When the Ravens peered into their offensive future Sunday, coach Brian Billick liked what he saw.
He saw multiple threats downfield and in the backfield. He saw raw power and breakaway speed. He saw the ability to dominate. He saw the potential for big plays.
And he saw, in Tony Banks, a quarterback coming into his own.
"What I'm pleased about right now is the distribution that Tony's gone to," Billick said yesterday. "That shows that maybe he's beginning to really get comfortable with the offense and kind of knows where everybody is."
Banks, a five-year veteran, distributed his 20 completions to seven receivers in a 37-0 rout of the Cincinnati Bengals. He threw for two touchdowns and no interceptions.
He found tight end Shannon Sharpe, wide-out Jermaine Lewis and running back Priest Holmes on crossing routes for first downs. He found Travis Taylor over the middle and Jamal Lewis and Obafemi Ayanbadejo in the flat. He found split end Qadry Ismail where he usually finds him - in a meeting of minds.
If it was a snapshot of the Ravens' future, it had Banks' fingerprints all over it.
"When I tell a quarterback, `We're only going to be so good as long as this is my offense; we're going to be really good only when this becomes your offense,' they like to hear that," Billick said.
"But it takes a while for them to truly understand what I'm saying. I think he's beginning to understand. It's not a matter of, `You're just playing so well that this is your offense.' That's not what I mean.
"What I mean is, when your fingerprints start showing up on this offense, when your strengths start showing up, and the game plan and the players are responding to your strengths, that's when it becomes your offense. And we're beginning to show signs of that."
After 14 starts for the Ravens - nine of them wins - the profile on Banks is beginning to take shape. He has thrown for 25 touchdowns and 11 interceptions in those starts.
"What he has shown very clearly in his interception ratio is he's pretty good about being careful with the ball," Billick said.
"His touchdown ratio per throw is excellent, so it shows he's willing to take that shot and will complete it as well as most quarterbacks."
Banks is on schedule to reach the projections Billick established for him last winter. Ever the numbers maven, Billick projected Banks' totals for 10 starts last year over 16 games, then worked up new projections based on the quarterback completing two more passes per game over his 1999 performance.
Four weeks into the 2000 season - and Billick emphasizes that it's just four weeks - Banks' numbers are right where they're supposed to be. He is completing 57.6 percent of his passes for 846 yards, eight touchdowns and three interceptions. His touchdown ratio is now 5.3 and his interception ratio is 2.5.
By completing two more passes a game, Billick hopes to elevate Banks' completion percentage to 58 percent. He says Banks has enhanced his accuracy, but not at the cost of downfield strikes.
"The biggest thing you have to worry about when a quarterback's efficiency starts to climb is, what's that touchdown ratio, what's the explosive ratio," the coach said. "If that comes down too dramatically, then you're paying too high a price.
"I'm comfortable with Tony's shots down the field. He's not taking fewer shots down the field than he has before. That's a good sign. Now, it still has to be the proper ratio. I'm not going to give up explosives [big plays] for completion percentage. You'd like to have both, but if I've got to choose one, I'm going to take explosives."
Banks has thrown 32 completions to his wide receivers, and 18 more to Holmes and Lewis, the primary running backs. Tight ends Sharpe and Ben Coates have combined for 16 catches, and Ayanbadejo, the H-back, has a team-high 16 as a safety valve.
Even with a jagged performance against the Miami Dolphins, the Ravens have produced an average of 330 total yards and 24.5 points per game. In the last nine games of 1999, they averaged 322.6 yards and 25.4 points.
"If in 16 games we average 330 yards and 25 points, we're going to be pretty good," Billick said. "I don't want to minimize what we can do, but I'll take it.
"If the devil came to me in a Faustian arrangement - I don't know that I'd sell my soul, but my assistants would be in jeopardy - to get 330 yards and 25 points a game, I would make that trade."