Boller confident in ability to raise game, lift offense

Ravens Vs Browns

September 12, 2004|By David Steele

IN THE MINDS of most observers, Kyle Boller's responsibilities are simple. For the Ravens to fulfill their promise of Super Bowl contention, Boller must merely: 1) hand off to Jamal, 2) make sure he doesn't trip Jamal while handing off to him and 3) make sure he doesn't trip Ray during pre-game introductions.

He's just the quarterback, after all. Stay out of the way of the Offensive Player of the Year, the Defensive Player of the Year and their cohorts. By all means, don't screw up anything they're doing. Be a caretaker, not a playmaker.

Hey, it worked four years ago, didn't it? Trent Dilfer's ring has the same value as everyone else's.

If Kyle Boller plays like Trent Dilfer this year, it could very well be enough to get the Ravens to Jacksonville, Fla., in February. He and Brian Billick, however, have something else in mind. "Whatever this team needs me to do, I'm gonna do," Boller said last week. "But at the same time, as I get more experience, more familiar with the offense, I'll be able to kind of let my skills take over.

"Instead of thinking about what I can't or shouldn't do, I can just be Kyle Boller."

Big talk, although not exactly out of character for this team. Boller was saying this in a hallway outside the practice facility locker room, in front of a wall lined with photos of past Pro Bowl players, including the eight from last season. He felt "lucky" to be on a team this brimming with talent - but, he added, "my goal is to have my picture on the wall with them."

If he can manage that, then the Super Bowl dreams can come true. But that's a huge "if." We'll start finding out how big this afternoon. And this date, this place and this opponent are as good a set of indications as any. Opening day, on the road, in the division, against a defense obsessed with further erasing Jamal Lewis' cleat marks from their collective psyches.

Oh, and in Cleveland, which needs no further explanation.

Transcend all of that, make the leap from caretaker to playmaker, punish the Browns for all their talk of stopping Jamal and daring anyone else on the offense to beat them, and Ravens fans still holding their breath from last year's training camp can exhale. Allow the Browns to become prophets and turn the quarterback position into an obstacle to overcome, and Boller and Billick will be hearing far more noise than they'd like from week to week.

It should come as no surprise, of course, that if that talk gets started, both quarterback and coach will tune much of it out. They both have planted their feet on this and aren't budging. Billick picked his man last year and, regardless of the trials and tribulations then and now, isn't regretting it one bit, even though his young, callow choice is at the controls of a team not building toward a championship later, but challenging for one now.

"Carson Palmer, [Byron] Leftwich, [Chad] Pennington, none of them have ever been in charge of a contending team from the very beginning of the season," Billick said last week, naming the others in Boller's generation of emerging starters. "That's asking a lot of a guy at his age. But he's ready. He's faced what they're just facing now. We started him right away, and we did so, quite frankly, with this in mind."

A lot was put into place this year to make sure that Boller and his team can accomplish what the coach has in mind. The goal: This second-year quarterback, who had all of one big season in college and was thrown into the fire at this level immediately, can't play like a second-year quarterback.

Billick hasn't missed an opportunity to point out how Boller, in Year 2, already has gotten the usual ascending-quarterback firsts out of the way: first season opener, first road game, first divisional game, first stretch of clunkers, first injury. He doesn't have to look over his shoulder. He doesn't have to return glares from teammates with impressive hardware, big demands and high expectations; they have his back.

It was the same with Dilfer, regardless of how outsiders frowned at his credentials. Boller and Dilfer, of course, share a friendship and a mentor, Jeff Tedford, who coached them both into the first round about a decade apart. Dilfer was at a different stage of his career when the Ravens defined his role for him. Yet another spot at which the two quarterbacks' fates head in opposite directions.

"They don't want me to be cautious," Boller said. "They want me to be the quarterback. They want me to play my game."

He's got game. He's also got weapons that he didn't have a year ago, not to mention weapons Dilfer didn't have. He'll also have a depleted line in front of him and 11 defenders willing to do anything to save face, who would stick 12 men in the box if they could get away with it.

If he wants to play his game, here's his chance.

If Peyton Manning or Tom Brady, for example, were handing off to Lewis, no team would talk as bold as the Browns are. Boller's task is to change the Browns' minds, and thus the minds of 30 other teams. Not necessarily in one week, but it wouldn't be bad if he could.

With what's at stake, the Ravens have to prove that the starter at the most important position on the field isn't just along for the ride.

"I'm up to the challenge," Boller said.

He'd better be.

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