An artful dodger, Billick passes on QB controversy

Billick shrewdly passes on quarterback controversy

October 29, 2002|By MIKE PRESTON

CONGRATULATIONS, Brian Billick. After 3 1/2 years and seven quarterbacks, the Ravens' coach has finally found the proper way to handle a possible controversy at the position during the season.

Whether he did it intentionally or not, that's debatable (he'll say he did because he is a genius).

But Billick would have made Bill Clinton proud. In one breath, he said Chris Redman could be his starting quarterback in a couple of weeks. In another, he said it could be Jeff Blake.

Brilliant. The old double-talking trick.

Instead of boxing himself in as he has in the past with Scott Mitchell and Elvis Grbac, Billick left his options open. He didn't cite the NFL credo that a player couldn't lose his job because of injury, and thank goodness there was no utterance about "taking a leap of faith."

Billick simply remained non-committal.

What did you expect? It's an election year.

"We're committed to the development of Chris Redman, but it would be foolish for me to preclude anything," Billick said yesterday when asked if Blake could replace Redman as the permanent starter. "Never say never, so I'm not going to do that. I wouldn't do it now, wouldn't do it later. We'd like to continue the development of Chris Redman, and see where that goes. But right now, Jeff Blake is my starting quarterback, and that's where my sole focus is."

All past sins can now be forgiven because Billick has learned his lesson: Make commitments during the offseason, not during the season. Just ask New England coach Bill Belichick, who opted for Tom Brady over Drew Bledsoe and rode Brady's hot right arm to a Super Bowl championship last season.

That's probably not going to happen here, but you get the picture. Billick was committed to Redman, but a back injury to the third-year player has altered the immediate plans.

"There's enough going on in his back that we have to wait for that inflammation in his back to go down," Billick said. "The biggest concern is the tingling he has in his leg down to his ankle and toes. The doctors were concerned that would put him at risk. He will definitely be out for a minimum of one week, and possibly two. Hopefully, he'll get his strength back next week."

But that doesn't mean Redman will start. Blake turned in a phenomenal effort Sunday in the Ravens' 31-18 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Forget about the three interceptions. Two of those came in the final 3:21 when the Ravens were desperate.

What Blake did was make Billick's No. 30-ranked offense respectable. He completed 29 of 50 passes for 298 yards. He made the Steelers have to defend the entire field because he can make throws Redman can't, like those to the far side of the field.

He threw bombs. Yes sir, the Ravens went vertical.

He sprayed the ball, getting all of the receivers involved, including Travis Taylor, who had become the forgotten man behind Redman favorites Brandon Stokley and Todd Heap.

If Redman had been the starter, the game would have been over at halftime when Pittsburgh led by 25 points. Redman doesn't have the running skills to elude a defender like Blake did on his 1-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter. If Redman had been the starter, a tow truck would have had to pick his arm up off the field after throwing 50 times.

Blake brought the Ravens within a Jamal Lewis fumble of staging a possible comeback. He did it without taking a snap with the first team during the past two weeks of practice (that should never happen).

No wonder Mr. Billick has turned into Mr. Clinton.

"I thought Jeff Blake performed very, very well considering the circumstances," said Billick. "I'm taking it one week at a time, brother. I'm living one week at a time. Again, you can't imagine the difficulty of not taking a rep during the course of the week even though you are taking it vicariously from the classroom onto the field. Yeah, there are a couple of throws he'd like to have back, but the people stepped up around him. There was a certain energy Jeff brought in, and we're excited about that.

"There are certain things quarterbacks do different with different strengths. Jeff has got an incredibly strong arm and a quick release. There are certain throws he likes and is very good at. To now wrap the whole game plan around Jeff will be an asset to him. It's a lot easier to implement than a game plan crafted to someone else. Jeff's ability to throw the ball in that nature kind of raises the play of guys around him. It got them excited and me kind of excited, too."

The key phrase is "raises the play of guys around him."

But what about Redman?

Billick stayed true to his word. He kept him in the lineup until he got hurt. It's one thing to promise Rams quarterback Kurt Warner his job back from Marc Bulger once he becomes healthy, but Redman isn't in that class. All players know an injury could result in a lost job, which is why Aaron Brooks replaced Blake a few years ago in New Orleans.

Redman has made progress. He has played in six games, but at best, he looks like another Brad Johnson or Jay Fiedler. In the NFL these days, that still is enough to get the job done.

Blake, though, has a live arm. At age 31, he can still put juice in the Ravens' poorly time-managed and designed offense. He can become the team's quarterback of the future. Bledsoe is carrying the Bills. Rich Gannon leads Oakland.

Why not Blake?

It's an interesting situation. If Blake remains hot and wins some games and the Ravens stay in playoff contention in the watered-down NFL, then he should remain the man. If not, then it's Redman's job again.

It's different from the last couple of years when Billick painted himself in a corner. This time, he finally left himself an out.

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