The Ravens digested four days of Brian Billick's passing camp with little more than a hiccup this week. The main course will come in late summer, but for now, it is enough to know they are well past the appetizer.
Not this summer.
Even the rookies appeared ahead of the game - although considerably short of full speed - during Billick's low-key, four-day indoctrination.
"They can turn to just about any veteran and ask, `What did he mean by that? What does Z do this play?'" the second-year coach said yesterday after passing camp concluded.
"It doesn't have to be strictly the coaches [who are teaching]. That's why the learning curve is so much better."
It doesn't hurt, of course, that the rookie brigade was led by running back Jamal Lewis and wide receiver Travis Taylor, the Ravens' two top-10 picks in last month's draft.
A year ago, the Ravens assembled a notorious collection of "trash heap" receivers. Most of them are back, but the moniker is gone. Billick was virtually gushing over the group this week.
"The presence of Travis Taylor [and] the competition that exists with a Marcus Nash and Brandon Stokley stepping up is tangible," he said. "These guys are working hard. They are working well together. I like the look of the group of wide receivers."
And that's without the presence of tight end Shannon Sharpe, who had permission to skip the camp.
Minus Sharpe, Billick got a chance to see a pair of rookie free-agent tight ends, John Jones and Pedro Edison, both of whom showed flashes. Jones, a 25-year-old from Indiana University-Pennsylvania, owned one of yesterday's best catches in seven-on-seven drills, making a one-handed, sideline grab of a pass from rookie quarterback Dan Robinson.
"You can see he's got athleticism," Billick said of Jones. "He's still a little confused, not real sure of himself, so that affects him. You can see the athleticism. You saw it today. [But] he'll reach out and make a one-handed catch and then drop one right in his chest."
Billick described the week as a teaching progression for the newcomers.
"Now, rookies have a little more of a base," he said. "We're not having a lot of mistakes out here - a few. But they're getting a little more of a base. They won't be quite as lost the next time."
Taylor, a 22-year-old prodigy out of Steve Spurrier's passing factory at Florida, made only one conspicuous mistake in the camp. In Wednesday's workout, a third-down pass ricocheted off his chest for an incompletion, drawing a quick retort from Billick.
"It was a third-down situation," Taylor said. "Those are key balls I have to catch."
Nevertheless, Taylor said he was settling in after last month's minicamp.
"At least I know the speed of the game, how they put plays in and how fast you have to do this and that," he said. "I'm pretty comfortable right now."
Said Billick: "It'll be fun to get him in pads and watch him do this in the open field in a live situation."
Of the veteran receivers, Jermaine Lewis had a strong showing, catching nearly every pass thrown his way. Lewis, a former Maryland star, has worked to strengthen his legs this off-season and correct a nagging problem from his disappointing 1999 season.
"Last year, I had a problem with my Achilles' [tendon], and it took away some of my power," he said. "My legs feel strong now and my cuts are a lot crisper. I feel a lot stronger, period."
Second-year wideout Patrick Johnson, penciled in as a starter, was making a similar push.
"I'm learning to be a better player, analyzing and reading defenses," he said. "You can know when the ball is coming to you based on the coverage."
Then there was veteran quarterback Trent Dilfer, a seven-year veteran who will work as Tony Banks' backup.
"This is a great camp for me, because I feel like I was really behind in timing in minicamp," Dilfer said. "I feel like I made leaps and bounds in timing in this camp."
Dilfer spent six seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, most of them operating an ultra-conservative offense that held few passing options. The change to Billick's attack mode makes the transition all the more enjoyable.
"I feel very, very comfortable with what we're doing," Dilfer said. "What we do here has been my vision of what football should be. So when I line up to a play, it makes sense, because this is what I thought it should be for six years. So it's a lot easier to grasp when this has been your dream to play in."
A dream offense? Billick can only hope. With five of the first seven games on the road, he can't afford the early malaise that afflicted last year's passing game."We've got to hit training camp at a dead sprint," he said.
"We've got to be further along when we come out of that first two weeks of practice than at any point we were last year, or that five out of seven is going to be tough."
Bring on the main course.