Mitchell leaves room for improvement

August 22, 1999|By JOHN EISENBERG

ATLANTA -- Five possessions, three points.

That was the depressing bottom line for Scott Mitchell in his first significant appearance as the Ravens' starting quarterback last night at the Georgia Dome.

Ravens coach Brian Billick let Mitchell play the entire first half against the Falcons, giving him a chance to measure himself and the rest of the first-team offense against a playoff-caliber defense that went to the Super Bowl last season.

The results were less than encouraging.

Sure, it was just the second exhibition game, a meaningless affair played in a half-full dome, with reserves handling the second half for both sides. The Ravens won, 19-6, not that anyone will remember in a month. And expecting a show from Mitchell probably was unrealistic, given a no-frills game plan and the fact that Billick is still installing a new offense.

But reserve quarterback Tony Banks and second-year wide receiver Patrick Johnson had to carry the offensive load, bringing the Ravens from behind with two big pass plays against Falcons reserves, including an 89-yard touchdown that blew the game open.

Mitchell's performance was more sobering. He completed 10 of 18 passes for 115 yards -- reasonable totals -- but he was sacked twice, had two attempts that were knocked down and, worst of all, fumbled twice.

That makes three fumbles and no touchdowns in his first two games as a Raven -- a trend that won't quell the prevailing opinion around the NFL that the Ravens are taking a dubious gamble in building their 1999 season around him.

He did lead one smart drive, a 16-play, 83-yarder that resulted in a first-quarter field goal. But otherwise, the offense did zilch on his watch. The Falcons led after the first half, 6-3.

"We still have to sort it out," Billick said of the first-team's performance. "We made a few mistakes. But we were better than last week. That's all you can ask for, to improve from week to week, even if it's incrementally."

Mitchell put a similar spin on the evening.

"Tonight was really the first time that I'm getting into a groove and starting to be instinctive about playing," he said. "And I'm starting to feel comfortable with what I'm seeing out there. I just need the next couple of weeks to help refine things."

"To be honest, I felt great tonight, like I was really playing football and making some good things happen."

Actually, good things happened only on the one drive, which was indeed a beauty.

It started inauspiciously enough, with Mitchell fumbling a snap, but a pass to Jermaine Lewis and a short run by Priest Holmes got the first down, and Mitchell went on to convert two more third downs and complete three more passes to Lewis, including an 18-yarder on third-and-16 at the Ravens 32.

You could almost start to see the outline of Billick's offense at that point, what with all the multiple sets, motion and criss-crossing routes. Receivers were getting open. Holmes and the running game were effective as a second option. Mitchell threw hard and accurately. The drive reached the Falcons' 6-yard-line before stalling.

"I was very pleased with that drive," Billick said.

But that was it for the first half. The next series lasted three downs, and one after that was ruined by a sack. A final series just before halftime went nowhere.

In the end, the game turned on the play of the Ravens' defense, which was exceptional for the second straight game, and the catches by Johnson, whom the Ravens have been waiting to step up and establish himself as a big-play starter opposite Lewis. At the very least, this night was progress in that direction.

"Patrick is showing some signs," Billick said.

So is Banks, who completed all 11 of his attempts -- nine to Ravens and two to Falcons. Give him a thumbs-up for getting the win in relief, not that it means a quarterback controversy is brewing. Billick has been adamant about that. Mitchell is the starter. Banks is the backup. That's not going to change until October at the earliest, and then only if Mitchell is totally inept.

Still, he has a lot of proving to do. His play will say a lot about the course of the Ravens' season, and there are no guarantees. He had a chance to start establishing himself last night, and it didn't happen.

He did look better than he did in a cameo appearance in last week's exhibition opener against the Eagles, in which he attempted only seven passes and fumbled once before being lifted. But there's still lots of room for improvement.

He did begin to get his timing down with Lewis last night, and there's no doubt he'd be the biggest beneficiary if Johnson ultimately developed into a credible big-play threat.

But after two games, Banks has generated two touchdowns, Wally Richardson has generated one and Mitchell has produced as many as newcomer Stoney Case -- zero.

There's still lots of work to do. Lots of progress to be made.

A whole lot.

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