Team stays cool as fans' fever rises

September 04, 1999|By JOHN EISENBERG

Perspective? Forget about that.

Any chance of this city maintaining its perspective going into the Ravens' season opener next week was extinguished yesterday as time expired and rookie receiver Brandon Stokley stumbled across the goal line with the winning touchdown, completing an undefeated exhibition season for the Ravens.

"They're going to expect us to go to the Super Bowl now," offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden said after Stokley and third-string quarterback Stoney Case hooked up on their mini-Hail Mary pass to give the Ravens a 28-24 victory over the Giants at Camden Yards.

It doesn't matter that the exhibition season is as pointless as a cold pizza, or that numerous concerns surfaced in yesterday's win, or that the Ravens also went undefeated in the exhibition season a year ago and then went 6-10 in real games.

Those are just details. Footnotes. Annoying, little facts.

To the vast majority of fans, all that matters is the Ravens are 4-0 under new coach Brian Billick and looking touched by angels, whether they really are or not, heading into next week's regular-season opener against the Rams in St. Louis.

Hey, when's the parade?

"The players and coaches pretty much understand that these are just preseason games and you have to forget about them at this point," Ogden said, "But I know how it is with the fans. They're going to be flying."

True. With a 4-0 record, the Orioles bumbling so badly and the Rams in disarray after franchise quarterback Trent Green's season-ending injury, the Ravens will stare all next week at a wide-open window of optimism and opportunity.

Never mind that their starting defense was outplayed by the Giants' starting offense yesterday, or that their special teams clearly need work, or that Pro Bowl linebacker Peter Boulware's sore shoulder is beginning to look like a season-long headache.

Never mind that their anointed starting quarterback, Scott Mitchell, generated all of two touchdowns in the four exhibition wins.

Never mind that most NFL experts think a .500 season is a long-odds, best-case scenario for the Ravens.

Details, details.

What chance do they have of getting attention competing against the simplicity of 4-0?

Especially with Billick doing so little to quash the optimism.

"The other two times I went 4-0 in the preseason [as an assistant coach with the Vikings], we went 11-5 and 15-1 [in the regular season]," he said yesterday. "Obviously, it doesn't mean much in the grand scheme [to go 4-0]. But you can build on it."

Truth be told, even the players were excited yesterday after Case and Stokley pulled their magic act on the game's last play.

Had they done it in a game that counted, the play would have become an instant legend. It was that remarkable.

"Someone above was looking out for us on that one," Ogden said. "I don't know how that happened."

A week ago, Case threw a 41-yard touchdown pass to Billy Davis with 10 seconds left to beat Carolina. But yesterday's 37-yarder to Stokley easily topped it.

Case dropped back and threw deep down the right sideline as Stokley curled to the outside and away from Lyle West, a rookie cornerback for the Giants. West made an ill-advised play for the ball and missed it, leaving Stokley free to grab it and come down with his feet just inbounds. Then he turned and tightroped down the sideline to the end zone.

"He's a special young man," Billick said of Stokley, a fourth-round draft pick.

Case, a veteran backup picked up in the middle of training camp, smiled as a wave of reporters surrounded him for the second straight week.

Asked what he'd expected coming in as a third-teamer behind Mitchell and Tony Banks, he said, "All three of us have one-year contracts. There's a new coaching staff. There's a lot of unknowns here. The quarterbacks and coaches are set at a lot of other places. Here, there are so many unknowns."

He might not throw another pass all season, but he's already a local hero after pulling off two straight buzzer-beaters.

The whole team is, for that matter.

Perspective? Get serious. Fans here have endured 12 seasons without a team and three more with a team consistent only in finding ways to lose.

After that grim ballad, any hint of success is a valid reason to shout.

Even if a fall is coming later this season, the fans are going to enjoy the part where they get set up for it.

And who knows, maybe the fall won't even come this time, or, at least, maybe it won't be so hard.

"No matter what happens, it's great to have the city excited about us," Billick said.

Isn't it a little scary, too, if expectations spin out of control?

"Not scary at all, actually," Ogden said. "We have higher expectations in this [locker] room than anyone else does outside this room. We think we can win."

They also did a year ago after going 4-0 in the exhibition season. All perspective was lost then, too. And look what happened.

"Hopefully, we can eliminate some of the mistakes we made then and come through for the people who are all excited about us," Ogden said. "It didn't feel good to get them up and then let them down last year. Hopefully, we can do things differently this time."

Pub Date: 9/04/99

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