Out to steady a shaky past

Elvis Grbac: The Ravens' quarterback heads into today's playoff game in Miami battling the Dolphins, the critics and the shadow of Trent Dilfer.

January 13, 2002|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

MIAMI - While a shaky playoff past hangs over Elvis Grbac, the shadow of Trent Dilfer looms larger.

Winless in the postseason over his nine-year career, Grbac was lured to replace a Super Bowl-winning quarterback, bringing pressure never experienced before as the Ravens open the playoffs today against the Miami Dolphins.

Three victories will secure a return trip to the Super Bowl for the defending champions and provide the only shot at glory for Grbac. One loss likely will pin him as the scapegoat in a town emotionally tied to Dilfer, its energetic championship quarterback from a year ago.

These playoffs will rescue or doom Grbac's season.

"Quarterbacks are defined by the playoffs," Grbac said. "There's another level that you get when you win in the playoffs and when you win the Super Bowl. It's a category that every quarterback strives for.

"That's why I came here. I look at it as an opportunity to go out there and shine and help this team get back to the Super Bowl. That's the only way you've got to look at it."

Those expectations have weighed on Grbac this season.

Signing Grbac to a $30 million contract only 37 days after winning the Super Bowl, the Ravens promoted the Pro Bowl quarterback as a substantial upgrade in talent over Dilfer, who was rarely spectacular yet rarely lost.

That decision brewed into weekly debate as the Ravens struggled to clinch the final playoff spot under Grbac. Hampered by poor decisions and porous pass protection, Grbac finished as the lowest-rated passer among this year's playoff quarterbacks and was the only one to have more interceptions (18) than touchdowns (15).

For the past two months, Ravens coach Brian Billick has had to defend his quarterback. Does he still have confidence in Grbac? Would he bench Grbac in favor of backup Randall Cunningham? Is he committed to Grbac as his quarterback of the future?

"We knew coming in, Elvis was going to be held to an unrealistic standard," Billick said. "Anything less than a Super Bowl was not going to be adequate and was going to be his fault.

"I'm probably not handling it well. I should probably just tell everybody to shut up and I'm not going to answer questions on that anymore. I'd be better served in doing that because I've made my perspective very clear. It's not going to change. We're a 6-10 team and we're not in the playoffs if it wasn't for Elvis Grbac."

A telling moment of the season occurred just before a playoff berth was celebrated Monday night.

When Grbac walked into PSINet Stadium, he was booed and greeted with a sign that read: "Will Elvis please leave the building?" Then, when a Seattle Seahawks highlight featuring Dilfer was played on the video board, the crowd broke into cheers.

"People are going to forever remember Trent Dilfer as the guy that quarterbacked the Baltimore Ravens in a Super Bowl," offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh said. "If Elvis is fortunate enough to have that same scenario, he'll be forever remembered as the second quarterback to take us to the Super Bowl. Nobody comes to me and asks me what was Trent's completion percentage or was he accurate. All they know is that he won a Super Bowl."

In many ways, Grbac is sitting in the situation Dilfer was in before last year's playoffs.

Dilfer finished the 2000 regular season as the league's 20th-rated quarterback, with an interception percentage trailing only Ryan Leaf in the AFC. Many predicted that the Ravens would fall in the playoffs because of mistakes from Dilfer, who had won only one postseason game in seven seasons.

But Dilfer proved a quarterback can prevail despite his shortcomings, finishing 11-1 for the Ravens.

"You are going to be defined by your productivity in the playoffs. Now, your productivity in the playoffs can also be superseded by winning," Billick said. "Trent Dilfer is an example of that."

Poker face

Unlike Dilfer's emotional tirades, Grbac plays games with a poker face.

After he threw his third interception against the Cleveland Browns two months ago, fans at PSINet Stadium were booing and chanting for Cunningham. But the Ravens had no bead on what Grbac was feeling.

In the huddle, Ravens receiver Qadry Ismail and center Mike Flynn told Grbac, "We believe in you." But Grbac was unfazed, saying, "I'm not worried about this. I've been booed before."

In fact, this adversity pales to what Grbac went through in Kansas City, where he played four seasons (1997 to 2000).

"I went through two years of booing," Grbac said. "Every time I stepped on the field, I got booed in Kansas City. What fans are doing now is maybe 5 percent of what I got there."

His lack of emotion sometimes gets misread by others.

"People interpret that as uncommitted or unconcerned about things going on around him," Cavanaugh said. "But he's very concerned. He's very aware. He tries to keep it in check. I like that in a quarterback.

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