Billick throws up a prayer, but it's only play he had

September 21, 1999|By John Eisenberg

Stoney Case as the Ravens' starting quarterback? It's the popular choice, certainly. And given the way he brought the Ravens from behind Sunday in relief of Scott Mitchell, it's the only choice, really.

But let's not mistake the move for anything other than what it is:

A Hail Mary.

One of those long-odds things that you just throw out there with your eyes closed, hoping it'll turn into something good.

Sure, Case, 27, has been an exciting player with a big-play touch in his short time with the Ravens. And he has "all the elements" to be a successful starter, according to Ravens coach Brian Billick, who said yesterday that Case would start against the Browns Sunday at Camden Yards.

But the reality is that Case has never started and finished an NFL game in his five years in the league.

His touchdown pass to Qadry Ismail in the fourth quarter Sunday was the first of his career.

His lifetime numbers -- 37 completions, 72 attempts, 465 yards -- amount to a good day for Dan Marino.

Basically, the Ravens have turned over their starting quarterback job to a guy who has never played. A guy with 20 career rushing yards.

You can try to pass that off as a calculated move, as Billick did yesterday, but it's just a prayer.

It's the kind of desperate move you resort to after giving up four draft picks in exchange for two veteran quarterbacks who end up sitting on your bench.

Make it Case, as in Plan C.

But of course, Billick couldn't start Mitchell again Sunday after pulling him in the third quarter against the Steelers, sending the few fans who had taken that "leap of faith" with him hurtling into a gorge.

Nor could he turn to Tony Banks just a day after making him the third-stringer against the Steelers.

Basically, Billick was a prisoner of his own dubious personnel decisions at quarterback.

It had to be Case, the only one who has done anything right this season.

"He's earned this chance," Billick said.

Maybe so, but talk about asking the fans to take a leap of faith: Here's a quarterback starting for the Ravens in a must-win game just five weeks after being cut by the Colts?

"Pretty amazing, huh?" Case said with a smile after practice yesterday. "I still don't know what happened in Indy [which had signed him to a two-year contract]. But now I'm glad they cut me, as weird as that sounds."

You can't help rooting for him as an out-of-nowhere underdog in the mold of the Rams' Kurt Warner, the Arena Football League and NFL Europe hero who torched the Ravens in their season opener.

An injury kept Case from playing for NFL Europe's Barcelona Dragons in 1997, but he's had the same kind of fringe career as Warner. He was inactive for 49 of the Cardinals' 64 games in his first four seasons. Made one start. Got benched late. Watched Jake Plummer shoot past him and take over the town.

He has a biology degree, a brother named Stormy and he's held enough clipboards in the past four years to qualify for a schoolteacher's pension. You have to love the guy.

He could easily have the same experience Sunday as Warner had against the Ravens; he's playing with confidence, and the Browns, an expansion team, have been outscored 69-9 so far. Their defense is better than their offense, but Billick still couldn't have put him in a better position to succeed.

But hey, let's not forget that it's just the second start of Case's career. Who knows how things will work out?

Browns quarterback Tim Couch also will be making his second career start, by the way -- in the third game of his rookie season. He's four years ahead of Case.

"I've waited a long time for this chance, obviously," Case said. "I've spent a lot of time on the sidelines, which is hard for someone as competitive as I am. But this was always my ultimate goal. I wanted the ball in my hands."

Just because he hasn't played doesn't mean he can't play, of course. The league's talent evaluators don't make many mistakes, but they do make a few.

"Stoney has it all," Billick said. "You see it time and again in this league. A quarterback with strength, height, speed, arm strength. The question is whether the sum is greater than the parts, or whether the parts are greater than the sum."

Actually, most scouts would tell you Case has an average arm, average size, average ability. That's why he didn't play in Arizona, and that's why he signed a minimal contract as a free agent last winter.

But let's face it, if he avoids sacks and throws a few good balls he'll be a major improvement. And Billick is undeterred. Not that he has a choice, but he likes the guy.

"I would liken Stoney's situation partially, and obviously optimistically, to Mark Brunell's in Jacksonville," Billick said.

Whoa there. Brunell started slowly, but now he's a Pro Bowl quarterback who could take a team to the Super Bowl this year.

Let's let Case start and finish a game for the first time in his career before issuing such comparisons.

Let's let the Hail Mary come down and see if it gets caught.

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