Former zeros turn into Ravens' heroes

October 05, 1999|By John Eisenberg

The guy who threw the ball was a third-stringer last season. So was the guy who caught it.

Stoney Case's overtime strike to Justin Armour in Atlanta on Sunday was an enormous play for the Ravens, but it was about as unlikely as a game-winning pass could be.

Imagine, two guys who were barely on the NFL radar a year ago throwing a knockout punch on the road against the reigning NFC champions.

"What great stories," Ravens coach Brian Billick said yesterday.

Case had never thrown an NFL touchdown pass before this season. Armour had caught one ball since 1995. Each had been cut by a losing team within the past few months.

The Falcons, less than nine months removed from a Super Bowl appearance, could hardly have envisioned losing to such a tandem.

But then, almost every player carrying the Ravens' offensive load this season has a similar pedigree.

The defense that beat the injury-laden Falcons on Sunday had high draft picks, big contracts and Pro Bowl hype, but the offense was strictly Salvation Army.

It's all in keeping with the 1999 NFL season's developing theme of rampant unpredictability. Last year's Super Bowl teams? They're no good this year. Last year's nobodies at the end of the bench? A handful are getting a chance with the Ravens this year, and doing something with that chance.

"A lot of the guys have waited a long time for this, even five or six years in some cases," Case said yesterday. "It's a huge opportunity for myself and probably half the offense, too."

Doubt it? Look at the names and numbers.

Running back Errict Rhett has spent most of the past two seasons on the bench in Tampa Bay and Baltimore. Suddenly, he's racking up 100-yard games.

Split end Qadry Ismail hadn't caught a pass since 1996 before this season. Suddenly, he's the Ravens' go-to receiver, with 16 catches in four games. Armour is next with eight, which is, um, eight times as many as he caught last season.

Tight end Aaron Pierce wasn't even in the league last season, for crying out loud. Now he's caught five balls, blocked well and nailed down a starting job.

Then there's Case, the ultimate example. He was inactive for 49 of 64 games before this season, and he's still wobbling along with a low 68.4 quarterback rating, but he has won two straight starts and displayed a big-play knack the Ravens have sorely lacked.

Add it all up, and the Ravens' top passer, rusher and top two pass catchers through four games were all in the same position a year ago -- on the bench.

A Gucci huddle, it isn't.

Not that that matters with the Ravens two wins ahead of the Falcons and Broncos, among others.

"These are guys who have been thrown on the trash heap of the NFL and told they can't play, they can't do it," Billick said. "Here, they come in, embrace the philosophy, go out and compete and they impact the game. Those are great, great stories."

It adds an element of hunger to the offense, no doubt. Each of the players mentioned is on a one-year contract, which means he needs to prove himself to get paid again next season.

A majority of the Ravens' offensive linemen have big, multi-year contracts, but not those handling the ball.

"These are guys who came in here with the idea of, `Just give me an opportunity to show what I can do at this level, and then reap whatever benefits might come at the end of the season,' " Billick said. "I trust that motivation more than any other. They talk about `Win one for the Gipper' or `Do it for the organization.' Greed is a good, old-fashioned motivator, and I don't mind that at all. I'm OK with that."

Case said: "You look around, and it's amazing how many guys with one-year contracts we have on offense. That's precisely why this is such a good opportunity, because of all those one-year contracts."

The debt-ridden Ravens may have loaded up on such players because they had to, of course. You have to wonder how long such an offense will hold up, as the Ravens, having still beaten only winless teams, wade into the meat of their schedule against the Titans, Jaguars and Bills.

"There are a lot of things that we can improve on offensively," Billick said. "But with each week, there has been improvement. That's all you can ask for."

All the players asked for is exactly what they're getting -- a chance, after years of waiting.

"This is a sport where, as a player, the way you gain respect is by making plays," Armour said yesterday. "A lot of our guys haven't earned that respect from other teams. For us to have a chance to go out and make big plays, that's huge. That's at the front of my mind, I know. And I'm sure it's the case with other guys, too."

A ton of other guys, as a matter of fact.

"It's our time, finally, to shine and just have fun," Case said. "Football has been frustrating for us for a long time, because we weren't playing. Any competitive athlete hates to sit. It feels so great to get off the bench and go and make plays."

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