Banks isn't answer, but if he were...

October 31, 1999|By KEN ROSENTHAL

What if Tony Banks can play?

Let's go along with the fantasy. The Ravens are so desperate to think positive, the anointing of a new quarterback -- any new quarterback -- is reason to dream.

Banks inherits the same problems as Stoney Case and Scott Mitchell -- a weak receiving corps and an offensive line that has yet to show proficiency at pass blocking, even when healthy.

He also faces one major problem that Case didn't -- a skeptical head coach who had to be bound and gagged with a nationally televised 35-8 defeat before ending the Stone Age.

Brian Billick trusts Banks about as much as the FCC trusts Howard Stern. He'd rather not start him today against Buffalo. But he no longer can ignore him without alienating his players and fans.

So, what if Banks can play?

For one thing, Billick would look like a guy who chose McDonald's and Burger King over The Prime Rib. But fear not for the coach -- he could apply his own spin, and claim Banks as his latest reclamation project.

The Ravens then could use their two No. 1 draft picks on other offensive skill players, enabling Billick to turn them into the '98 Minnesota Vikings or the '99 St. Louis Rams.

That's the dream.

Unfortunately, reality should again intercede.

The end of the Ravens' season coincides annually with the end of the World Series -- they're 0-11 in their fifth, sixth and seventh games. And owner Art Modell is stretching it when he compares his team to the Rams, saying, "What happened in St. Louis can happen here."

The Rams dumped Banks. And the Ravens could have traded second- and fifth-round picks for Marshall Faulk, then awarded him a contract extension with a $7 million signing bonus. But noooo

Seriously, if the Rams are the model, perhaps the worst thing that could happen would be if Banks played well and fooled the Ravens into believing that he was the answer.

Chances are, it probably will turn out just the opposite. Indeed, the Ravens seem to finally be figuring out that they've ignored their quarterback problem for too long.

Since arriving in Baltimore, they've released Vinny Testaverde and traded five draft picks for Banks, Scott Mitchell and Jim Harbaugh. They've received two picks back for Harbaugh and Eric Zeier. And the only quarterback they've drafted has been Wally Richardson, a seventh-rounder in 1997 who lasted only two seasons.

Testaverde went on to stardom with the New York Jets. Zeier is the new starter in Tampa Bay. And Banks today will become the Ravens' fifth starting quarterback in the past two seasons, and third in seven games.

"We have the two No. 1s -- I think the organization will have the commitment next year to resolve the quarterback problem that has probably been there since [Bernie] Kosar," said Ravens vice president of player personnel Ozzie Newsome, referring to the quarterback who was released by the old Cleveland Browns in 1993.

"If Tony is not the guy for us, it will be time to go resolve it. We'll be able to get the other pieces of the puzzle with the rapport between the front office and coaching staff, and the commitment I have from David and Art [Modell]. We just need to find out who is going to be the trigger man. We need a guy to get us to the playoffs and Super Bowl. You can't win in this league without one."

If that's the logic -- and it should be -- it's difficult to imagine any scenario in which Banks could establish himself as the player that Newsome covets. He can't become this year's Randall Cunningham without Randy Moss and Cris Carter.

Heck, even if Banks plays within the system, stays free of mistakes and pays attention to detail -- starts acting like an NFL quarterback, in other words -- it would be in the Ravens' interest to draft a Chris Redman or Chad Pennington.

What's the worst that could happen? Banks would remain the starter and Case the backup. The Ravens then could develop their young quarterback slowly, and trade Banks or Case when the time was right.

Billick still believes Case is good enough to be at least a backup, and the usual group of veteran free agents (Neil O'Donnell, Jeff George, etc.) will be available. But the goal is to reach the Super Bowl, not tread water -- or sink, as so often is the case with this team.

Newsome rightly points out that the Ravens needed only two years to build a top-caliber NFL defense, and he believes they could follow a similar timetable on offense. If Banks is the answer, the task becomes that much easier. But even if he isn't, the Ravens still could rebuild the offense quickly if they make the correct decisions on draft day and in free agency.

To this point, they've been able to justify their restraint in free agency -- and mask any limitations caused by their financial troubles -- by saying they were not yet ready to compete. But that argument is no longer valid, now that the defense appears ready to join the NFL elite.

No matter how Banks performs, the time has come to draft a quarterback and wide receiver with the two first-round selections, then sign another receiver and possibly a running back in free agency.

If Banks can play, all the better. But after repeatedly showing such poor vision at the game's most important position, how can the Ravens even trust their own eyes?

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