For Ravens, no exultation if no execution

August 13, 1999|By Ken Rosenthal

PHILADELPHIA -- Brian Billick, you're not in Minnesota anymore.

"I appreciate you all showing up for that massive offensive explosion," the new coach jokingly told reporters last night after the Ravens' 10-7 victory over Philadelphia in their preseason opener.

You're a genius, right, Brian?

"I've got to be to get 10 points on a night like that," Billick said, smiling again.

As the Vikings' offensive coordinator, Billick had Randall Cunningham throwing to Randy Moss and Cris Carter. With the Ravens, he has Scott Mitchell throwing to well, Billick isn't exactly sure.

"It's shake 'em up, see what falls out," he said. "The five guys that show me they want to coach the ball, they're it."

Indeed, for all the excitement over Billick, the bottom line remains the same: You can't win in this league without offensive talent, can't scheme your way to a Super Bowl.

Billick's plays worked well enough last night. The question is whether his players will execute them well enough for the team to make significant improvement this season.

No one can pass judgment after one preseason game, or even an entire preseason. And no one should be surprised if it takes considerable time for the Ravens to show any resemblance to the Vikings.

Afterward, Billick shared condolences with Eagles coach Andy Reid, the former quarterbacks coach of the Green Bay Packers.

"I told Andy they might ban us from the NFL regular season if we can't move the ball a little more consistently than that," Billick said.

Mitchell said he felt "real rusty" in his one quarter of play. His backup, Tony Banks, described the game as "ugly," adding, "We played bad. They played worse."

To be sure, the game did little to resolve the questions surrounding the Ravens' offensive skill positions, particularly at receiver, where Billick is basically holding an open tryout.

"We've got to find somebody, or a group of somebodies, that can consistently catch the ball when the opportunity arises," Billick said. "Not make great catches. Not make phenomenal catches. I'm not asking for one-handed dives in the end zone. I'm talking about when the ball is there, catch it."

Yet, by the time the season starts, Billick still won't know if Mitchell is the answer at quarterback, if Priest Holmes is the answer at running back, if he has any quality receivers besides Jermaine Lewis.

The line features two questions of its own, with Everett Lindsay expected to replace either center Jeff Mitchell or left guard James Atkins. But at least the receivers got open last night. And at least the Ravens threw downfield.

Imagination! Innovation! Billick!

Hold on.

This is a newspaper column, not a highway billboard.

The Ravens shut out the Eagles for three quarters without two Pro Bowl defenders, defensive end Michael McCrary and linebacker Peter Boulware. And they showed hope on offense without Pro Bowl left tackle Jonathan Ogden.

Mitchell drew praise from Billick for keeping the offense together, but he was admittedly ragged, fumbling in each of his first two series, first when fullback Chuck Evans knocked the ball out of his hands, then when switching hands on a scramble. The Ravens recovered both times.

"It was good to get out there and get a barometer of where we are," said Mitchell, who completed four of seven passes for 30 yards. "Obviously, we have to make a lot of improvement. But just to mix it up and get banged around, that was good."

Banks played better in the middle two quarters, completing nine of 15 passes for 75 yards, including a 10-yard touchdown to Brandon Stokley. But let's not ignite a quarterback controversy just yet.

For the record, the Ravens were 4-0 last preseason. They outscored their opponents 89-26. They even embarrassed Vinny Testaverde and the New York Jets with a 33-0 shutout at Giants Stadium.

Meaningless as it all was -- the Ravens finished 6-10, and the Jets advanced to the AFC championship game -- Billick's first preseason might matter even less.

The Ravens not only have a new coach, but also five new receivers, three new tight ends, two new quarterbacks, a new fullback, new right tackle and a partridge in a pear tree.

The preseason will be about learning Billick's West Coast offense. And as much as anything else, the regular season might be about finding out who can play.

Seven different players caught passes in the first half. Billick also employed a variety of sets, at one point using three wide-outs on second-and-1, and running for a first down.

If Mitchell plays efficiently, if the running backs perform respectably, if the receivers catch more than they drop, the Ravens might actually be competitive.

If.

Billick has asked fans for a "leap of faith" regarding Mitchell, and he'll get it from a desperate following willing to ask "how high?" when the coach says, "Jump!"

But the honeymoon -- for Billick, for Mitchell, for everyone -- will last only so long.

So many questions with this offense. The two quarterbacks. The revamped line. The shaky receiving corps. The 1,000-yard back who seems to inspire little confidence in the organization.

Maybe Billick can coax enough out of this group to make the Ravens one of the surprise teams of the NFL. Or maybe the franchise will experience a season of growing pains as its new coach tries to win with subpar talent.

The plays are there.

The players, we'll see.

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