Focused on a revival

Ravens: Quarterback Tony Banks, 26, is at a career crossroads, hoping to resurrect his game in Baltimore after falling fast and hard in St. Louis.

August 08, 1999|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

Tony Banks had it all in St. Louis. And then he had nothing.

He had instant celebrity and unmistakable charisma as a starting rookie quarterback with the Rams. He had a big-time arm, fast feet, a quick mind and an undeniable swagger.

He was the first quarterback taken in the 1996 NFL draft, a prodigy on the superhighway to fame and fortune. Or so it seemed. Two years later, his gilded carriage turned into a pumpkin and the highway dead-ended. His celebrity dissipated with each fumble. His charisma took a beating with each loss.

Banks fell hard and fast. When he missed the team's return flight from Miami after a particularly galling defeat last October, his Rams career took a fateful turn. No longer a prodigy, he was not even a favorite son.

By the time he was traded to the Ravens for fifth- and seventh-round draft picks last April, fans in St. Louis had come to resent his casual demeanor, his penchant for making a bad choice at the worst time, the 'do rag he wore on his head and even -- believe it or not -- his dog.

This summer, Banks launched a recovery mission in Baltimore. Here, he will test the healing power of new Ravens coach Brian Billick, known for his ability to rehabilitate quarterbacks. More telling, Banks started training camp as the backup behind Scott Mitchell, another passer on the rebound, on a one-year, bargain-basement salary of $577,000.

The question waiting to be answered is not whether Banks can sidestep the pass rush and deliver a strike 50 yards downfield. It's whether he can, at 26, reclaim a career at the crossroads.

If this is starting over, Banks is still feeling his way.

"It remains to be seen if Baltimore is the best thing for me," he said before training camp began. "The best thing for me was getting out of St. Louis."

Banks arrived amid mixed reviews. Rams coach Dick Vermeil said he has "never been on the field with a quarterback that had more talent." Vermeil also said he'd be surprised if Banks didn't end up starting here.

Jerry Rhome, a long-time offensive coordinator who tutored Banks the past two years in St. Louis, said Baltimore is getting "a diamond in the rough."

And Billick said Banks was available because he had committed "the unforgivable sin of being the quarterback on a losing football team -- that's it."

Keep in mind, however, that Vermeil chose former Washington Redskins quarterback Trent Green over Banks last spring, that Rhome was fired in St. Louis last winter for Banks' lack of progress and that Billick has entrusted his new offense to Mitchell, not Banks.

Theories behind the losing

What to make of this tantalizing talent who played in the Minnesota Twins farm system in 1991 before a shoulder injury sent him back to football? Why was he unable to halt a spiral during which the Rams won one fewer game each of their four seasons in St. Louis? Why did he win just 14 of 43 starts in three seasons? The theories cover a wide range of culpability:

Too much too soon. The Rams wasted little time installing Banks as the quarterback of the present after drafting him in the second round in 1996. In the second quarter of the second game, then-coach Rich Brooks inserted Banks on the Rams' 1-yard line at San Francisco. On the second play, Banks was flagged for intentionally grounding from his end zone, a penalty that resulted in a safety and two points for the 49ers.

Banks supplanted Steve Walsh permanently by the fourth game, and remained the starter until a knee injury knocked him out of the final two games in 1998.

"When a quarterback is utilized too early, it sets the stage for problems," said Mike White, Rams assistant head coach. "They put him in on the 1-yard line against the 49ers in an attempt to get his career under way. It threw out the normal process. There aren't many Peyton Mannings."

Said Rhome: "When a rookie starts, it's because the team has struggled and he's a high draft pick and they've got to have him play and he gets the crud beat out of him."

The crud, in this case, added up to 48 sacks. On top of that, Banks committed a single-season, league-record 21 fumbles to go with 15 interceptions and 15 touchdown passes. Banks' mechanics were already slipping.

Insufficient supporting cast. Inexplicably, the Rams surrounded Banks with four other rookies in the starting offensive lineup in 1996, including an all-rookie backfield. That Banks authored five of the team's six wins under such conditions seems remarkable.

The Rams were never able to build on that base, however, in part because their first pick in 1996, running back Lawrence Phillips, was a major bust.

"The only way Tony could have done better here was if he had a better supporting cast," said Vermeil.

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