AS THE OFFSEASON continues to evolve for the Ravens, it always comes back to the place where it began in 1999, and that's the quarterback position.
The Ravens selected Oklahoma wide receiver Mark Clayton yesterday in the first round to complement split end Derrick Mason, who will complement tight end Todd Heap, who is expected to complement running back Jamal Lewis.
It all sounds well and good. It's a great plan coming together. If you compare the 2004 Ravens with the 2005 version on paper, they're already an improved team. As the Ravens smiled all over themselves after selecting Clayton, there's a clear message they were indirectly sending Kyle Boller, the team's third-year quarterback:
It's time to get it done.
The Ravens have only one glaring weakness now, and that's finding a player to challenge or supplant Orlando Brown at right offensive tackle, even though they drafted Adam Terry at the end of the second round. Terry is better at pass-blocking than run-blocking. Strong run blockers usually play on the right side.
But for Boller and coach Brian Billick, there can be no more excuses for a failing offense for a seventh straight year. In the past, we often heard the Ravens didn't have receivers who can get separation or make big catches.
We all blamed offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh, and rightfully so, for poor play-calling. We also heard that Boller was young and had to be given more time.
Well, not anymore.
The Ravens have loaded up for Boller on offense, unlike for any of his predecessors on a list that includes Scott Mitchell, Tony Banks, Stoney Case - oh, heck, you know the crew.
This offseason, they finally fired Cavanaugh and replaced him with Jim Fassel, and moved David Shaw to strictly work with wide receivers so former University of Washington coach Rick Neuheisel could work directly with Boller and the other quarterbacks.
Boller has shown some progress in his first two seasons, but not enough to carry the Ravens deep into the playoffs. But with two new receivers and a quality defense whose best players are starting to show signs of age, he has to step up now.
"Now" arrived yesterday with the addition of Clayton.
Oh, it would have been better if the Ravens had gotten Clayton's teammate, Sooners right offensive tackle Jammal Brown, but New Orleans took Brown at No. 13, nine spots ahead of the Ravens. But the Ravens got Clayton, a receiver many experts said ran the best routes in college football last season.
So on one side, you have Mason, one of the league's most accomplished receivers during the past five years. He's the legitimate horizontal threat the Ravens haven't had since 1999.
On the other is Clayton. You have to like the guy because he can do so many things. He has enough speed and elusiveness to be a No. 1 receiver. He has enough toughness and strength to play in the slot and to push off on big cornerbacks or safeties. He can block well and return punts.
He's a receiver who likes to get down and dirty, a smaller version of the Pittsburgh Steelers' Hines Ward.
"When we met with the offensive staff back in February to start talking about free agency, Jim Fassel made a point that we needed some suddenness and quickness," said Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome. "He felt like that was missing.
"I think the two players that we have added in Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton bring about that suddenness that we need on offense - guys that can take those 8- or 10-yard catches and go the distance, but also guys that can separate from man coverage."
Clayton must be able to play well. The league's newest so-called genius, New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, wanted Clayton and called Newsome while the Ravens were on the clock to make a deal.
According to Billick, Clayton's addition gives the Ravens a lot of latitude to use in different packages. When asked to rate the Ravens' receiving corps now, Newsome responded: "If you want to put us in the top 15 right now, you probably can, but it's hard to quantify."
But there is little question that this is a better team than a year ago. Mason gets respect and will be double-teamed, which should take the extra safety away from the line of scrimmage to allow Lewis to run. With Mason and Clayton on the outside, Heap should own the middle of the field.
"I think he [Clayton] makes us better," said Eric DeCosta, the Ravens' director of college scouting. "I think he makes Jamal Lewis better because he's a great blocker. He's going to make Kyle Boller better because he can catch the ball on third down, inside or outside, and hopefully he'll help us score more points."
The key, of course, is Boller. He has to improve his accuracy on short and mid-range passes and become more consistent with the long ball.
It's kind of unfair to put all the pressure on one offensive player, but that's the life of a quarterback. The Ravens gave up a first- and a second-round pick to select Boller with the No. 19 overall pick in 2003.
They gave him a five-year contract and $5 million in bonuses. Now, they've given him two good receivers, a new offensive coordinator and a new quarterback coach, plus he is surrounded by a Pro Bowl offensive tackle, tight end and running back.
There can be no more excuses.