Ravens and Terps can afford to go long with quarterbacks

September 22, 2004|By John Eisenberg

FANS OF THE Ravens and football Terps can be excused for confusing their Saturdays with their Sundays this fall.

Both teams are using young quarterbacks who have yet to prove themselves, leading to the inevitable calls for backups to take over.

But anyone waiting for the Ravens' Kyle Boller or the Terps' Joel Statham to be banished to the sidelines is in for a long wait.

Both teams also have successful head coaches who just signed new, long-term contracts, and coaches with such security can afford to be patient.

They don't have to win to keep their jobs. They can afford to invest in the future even if it risks compromising the present.

They can stick with young quarterbacks who make enough mistakes to drive some fans crazy.

That's not to suggest Ravens coach Brian Billick and Terps coach Ralph Friedgen are selling out their 2004 teams by eschewing more proven quarterback alternatives and playing for the future.

To the contrary, Billick says his goal for the season is to win a Super Bowl with Boller, a second-year pro; and Friedgen, a canny offensive mind, obviously believes Statham, a sophomore, is his best option.

Boller struggled in the Ravens' season-opening loss in Cleveland, then was solid, though hardly spectacular, in their victory over Pittsburgh on Sunday.

Overall, he is exhibiting more composure and making better decisions than a year ago. But he also isn't ready to carry a heavy load, meaning it might be wise to avert your eyes when the Ravens travel to Cincinnati this Sunday minus Todd Heap and Travis Taylor, their top two receivers.

At such moments, it is easy to wish the Ravens were going with a veteran quarterback with a winning track record, a big-shouldered star who could win the game by himself.

They would probably do that if Billick were near the end of his contract and needing to win.

But he has a Super Bowl title in his recent past and he just signed a multi-year contract extension, and, not coincidentally, the Ravens have elected to grow a quarterback from scratch rather than buy someone else's, assuring them of a steady succession of bumps to endure.

Are they wrong to take on such a project even if costs them games? No.

After shuffling through Scott Mitchell, Tony Banks, Stoney Case, Trent Dilfer, Elvis Grbac, Randall Cunningham, Jeff Blake and Chris Redman between 1999 and 2002, they needed to establish continuity at the game's most important position. (For those scoring at home, only Blake, Banks and Dilfer still have NFL jobs, all as backups.)

Starting from scratch with a rookie is the only way to establish genuine, lasting continuity.

The gamble is highlighted every time Boller struggles, but the quarterback isn't quite as important on a team that depends on its defense and running game to win, so the timing of the gamble isn't bad.

Signing Kordell Stewart as the backup for 2004 was Billick's way of insuring he stayed the course and didn't succumb to impatience if and when Boller struggled. Stewart, who turns 32 next month, had the league's lowest quarterback rating playing for the Bears in 2003.

Anyone calling for him to supplant Boller obviously didn't see him play before he lost his starting job halfway through last season.

Statham's status as the Terps' starter isn't quite as secure. He has committed eight turnovers in three games, and his backup, freshman Jordan Steffy, is a blue-chip recruit who chose Maryland over Penn State, Virginia Tech and Michigan State, among others. If Friedgen were near the end of a contract and needing to establish himself, he would probably go with the young gun.

But the Maryland coach just signed a new deal guaranteeing him at least $1.5 million a year through 2012, so he can afford to take a long-term view.

Steffy is a fascinating option, but as a true freshman, he would probably benefit from spending a year on campus before taking on larger responsibilities.

Meanwhile, Statham was clearly better in preseason drills, according to Friedgen, and given the coach's knack for developing quarterbacks, he probably will improve throughout his first year as a starter. He has displayed winning qualities such as a strong arm and admirable resiliency through the haze of mistakes.

Making a change would force Friedgen to admit he was wrong, which he doesn't want to do, and also embroil his young team in a quarterback controversy.

"I see Joel progressing. I really do," Friedgen said after the Terps' loss last Saturday to West Virginia.

It was the sound of a head coach digging in, establishing his position on the subject.

Only under extreme duress will a change occur, on Saturdays as well as Sundays this fall.

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