Low-interest preseason yields few answers

August 30, 2002|By Mike Preston

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Oh, thank goodness the preseason is over. It's time to move on. The Ravens' season opener against the Carolina Panthers might not be a feature attraction, but at least the intensity will be turned up a few decibels because it counts.

It has to be better than these preseason games. It just has to be.

Right?

In the six years the Ravens have been in Baltimore, the the team has never had more questions than answers heading into the regular season. But that's what will make the 2002 season so interesting. There is still a mystery to it. We know it's a four-, five-, six-win season at the max, but what quality players will evolve?

This preseason was no barometer. It was a rip-off as usual, with multi-millionaire owners continuing to squeeze a few more hundred bucks out of fans for bad football. There wasn't much coach Brian Billick found out about the Ravens last night -- don't believe any of that bubble stuff; this roster was practically set two weeks ago -- in Exhibition No. 4 against the New York Giants.

The Ravens were downright sorry. They couldn't catch, couldn't stay onside, couldn't get the snap down for field goals. This team seems destined for a quarterback controversy. The Ravens played so poorly that Mr. Positive turned into Mr. Realistic.

"It's very disappointing to finish any game -- regular or preseason, scrimmage, whatever -- like that," said an obviously disappointed Billick after the 13-0 loss. "You pick a thing. It's mental, physical, emotional, we weren't ready to play at any level tonight."

The Giants didn't play quarterback Kerry Collins or running backs Tiki Barber and Ron Dayne on offense, or linebackers Mike Barrow and Brandon Short and defensive backs Jason Sehorn and Shaun Williams on defense. New York's starting defense was out by the end of the first quarter.

Giants fans knew the deal.

The stadium was less than half-filled last night. The Blast draws more at dumpy Baltimore Arena. Yet as the game ended, what do we know about this football team?

Well, just about as much as we don't know.

There is no definitive answer on defensive end Michael McCrary. We do know the Ravens' front office goofed up by giving a part-time player a huge contract extension in the off-season, but McCrary played only one quarter during the preseason. He missed most of training camp as a precautionary measure because of past knee problems.

Running back Jamal Lewis has shown flashes of his old self in recovering from major knee surgery last year, but who knows if he can handle the bulk of the running game? Lewis has played little in the preseason. He performed well against the New York Jets two weeks ago, but he looked a little slow accelerating through holes last night.

The Ravens still are in search of a go-to receiver. No. 1 receiver Travis Taylor is inconsistent (nothing new there), and Brandon Stokley can't step on the field on a regular basis without an injury. One day it's a knee, the next it's a hand. Tomorrow, it could be a hangnail.

Who knows?

One of the team's top priorities was to find a way to shut down the run in training camp, but the Ravens can't even find a defensive line. McCrary was held out, and rookie Tony Weaver, who has a good upside, has been bothered by an ankle sprain. He hasn't played all preseason.

What else don't we know?

How about rookie Ed Reed, the safety out of the University of Miami? He missed nine days of training camp in a contract dispute, and hasn't showed why the Ravens made him their No. 1 pick last April. Shoot, we don't even know if the first offensive unit can score a touchdown.

Now, here's what we do know, and some things look quite good. For instance, the team might have found several sleeper players in rookies Maake Kemoeatu, a nose tackle, and safeties Chad Williams and Will Demps. Rookie Ron Johnson could become the go-to receiver once the team has given Stokley and Taylor every chance to step up.

They know that second-year fullback Alan Ricard will become a good blocker, but he still might be six to eight games away from becoming dominant. The Ravens will be able to bring pressure off the edges with McCrary and outside linebackers Peter Boulware and Shannon Taylor. The team still has one of the best linebacking units in the league with Boulware, middle linebacker Ray Lewis and outside linebacker Cornell Brown.

But they also know that Adalius Thomas should play on the defensive line and not at linebacker because he can't cover running backs and play at a high level consistency. They found out that Anthony Mitchell plays the run better than the pass -- which eventually cost him his starting job at strong safety -- and that Edwin Mulitalo is a better left guard than right tackle because of his slow hands and feet.

They know second-year cornerback Gary Baxter is as injury-prone as Stokley, that Ray Lewis is going to take a beating because the defensive line can't keep opposing guards off him, and that the offense will be erratic because of quarterback Chris Redman's inconsistency, and an ugly, unimaginative system.

But the Ravens should show some improvement, especially in the secondary. A major key will come in late November and December. That's when a lot of young players hit the wall, or become fatigued because their bodies aren't used to a 16-game schedule. Because of their youth, the Ravens are going to need different players to step up at different times during the entire season.

But if a lot of these players hit the wall at the same time, the 2002 season could become ugly. The Ravens might end up looking like they have this preseason, and Ravens Stadium might become as empty as Giants Stadium last night.

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