In an up-and-down day, Case stumbles but doesn't crumble

September 27, 1999|By John Eisenberg

He made just enough plays to beat the winless Browns, and he didn't crumble when he made mistakes.

Those were the good things about Stoney Case's debut as the Ravens' starting quarterback yesterday.

The bad things?

He threw three interceptions, keeping the overmatched Browns in the game. His offense sputtered, converting only two of 13 third downs into firsts.

In the end, despite the Ravens' 17-10 win at Camden Yards, Case failed to close the issue of whether he can handle the job on a permanent basis.

Who knows if he can?

He did use his mobility to win a game the immobile Scott Mitchell would have lost yesterday, which is to his credit. And he was making only the second start of his five-year NFL career, so mistakes were inevitable.

But a miserable quarterback rating of 30? Against one of the NFL's worst defenses?

Sorry, but even with a 1-0 record, it's just too soon to label the Stone Age a success. Let's see how Case fares next Sunday in conditions that could be as difficult as yesterday's were easy -- playing on the road against an Atlanta team desperate for a victory after opening its NFC title defense with three straight defeats.

Case will have to play better, much better, to keep the Ravens in that one.

He said he would.

"I'm going to improve," he pledged, sitting by his locker after yesterday's game. "Just remember that I haven't played very much. Like, hardly at all."

His rustiness showed when he tried to force several balls into thick coverages and wound up throwing interceptions.

"He's got a very strong arm and a very quick release," Ravens coach Brian Billick said, "but he needs to learn to bring [the ball] up with some air sometimes."

Use more of a touch, in other words.

"I tried to make things happen. It's one of those feast-or-famine things," Case said. "I've got to do a better job of making decisions. And sometimes things just happen."

What happened yesterday after he made his mistakes impressed his veteran teammates, including offensive tackle Harry Swayne, a 13-year veteran.

"He didn't lose his confidence," Swayne said. "I stand next to him in the huddle, so I could look into his eyes. And he didn't waver. His attitude was, `OK, that's done with, let's go do something right.' That's good. Let me tell you, I've stood in huddles with a lot of quarterbacks, good and bad, and once they lose their confidence, it's over with. Everyone knows it, on both teams. Stoney didn't let that happen."

Instead, he came back and made just enough big plays to win. The Ravens' defense and running game carried them for most of the day, but Case's 45-yard completion to Qadry Ismail set up the winning touchdown in the third quarter, and his 28-yard scramble late in the game was the last nail.

In all, he rushed 11 times for 57 yards and a pair of 1-yard touchdowns.

Winning with a scrambling quarterback is difficult in the NFL, but no one was quibbling yesterday after watching Mitchell's slow feet for two weeks.

"It adds a dimension, presses a team, stretches the defense," Billick said.

"I'll tell you this -- I knew he wasn't going to [pitch] me the ball on those touchdowns runs," said Ravens halfback Errict Rhett, who rushed for 113 yards. "The guy is a good runner. There's no doubt about that."

But for all the positives, there were just as many negatives. Case missed several open receivers on third downs, killing potential drives. He looked hesitant and even overwhelmed at times.

Bottom line, the Ravens scored only 17 points against a defense that had allowed 69 in the Browns' first two games.

You couldn't help wondering whether Case's day would have ended so positively against a quality opponent.

"He played about like I thought he would, as a guy who hasn't been on the field a whole lot," Swayne said. "We didn't come in here expecting him to carry us to the win. That wouldn't have been fair. You knew he was going to make some mistakes and, hopefully, makes some plays, too. And he did."

Rhett also came to Case's defense. "The guy has come so far for coming in so late in camp," Rhett said. "You don't understand, this offense is like a calculus class. It's really hard to learn. I spend five, six hours a night studying. I can only imagine how long Stoney is spending."

Case shrugged at going from a nonentity to becoming the focus of such intense analysis.

"As long as I'm in there week in and week out, I'm going to get better," he said. "That's one thing I've never had since I've been in the NFL: the chance to make mistakes and learn from them and come back better. I'm looking forward to having a normal week of preparation and going into the [Atlanta] game and getting into a routine. I'm so excited about the opportunity."

Whether he can make the most of it is still unclear. But after the drudgery of 16 wins in their first 50 games, the Ravens certainly need a little excitement. A little pulse in their veins.

For one day at least, in his own up-and-down way, Case provided it.

Starting off with the Ravens

Stoney Case became the fifth quarterback to start a game for the Ravens yesterday, joining Vinny Testaverde, Eric Zeier, Jim Harbaugh and Scott Mitchell. A look at the first Ravens start for each:

Starter Opp. Date Result Com. Att. Pct. Yds TD Int

Testaverde Oak. 9-1-96 W, 19-14 19 33 57.6 254 0 0

Zeier Sea. 12-7-97 W, 31-24 17 28 60.7 302 1 0

Harbaugh* Pit. 9-6-98 L, 20-13 4 7 57.1 33 0 0

Mitchell at St.L. 9-12-99 L, 27-10 17 40 42.5 188 1 2

Case Cle. 9-26-99 W, 17-10 12 25 48.0 165 0 3

*-Left game in second quarter with injury

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