More than a passing fancy?

3rd-choice QB Banks holds key to Ravens' present and future

Midseason report

November 12, 1999|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,SUN STAFF

The second half of the Ravens' 1999 season and their future revolve around starting quarterback Tony Banks.

If Banks succeeds and limits the turnovers, then the Ravens have a decent shot at winning six of their remaining eight games.

If Banks succeeds, then the Ravens don't have to search through free agency to find another possible starting quarterback.

If Banks succeeds, then the Ravens have other pressing holes they can fill in the first round of the draft, where they have two picks.

If, if, if

"In this league, regardless of your quarterback situation, if there is a quarterback you value, and he's available, you got to think about him," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "This is becoming a quarterback-starved league. We're at the cross sections where the marquee names like Elway, Testaverde, Chandler, Marino or Young have moved on or are about to move on. That void has to be filled.

"This draft and every draft, you have to consider the position, even though it doesn't have to be in the first round," said Billick. "But if you find one in a round and he matches you're value, then you've got to think about taking him."

Thus far, Banks has turned a failing position into a competent one. He has completed 35 of 73 passes for 327 yards in the last nine quarters. He committed two turnovers in his first start, a 13-10 loss to Buffalo, but was perfect in handling the ball in the team's 41-9 win against the Cleveland Browns last Sunday.

As far as pure arm strength and mobility, neither former starters Stoney Case or Scott Mitchell come close to Banks. Against Cleveland, it was the first time all season that a quarterback had started throwing passes consistently before receivers were coming out of the break.

Banks' impressive showing also brings into question how and why Billick could start Case over Banks for four games after Mitchell was benched during halftime of the second game of the season. Billick has yet to provide a definitive answer, but instead of being 3-5 at the midway point, the Ravens could be 4-4 or 5-3 if Banks had been playing.

"Let's say there are a lot of factors involved in the decision that I'm not going to share. I don't think you can make that kind of conjecture," said Billick, when asked what might have been if Banks had played early. "I think it's a valid observation for someone to say what-ifs but it's a moot point. I don't know how you can make those kind of comparisons because you don't know what would have happened in those situations."

But this point is clear: Banks is starting to win over Billick.

"Right now, I have two young men who I believe can become pretty good quarterbacks," said Billick. "We'll see if we can develop them both and an offense for this year and years to come. I can only play one. I see signs in Tony that he is starting to understand what he has to do to become a pretty good NFL quarterback."

That's partially a good sign about Billick. He is almost stubborn to a fault, but not stupid. He will adjust like he did when he moved from Priest Holmes to Errict Rhett, but just needs to do it faster. He came into Baltimore with the reputation as a pass-happy guru, but has figured out his best chance for winning is field position from his punter, great defense and an offense that features Rhett mixed in with short to intermediate passes and a few long-ball attempts.

Billick tried to make the passing game work, but the revolving door at quarterback was too much of a problem. Also, the Ravens didn't spend a great deal of money during the off-season and they have gotten what they paid for, especially at the wide receiver position. Minimum salaries ($400,000) produce average players like receivers Justin Armour, Qadry Ismail and tight end Aaron Pierce, role players who need a stronger supporting cast.

The Ravens have an offensive line that run blocks well, but has problems pass protecting even when they're healthy. The unit won't be as productive in the second half with right offensive tackle Harry Swayne out for the season with a foot injury.

And then there is receiver Jermaine Lewis, who has gone from big-play threat to no threat at all. Lewis has gone from 41 catches for 784 yards and six touchdowns in 1998 to 15 catches for 145 yards in 1999. That's a joke. The Ravens are defending themselves by not having him on the field at times in passing situations.

Until the Ravens develop some type of consistent passing game, they will lose close games like they did against Tennessee and Buffalo in games No. 5 and No. 7 and continue to have one of the worst passing offenses in the league.

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