Worst fears are realized, so bring on Lions, please

September 09, 2002|By MIKE PRESTON

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Congratulations, Ravens, and move over, Detroit. The Ravens are now officially one of the worst teams in the National Football League.

This was supposed to be a rebuilding year, but the Ravens hit rock bottom in the season opener. They lost to the Carolina Panthers, 10-7, yesterday in half-filled Ericsson Stadium, where the home fans have lost interest.

Just how low can you go? This may surpass the two losses to the Cleveland Browns last year. The Ravens lost to a team that had not won a game in 364 days, to a team that had lost 15 straight, including the previous eight here.

They lost to a quarterback who is older than Moses, has not started a game since 1998 and had not thrown a pass in the NFL since 1999. They lost to a team that had the league's worst defense and the second- worst offense a season ago.

This was a game the Ravens had to win, because Sunday they have Tampa Bay, which is followed by a bye week. Then they play host to Denver, followed by road games at Cleveland and Indianapolis. Can you say 0-5?

Can you say oh-no?

"Players bounce back pretty quick, so what I told them was that this is the NFL and there is nothing you can gain by losing," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "There are no moral victories or anything else like that, but you have to improve with each contest and take something from each contest to make you better."

Something?

The Ravens have a long laundry list. In areas where they were supposed to be solid, they were weak. See offensive line and see linebackers. In areas where they were supposed to be weak, they were just downright ugly. See secondary and see defensive line. Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis said the defense turned in a solid performance because it gave up only 10 points, but who is he kidding?

If the ancient one, Carolina starter Rodney Peete, shaved off another 10 pounds, got into shape and put some of that old heat on the ball, the Panthers would have beaten the Ravens by at least 14 points. If he hadn't thrown behind a wide-open Muhsin Muhammad on a pass over the middle with 12:12 left in the first half that would have been another touchdown.

If Peete hadn't thrown behind Steve Smith on a crossing pattern later in the first half, it would have been another six points. Peete completed 12 of 19 passes for 136 yards, 118 of those yards in the first half. The Panthers had such a lack of respect for the Ravens offense that they went conservative offensively early in the second half. Peete completed only three of five passes in the final two quarters, and the Panthers' best play on passing downs were pitches around the end.

If Carolina can run the ball that effectively, then what will Pittsburgh and Cleveland do? Can't Cincinnati and Detroit be added to the schedule every other week? Please? Or how about fast forwarding to 2004, when some of these 19 rookies will have gained some playing experience?

It's still hard to imagine. The Ravens lost to Rodney Peete and the Panthers. They lost to John Fox in his first game as a head coach. The Ravens turned down a gift three months before Christmas.

"Game plans have to be a little simpler, and we can't make mistakes out there with young guys," Ravens outside linebacker Peter Boulware said. "We can't expect to go out there and dominate like we did with the vets."

There are some things that the Ravens can't control. Salary cap issues have put players on this team who don't belong in the NFL. But you also have to look at other things.

How about the offensive line? Guard Casey Rabach and center Mike Flynn were dominated physically. The Ravens had problems picking up blitzes in the middle, a recurring problem during the past three years. It's time for a change in the plan.

Quarterback Chris Redman was one of the team's bright spots, completing 20 of 34 passes for 218 yards and a touchdown, but he was sacked twice and hit eight other times. There may never be a quarterback controversy, because there may not be many left. Running back Jamal Lewis ran hard and started to dominate the game in the second half. He had 17 carries and 64 yards rushing, but most of those came on his own on cutbacks.

The defense had just as many problems. Missed tackles. Receivers running wide open (missed assignments or poor scheme?). Poor pursuit angles (how can that happen on this level?). Carolina guards were getting running starts to block Ray Lewis, and Boulware and defensive end Michael Mc- Crary looked rusty from not playing in the preseason.

Cornerbacks Alvin Porter and Chris McAlister?

They didn't show up until the second half. Meanwhile, safety Anthony Mitchell was stuck in one gear in pass coverage. Slow.

Despite the problems, the Ravens still had a chance to pull out the game when Fox made a big mistake and had John Kasay try a 50-yard field goal with 2:00 left instead of ordering a punt that might have put the Ravens inside their 20 with one timeout left while being led by a quarterback making his first start.

But after Kasay missed, Redman was hit by defensive end Julius Peppers three plays later and Dan Morgan intercepted the ball at the Baltimore 39-yard line to end any comeback attempt with 1:19 remaining. After the game, the Panthers were talking a lot of smack. They just don't realize how bad they still are and how far the Ravens have to go.

But the Panthers have an excellent chance to go 2-0 next week. Detroit comes to town. Wish they were coming to Baltimore. The Ravens need to establish some bragging rights.

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