Ravens may not be great, but they won't be boring

August 04, 1999|By John Eisenberg

The Ravens' first exhibition game is still eight days away, and they won't play a regular-season game until mid-September, but they already have scored their first victory of 1999.

They have defeated boredom, expunging the vanilla predictability that plagued their offense last season under former coach Ted Marchibroda.

Even though new coach Brian Billick's first training camp at Western Maryland College is just a week old, it's already obvious that, at the very least, the Ravens will be more fun to watch this season.

"There are a lot of exciting things happening," said veteran receiver Floyd Turner, one of the relatively few offensive holdovers from last season.

Of course, anything would be exciting compared to last season, when, for a combination of reasons, the Ravens' offense was about as interesting as a long drive to the beach in heavy traffic.

After experiencing that, it's downright exhilarating to watch Billick's playbook come to life on the practice field featuring screen passes, draws, misdirection plays, gadgets and everything in between.

"There's a lot of change of direction, a lot of doing things to make people think you're doing something else," Turner said. "A lot of creativity. That's what it is, a creative offense. Not vanilla at all."

In other words, the third-and-eight swing pass to Roosevelt Potts has been retired, folks. Try not to get too depressed.

"The first time I opened [Billick's playbook], I went, `Oh, my goodness,' " said Turner, who has played under four head coaches in a 10-year NFL career. "There's so much you can do. You can line up in the same formation and run seven different plays. The defense can't predict which route you're running. That's good."

The opposite was true last season, or so it seemed. Marchibroda's offense totaled just 29 touchdowns in 16 games and finished the season ranked 26th among the NFL's 30 teams. Fans paying high ticket prices booed the conservative and unproductive play-calling.

Not that Marchibroda alone was responsible, mind you. The passing game was dead when quarterback Jim Harbaugh came down with a sore arm that prevented him from throwing long or accurately. The offensive line was a bust instead of a strength, allowing 41 sacks and failing to open many running holes. Running back Errict Rhett failed to win a starting job, as expected, after arriving via trade.

Marchibroda's plan to rely on a running game to set up the pass was sound, but it was in tatters by midseason.

"We kind of got caught in between [the run and the pass]," Turner said.

With Harbaugh so limited and the running game so inconsistent, the offense degenerated into a dull routine as predictable as the sunrise. There were times when, yes, it seemed the defense knew exactly which play was coming.

"I know I felt that was the case," Turner said. "Of course, a team still can go out and execute a play well enough to make it work when the defense knows what's coming. But overall, it's a lot better when [the defense] doesn't know what's coming."

Uh, you could say.

That won't be a problem now, not with the deception and multiple options so prevalent in Billick's offense.

"I haven't seen many offenses with this much versatility," Turner said. "Whatever the defense does is wrong, basically. If they cover the first [option], you keep going to the second, third and fourth, until someone is left open."

Whether there's enough talent to fuel the offense is the issue now. New quarterback Scott Mitchell is the key. His acquisition has been heavily criticized, but he has been solid in camp. At the very least, his strong left arm will give the passing game a chance, as opposed to Harbaugh last year.

Mitchell and other veteran additions such as Steve Broussard, Webster Slaughter, Eric Metcalf, Charles Evans and Billy Davis have had success elsewhere, and when you add Jermaine Lewis, Priest Holmes and Rhett to the mix, Billick has a lot more options than Marchibroda ever had.

"I have enough diversity," Billick said. "The [players'] skills are pretty even, which is good news and bad news. I'd like for a few guys to be a little higher and make it clear-cut, but I also don't think there's anyone here who doesn't belong. So we'll be multiple [offensively] in the way we're used to, if not quite as explosive."

After last year's snoozer, fans won't demand an explosion. They'll settle for some screen passes, a few tricks, a dose of innovation here and there -- an offense with life, basically. An offense the fans can't predict.

It's coming.

Pub Date: 8/04/99

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