With 8 players in Pro Bowl, future is now for Ravens

December 21, 2003|By MIKE PRESTON

THE QUESTION OF the week is how can the Ravens have eight Pro Bowl players and three alternates, but have only eight wins in the weakest division in the NFL?

After the euphoria and celebrations last week, you had to scratch your head because it made no sense. After all, Kansas City had eight representatives, and the Chiefs already have the AFC West title with a 12-3 record despite yesterday's 45-20 loss to the Minnesota Vikings.

The New England Patriots, 13-2 after last night's 21-16 win over the New York Jets, and Philadelphia Eagles (11-3) each had only two players selected, but they are the hottest teams in the league. Meanwhile, the Ravens (8-6) are tied for first in the AFC North with the Cincinnati Bengals, who had only two Pro Bowl players.

What gives? Shouldn't the Ravens have 12 or 13 wins? Shouldn't they have clinched instead of being in a fight for their playoff lives?

The answers are yes. The Ravens, though, haven't found the right chemistry. We're not talking about that mess over in Washington, where a team goes out and buys star players, and the bonding doesn't take place.

The Ravens' problems range from inexperience to lack of productivity at quarterback to inconsistent play from some of the Pro Bowl players. But now with eight players named to the AFC squad, the future has arrived for the Ravens.

There can be no more excuses.

Ravens coach Brian Billick spent time Friday making sure the selection process would not cause a distraction for today's game against the Cleveland Browns, but he is also aware of the pressure on himself, his staff and the players.

Last year, the Ravens were in a similar situation of trying to secure a playoff bid, and lost the last two games to the same two teams (Cleveland and the Pittsburgh Steelers). They called that a learning experience. If they lose today, and don't get into the playoffs, what will it be called? Failure? Disappointment?

Call it an embarrassment of the major league variety.

"Without any prompting from me, our guys like Ray Lewis and Todd Heap have said, the world sees it now, they see the talent we have and there is a responsibility that goes with this," Billick said.

It's a tough assignment for this team, which is still young. Often compared to the 2000 Super Bowl team, this team lacks those proven veterans, those players who had acquired Pro Bowl status, but no Super Bowl rings. The Ravens are the third-youngest team in the NFL.

They are also 2-5 on the road. There was a big letdown last week in the team's 20-12 loss to the Oakland Raiders. The Ravens may have Pro Bowl players galore, but they also have a lot of growing pains.

"This team practices well together, and they have fun with each other," Billick said. "They know how to correct each other and reel each other in, on and off the field, which is important. But we're only in year two, and even though we're ahead in the rebuilding process, we lack that veteran perspective.

"Back in 2000, what on the football field, even in the playoffs, was going to happen that Rod Woodson, Tony Siragusa, Rob Burnett or Shannon Sharpe had not experienced? We have some veterans with playoff experiences, but there are a lot of players who still have to go through a lot of different experiences."

The Ravens gambled on the inexperience of rookie quarterback Kyle Boller, one that might cost them the playoffs. Boller was 5-4 as a starter. You can't pin the blame on him for all his losses, but he performed poorly in three of them.

Even with backup Anthony Wright in the lineup, the Ravens have gotten little production (except for turnovers) out of one of the game's most important positions. The Ravens believe that Boller is the answer for the future.

But did the Ravens mortgage the present too soon, and did they underestimate their talent?

It's safe to assume that with a serviceable veteran quarterback, the Ravens would have been the division champions by now.

"We embarked on this season with the goal of getting to the playoffs regardless of the quarterback, and the goal is still obtainable," said Ozzie Newsome, the team's general manager. "I don't think we underestimated the talent. Most of them are No. 1 picks living up to their draft status."

The decision to start Boller, though, isn't the only issue. The Ravens haven't found consistency in their passing game, which is ranked last in the league. Wide receiver Marcus Robinson and tight end Heap have traded positions as the top playmaker, but neither has been a consistent target.

There is a big gap in talent between some of the star players and other starters. For instance, the Ravens have struggled on the right side of the offensive line, they don't have a big-time receiver or a big stud on the defensive line who can collapse a pocket. Every team has weaknesses, but some of the Ravens' are dramatic, more so than those of a team like the Patriots.

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