From A to Z, Ravens finally look like real thing

September 03, 2000|By JOHN STEADMAN

IT'S NOT a tease or an unrealistic prophecy: the Ravens to win their division or even go all the way. For the first time, they represent themselves as a legitimate contender.

They'll be a factor because there's nothing bogus about their ability. If they are riddled with injuries, that's a potential crisis that comes under the heading of old-fashioned bad luck that can't be avoided. But, in their favor again, this is a team of depth.

Brian Billick can coach almost as well as he can talk. Yet he could never be accused of being a mere barber pole or falling asleep on the sideline.

To the contrary, he's perpetually animated, knows his subject matter, stands firm with players, can communicate and is in total control.

There's not much else, except to get points on the board and find a way to deny the opposition the same.

The Ravens have no idea how good they are. Winning four exhibition games was more meaningless than ever before, when they turned the trick in two previous years. Nothing to brag about. The Ravens regulars didn't have much more to do than take a quick bow for purposes of identification, so as to let their families know they were still gainfully employed, and then retreat to the bench.

Exhibitions have become insignificant, especially on the field. Still, the NFL allows teams to charge regular-season prices because attorneys general don't want to stand up for the public that elected them to office. Fans buy ticket under duress, which explains the half-filled stadiums for exhibitions.

From a football standpoint, one important aspect has changed, which proves that when the late Vince Lombardi, Hall of Fame coach, referred to them as practice games, he knew whereof he spoke. Billick and other coaches have made a departure. They aren't using the final exhibition as a rehearsal to tighten defenses and refine the playmaking.

Coaches now live in constant fear of getting important players injured the week before the season commences. Their thinking used to be just the opposite. It was predicated on lining up with the 11 best they had, then allowing them to work at least half or even three quarters of the last preseason game to attain cohesion while saying a novena they wouldn't get hurt.

The idea was to come up to the opener ready to execute with smart, spring-like efficiency.

With these exhibitions, it almost seemed as if Tony Banks, the Ravens' starting quarterback, was invisible. He was seldom seen on the field. Billick obviously felt Banks was achieving all that was necessary in practice workouts.

Actually, Banks, in the four exhibitions, had the chance to throw only 55 passes and completed 28. Chris Redman, the third-string quarterback, for now anyhow, went 37-for-62, and the backup, Trent Dilfer obviously didn't need the practice because he was 15-for-35.

Will Banks be sharp or dull against the Pittsburgh Steelers today? Either way, can his opening-day performance, good or bad, be attributed to the limited way he was handled in the preseason?

The surprise of what transpired in the exhibitions was Redman, the rookie product from Louisville. He has shown a poised setup and a smooth delivery that propels the ball almost effortlessly.

There's reason to wonder why the Steelers, desperate for a quarterback, allowed him to stay around in the draft pool until the Ravens took him as the 75th player.

The Ravens, as with the rest of the NFL, offer a pass-oriented offense. Running with the ball is something they do when the coach can't think of anything else. Priest Holmes is a power runner, the best they have, and too little appreciated for what he does.

Holmes runs with such abandon he could be one of those self-destructive types - which means he hits with such force he damages himself in the process, along with loosening the crockery of tacklers who try to take him down.

Holmes is at a level below Earl Campbell or Marion Motley when measured for sheer power, but when running he deals out an enormous amount of punishment.

The Ravens have excellent receivers. And if the offensive line gives Banks adequate time, he'll throw in front of the secondary and then beyond. The two tight ends, Shannon Sharpe and Ben Coates, know how to get open and make tough catches. They were productive in Denver and New England and could be devastating.

The way Billick's offense works, it's almost pitch-and-catch between the quarterback and the short receivers, coming open precisely between 10 and 15 yards. The quarterback can first-down his way in short takes - while, at the same time, make the rivals' pass-coverage people susceptible to being victimized by deep sideline strikes or passes down the middle.

The Ravens' secondary, on the corners and at the safety positions, has speed and athletic ability. Its members are fast, active and able to jump with receivers.

In Peter Boulware, Ray Lewis and Jamie Sharper, they may have the best set of linebackers in the league. Sharper, as with Holmes running out of the backfield, is a vastly underrated player.

The Ravens' special teams have breakaway speed, and Jermaine Lewis can score from anywhere on the field, bringing back kicks or breaking loose to run under deep, arching passes.

The Ravens are prepared for a strong showing. Billick, the loquacious coach, supposedly has accumulated 8,000 plays in his coaching book, which is only about 4,000 fewer than Clark Shaughnessy used to carry around. But Billick is gaining on him.

From an 8-8 season a year ago, and also losing four games by three points or fewer, the Ravens are ready to make their move.

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