For Ravens, passing game is truly lame

October 19, 2003|By MIKE PRESTON

SHHH. QUIET. The P-word ban used in 2000 might be enforced again by Ravens coach Brian Billick. But this time, it's not about playoffs. The P-word is for pass, as in forward pass, which the Ravens haven't discovered in 2003.

You mention the P-word around the Ravens' complex these days, and Billick and offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh, of the Brian and Matt Show, get a little antsy.

And the frustration is starting to show among the players. After the past two games, offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden, running back Jamal Lewis and tight end Todd Heap have publicly criticized the team's lack of a passing game.

These aren't no-name players, either, or guys who just like to flap their gums (paging cornerback Chris McAlister).

Who's next, Ray Lewis?

If that happens, the Ravens will have trouble. Big trouble. Unless they miraculously find a passing game today against the Cincinnati Bengals, the former cure-all-ailments team of the NFL, then Billick might have to impose a gag order on comments about the passing offense.

Billick instituted it on the defensive players in 2000 when the offense failed to score a touchdown in five straight games. He had another one in the same year when the Ravens were getting close to securing a playoff bid.

It's unusual for a Billick-coached team to speak so freely about problems, especially when the Ravens (3-2) are in first place in the AFC North. No one should suggest this team is falling apart, but there should be some concern. Muzzles might come soon.

When asked if he was surprised about some of the players' comments, Billick did the predictable and blamed it on the media. But that's so far from the truth. Take a leap of faith and believe me when I say the Ravens are singing as much as the Temptations.

The team's passing game is downright pitiful. The Ravens are ranked No. 32 in the league, and they'd be No. 33 if there were one more team. They are averaging just over 97 yards, and no other team is below 130.

Their free-agent acquisitions at wide receiver have been busts thus far. Frank Sanders has four catches for 52 yards and zero touchdowns. Marcus Robinson, the former speedster from the Chicago Bears, can't catch, period. His stats: five catches, 50 yards, no touchdowns.

And then there is fourth-year player Travis Taylor, another wide receiver with hands of stone. If the NFL wasn't so watered down, Taylor would be lucky to be a No. 3 receiver on a good passing team, and Sanders and Robinson probably would be unemployed.

But no matter how poorly they perform, the Ravens keep finding excuses.

Listen to Billick: "When you have 18 throws, you only have so many opportunities. Yeah, I'm disappointed with every drop, no more than they are. There's probably a little frustration with the idea they're only getting so many opportunities, and [they're saying to themselves], `If I don't do something great with this ball this time, I may not see it again the rest of the game.' "

Listen to general manager Ozzie Newsome: "I think the toe injury to Frank has been a setback, and I know he isn't completely healed from that, and hasn't played up to the level where he was in training camp. With Marcus, I don't know if Marcus is completely confident in his knee."

Please, stop this nonsense. It's not about opportunities; it's not about injuries. They just can't get open, and when they do, they can't catch. It's not a good combination. The Ravens run the ball as much out of necessity as they do because it is a strength.

The Ravens also have a quarterback problem. Rookie Kyle Boller has been erratic. He underthrows or overthrows, and when he puts the ball on the numbers, clunk, the receivers drop it.

It's amusing at times to hear the Ravens' offensive coaches talk about Boller learning the offense. What offense? He either hands off or pitches to Jamal Lewis, or throws slant-in routes or alley-oops. It has been that way since 1999 when the Brian and Matt Show first appeared.

The Ravens don't run picks, flood zones or use crossing patterns. They can blame that on Boller's inexperience, but those types of plays have seldom been a part of this offense. It's a bad system, with bad receivers, bad coaching and a rookie quarterback who creates a lot of fear whenever he drops back.

What a mess.

"If you don't get opportunities, it inhibits your ability to gain confidence," Newsome said. "But the way we're structured right now, all of those opportunities are not coming and they have to make the best of them. And if they do, with the growth of Kyle, we can give them more opportunities."

Yeah, right.

The best thing the Ravens have going right now is Jamal Lewis, a huge offensive line and the running game. It's hard to watch, but at least it's successful. The running game is so simple in its approach that it's hard for the brain trust, the quarterback or any of the receivers to foul it up.

But the Ravens know they're going to need a receiver and their quarterback to make plays to complement their No. 1 rushing attack.

The slightest hint of a real passing game might be enough to get this team into the playoffs. And if they don't get one, we're going to hear about it for some time.

We're already hearing about it now from the players.

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