Woulda, coulda, shoulda? Ravens simply can't win

November 29, 1999|By John Eisenberg

The Ravens are improved. They're better than a year ago. Better than at any other point since they moved to Baltimore in 1996. You can see it. Everyone can see it. Brian Billick has them playing sounder, tougher and more evenly with the NFL's elite.

"I'm impressed with what Brian has done with them," Jacksonville coach Tom Coughlin said after the Jaguars' 30-23 win at Camden Yards yesterday.

But you know what? It means nothing. Absolutely zilch.

They still don't know how to win. They're still inventing ways to lose.

They still have an uncanny knack for making the mistake -- or mistakes -- that make all the difference.

In that sense, they haven't improved one iota since moving from Cleveland.

That's why they're still losing. That's why, at this point, it doesn't matter whether they show overall improvement, fall apart or spend the fall taking ballet lessons.

Until they start taking advantage of a fair share of their opportunities -- and there's no evidence they're going to -- they're going to frustrate the fans, themselves and anyone with an interest in seeing them win. They're going to lose. A lot.

Some will say that playing two tough, losing games in three weeks with the Jaguars, who have the NFL's best record, is encouraging.

Sorry, not buying. We've heard that too often. Seen too many noble finishes that, in the end, were symbolic of absolutely nothing.

Maybe if they'd won yesterday instead of blowing a fourth-quarter lead, we could have talked about their being on the verge of a breakthrough. Maybe if the defense hadn't wilted when it mattered, allowing two long touchdown drives in the fourth quarter, we could have talked about a team finally starting to find itself.

But the lead was blown. The defense did wilt. And playing two tough, losing games with the Jags doesn't mean the Ravens are getting closer to where they want to be: on the verge of a breakthrough. It just means they're still finding ways to lose.

It just means they're still haunted by the fatal flaw that has marked them since the move.

Five of their past seven games have been decided by a touchdown or less. The Ravens have won one -- over a 2-10 Cincinnati team last week.

Is that a team on the verge of a breakthrough? No, that's a team with a problem.

What, exactly, is the problem? Offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden, a Raven since the beginning, offered a bold theory yesterday.

"When you come that close all the time and still lose them all, it's not a physical thing," he said. "It's a mind thing, if you ask me personally. We have to get mentally tougher."

So they're mentally weak. Others in the locker room might disagree, but who could argue after yesterday? The Ravens dominated for three quarters, but hiccuped when it mattered. They were a portrait of a team with a death wish.

The focus was on quarterback Tony Banks, who threw a critical, game-turning interception and lost two fumbles, but it's wrong just to blame him. There were numerous other lapses that contributed to the ending.

There was Chris McAlister dropping an easy interception he could have returned for a touchdown in the first quarter. There was an illegal-shift penalty that wiped out a pass-interference call that would have given the Ravens the ball on the 1-yard line with a 10-0 lead.

There was the third-down false start by Everett Lindsay that pushed the offense out of field-goal range in the second quarter. There was the third-and-16 the Jags converted early in the fourth quarter, when a stop could have blunted the whole rally.

On and on and on goes the list.

"There were maybe a half-dozen key plays along the way that had a huge impact," Billick said.

It takes more than the quarterback to lose a game like this, a game that's in hand and should be won.

In the Ravens' defense, the Jags are one of the league's top teams, a probable division champ, loaded with playmakers. When they were down yesterday, Pro Bowl quarterback Mark Brunell and receivers Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell brought them back.

"I have to give them credit -- they're an excellent team," the Ravens' Errict Rhett said. "I've never seen a quarterback play like that."

The Ravens don't have that talent, especially on offense. That's one of the reasons they keep losing. They don't have anyone to make plays, any game-breakers who strike fear into a defense.

Maybe we shouldn't expect them to start winning until they raise their talent level on that side of the ball. That's fair, right?

Yet they were good enough to put themselves in position to win. They're often good enough to put themselves in position to win. Their defense is one of the NFL's best, at least statistically. Their offense has generated enough points to win the past two games. Billick has them playing fairly well, losing record and all.

But, as usual, something went wrong yesterday. Something always goes wrong.

You can almost count on it at this point, and you can continue to count on it until the Ravens prove otherwise.

The late no-show

In three games this season, each at home, the Ravens' defense has failed in the fourth quarter, allowing an opponent to win with a late scoring drive:

Date Opponent Result

9-19 Pittsburgh L, 23-20

Skinny: After tying game with 1: 22 left, Ravens give up 37-yard kickoff return, then allow five-play, 32-yard drive before Steelers kick 36-yard field goal as time expires.

10-31 Buffalo L, 13-10

Skinny: Leading 10-6, Ravens lose ball on Tony Banks' fumble with 3: 25 left. Bills embark on nine-play, 45-yard touchdown drive that includes conversion of fourth-and-15 by QB Doug Flutie.

11-28 Jacksonville L, 30-23

Skinny: Leading 23-22, Ravens allow Jaguars to drive 78 yards in 12 plays to winning touchdown with 1: 39 left. Drive includes a fourth-and-one conversion.

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