Foursome greets new roles with air of confidence

Offense: Four young players -- Chris Redman, Todd Heap, Travis Taylor and Brandon Stokley -- are on a mission to mature and make the Ravens' passing game click.

The Ravens

September 05, 2002|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

Travis Taylor showed no fear.

With all eyes fixed upon him, it was crunch time for Taylor when his number was surprisingly called by offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh.

But instead of having to make a tough, third-down slant over the middle, Taylor had to run a go route to the front of the team meeting room. Cavanaugh picked the wide receiver to deliver the red-zone game plan before a recent preseason game, instructing every player of his assignment.

Graduation day has certainly arrived for the players responsible for the Ravens' passing game. With the team's quarterback and top two receivers gone from a year ago, four proteges -- Taylor, Chris Redman, Todd Heap and Brandon Stokley -- have had to make the leap from students to teachers.

"I actually surprised myself," Taylor said. "I couldn't have thought about doing something like that last year. I would have been so scared and fought not to do it. It comes with experience."

It comes with a different climate, too.

Players no longer have to answer to tight end Shannon Sharpe. They don't have to wait and take their cues from receiver Qadry Ismail. And they don't have to worry about what quarterback Elvis Grbac might be thinking.

"When everybody is the same age, you're kind of all on the same wavelength as far as what to expect," tight end Heap said. "There's really nobody saying that you have to play up to my level. Everybody is on the same level."

Teaming a bunch of Generation Y receivers with a laid-back quarterback, the Ravens have the freedom to be candid, whether it's critiquing someone's route-running or trash-talking each other's golf game. What these guys lack in experience, they make up for in chemistry.

"For me, it's a lot easier," quarterback Redman said. "There's no intimidating -- quote, unquote -- big-time players. We're just out there having fun. Hopefully, that'll show up in our play. We're all confident that we can make plays. We're going to be a good offense.

"It's just a matter of us getting everything together. We're pretty close. It's just a matter of going out there on the field and getting the job done."

The change of atmosphere began with the change of quarterback.

Grbac approached the game with an all-business attitude. He was a loner who lacked the numbers and the charisma to win over the locker room.

With Redman, a teammate's biggest worry may be becoming the victim of a practical joke. Hot balm in the underwear may sting for a while, but such antics keep the huddle loose.

"I feel like I can tell him anything," wide receiver Stokley said. "The rest of the offense feels like that, too. Whereas in the years past -- other than Trent Dilfer -- I didn't feel that communication line open. With Redman, it's there."

Can they produce?

Still, talk is cheap in the NFL.

The only way a team can grow together is if the players can produce together.

The Ravens have to show they can replace the firepower of their predecessors. The off-season departures from the passing game accounted for 92 big plays last season (touchdowns, touchdown passes, passes more than 20 yards and catches more than 25 yards).

"With no disrespect to Qadry and Shannon, there's going to be somebody to make those plays," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "Todd Heap and Travis Taylor are athletic enough to make the same plays as those guys. Whether they can do it effectively or not, we'll find out.

"But we're going to have somebody in that same position, the same play is going to be called and we'll either make the play or we won't."

For the past three years, the Ravens looked to the draft to stock their passing game, using two first-round picks (Taylor and Heap), a third-round choice (Redman) and a fourth-round selection (Stokley). But over their careers, the four have totaled 33 starts and 12 touchdowns.

The players say this is the season when the organization can expect a return on its investment.

"We came in the league wanting big responsibilities, and now we got them," Taylor said. "So, let's go out and see what we do with it. Let's try to lead this offense where we want it to be."

Having fun

When it's not football business, it's usually funny business.

Redman, Heap and Stokley hit the golf course a couple of times a week. Redman is the team pro. Heap is nicknamed the "weed wacker" for always cutting down the rough. And Stokley is the big underdog who lets everyone know when he wins.

Getting a 12-stroke advantage for every round, Stokley has beaten Redman three times this year and celebrates by pointing his index finger high in the air, signaling he's No. 1. He also wins the big prize wagered among these high-priced athletes: Nike golf balls.

"You'd think he won the Masters," Redman said. "Yet I gave 12 strokes and he beat me by one."

Involving Taylor in these antics is a group effort. Knowing he's usually the last to show up for meetings, the players move the clock ahead in the room to make Taylor think he's late.

Then, there's that "stupid" handshake between Redman and Taylor after they connect on a big play.

So, what exactly does that exchange look like?

"It's secret," Redman said. "You have to look for it. It's not like a [Brett] Favre routine thing. It's a quick handshake."

Time to work

The key is finding a balance between fun and games.

"The good thing about this team is we all love to joke and clown around, but when it comes time to business, we can turn the switch on," Redman said. "We know the difference between joke time and time to work."

For the Ravens' offense, it's time for new starters, a new atmosphere and a new era. The Ravens are banking on this youthful chemistry to make their passing game click.

"When you look in the huddle, you see Travis, Stokley and Redman," Heap said. "That's the offense right there. We don't have the old guys to fall back on. We have to make this happen ourselves."

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