 million and Johnson $6 million next season.

Which leaves the Ravens with two questions:

1) Can they land Johnson?

2) Is he worth the risk?

Let's start with the second question, because that is the one with the more definite answer, at least in Billick's opinion.

"I spent seven years with him. I doubt that anybody knows him any better than I do," Billick said. "Certainly, the injury question is something you'd have to consider, but no more than if we were talking about Mark Brunell, who probably is the single biggest difference among the teams in this division.

"If out of some strange turn of circumstances Mark were to become available, you'd have to ask the same question. Can he get through 16 games? So far, he hasn't. The nature of Brad's injuries are such -- not to make a pun of it -- it's just bad breaks. I don't know that that indicates a history of injuries. But you never know.

"I know the way Brad trains. I know what kind of physical shape he's in. I know what kind of athlete he is. I would be no more concerned about Brad being injured than I would any quarterback that I had -- Warren Moon, Randall Cunningham, Jim Harbaugh. That's got to be a concern of yours in this league."

Billick stretched it a bit by comparing Johnson to Brunell. Johnson has missed 15 games the past two seasons with a neck injury, a broken leg and broken thumb. Brunell started every game in '96, and has missed only five games the past two years.

Given the circumstances, the acquisition of Johnson could mean the end of Harbaugh, an aging, oft-injured quarterback with a questionable arm and $3.5 million salary. But let's not get ahead of ourselves.

The Ravens draft 10th, and at least four teams ahead of them covet quarterbacks, not including the Cleveland Browns, who are expected to take Kentucky's Tim Couch at No. 1.

The likely price for Johnson will be first- and third-round picks. Philadelphia probably wouldn't part with the No. 2 choice for a fragile, 30-year-old quarterback, and Cincinnati probably wouldn't part with the No. 3. Would St. Louis offer the No. 6 or Chicago the No. 7? Difficult to say.

Of course, if the Ravens failed to land Johnson, they could draft one of the three college quarterbacks rated behind Couch -- Donovan McNabb, Daunte Culpepper or Akili Smith. Or they could pursue a free-agent quarterback such as Jeff Blake, Kerry Collins or Stoney Case, and draft a wide receiver at No. 10.

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