Little room for excuses as lifeless Ravens fall flat

August 21, 2005|By DAVID STEELE

TO HIS CREDIT, Brian Billick chose his words carefully after the debacle of Preseason Week 2. One word he used with particular care was "excuse." For example, asked why he thought his Ravens came out uncommonly, uncharacteristically flat for last night's game (for lack of a better term) against the Philadelphia Eagles, he said, "Any reason right now would be an excuse; any flaw I could pinpoint to you [reporters] would be an excuse."

The last thing anybody needed was excuses. Even the ones observers might have bought beforehand - two Pro Bowl starters, Jamal Lewis and Todd Heap, were again in street clothes - didn't hold water afterward. If either of them could have made a notable difference in the 12-car pileup that was the first half at M&T Bank Stadium last night, the Ravens shouldn't bother putting them in uniform next week; they should just dip them in bronze and ship them to Canton.

No, this wasn't a night for excuses. Reasons, though, would have been nice. Or explanations. The coach and his players spoke of teaching modes and learning from mistakes, but it sounded as if they couldn't even explain what sort of mind-set, even at this time of year, allowed them to hit the field with a lack of energy.

After all, the Eagles could have fallen back on their own depleted roster to excuse a bad outing, on the road, a week after their starting unit was spanked in their own preseason opener in Pittsburgh. Think Terrell Owens might have made a difference last night, whether he's talking or even looking in the direction of Donovan McNabb or not?

Problem is, what the Ravens' offense perpetrated last night in their first home exhibition game - in front of the biggest crowd ever for a football game here - surpassed the depths reached by the Eagles last week.

The Ravens didn't have their best back or most reliable receiver, but they did have Kyle Boller and the full set of wideouts and a fairly deep set of tight ends and an offensive scheme that is supposed to maximize all that talent. And they fell behind 17-0 in the first half, largely because they handed McNabb and Co. (but not Owens) a short field too many times in too many ways.

Two Boller interceptions, one Boller fumble, two Ravens fumbles they recovered, exactly one trip into Philly territory in the game's first 23 minutes.

That, of course, followed the three-point half by the starters in the preseason opener last week in Atlanta. It took the Ravens, starters and backups, 88 minutes of action over two games to score a touchdown. One touchdown, but six turnovers, four by the starting unit.

No one is crazy enough to expect Boller to make something out of nothing the way the Eagles know McNabb can, but it's not too much to expect him to avoid giving the ball away. The days of three-turnover halves by the starting quarterback should be over by now.

At this stage in Boller's development, with all the help he's been given in terms of coaches and complementary players, if he's still throwing picks twice in his first three possessions - twice in any three possessions - then these no longer count as "meaningless" exhibitions. That turnover rate carries too much meaning. It means that two weeks before the games start counting, the offense isn't in anything close to regular-season shape.

The last drive of Boller's stint, late in the first half, starting in Philadelphia territory for once and ending with that lonesome touchdown, might be one to grow on. The Ravens, at least, are taking a glass-half-full view of it; Billick believes it showed nice resiliency, while Boller thinks it showed that he hadn't cracked under the weight of his ineptitude.

"It's one of those things where you come out thinking, `It can't be worse,"' he said of his performance before that last drive. "You have to stay confident in yourself, you can't lose your poise."

True, except that he looked as if his confidence and poise were draining away at every snap until that final possession. The previous week in Atlanta, he turned his game around a lot more quickly after that ghastly first throw was picked off. If his recovery time is getting slower by the week, the Ravens and their followers have a right to be concerned.

No unit had much to be proud of last night, including the defense and special teams. But there's nothing encouraging about the fact that an ugly offensive output had so much company.

It's not time for full-fledged panic, of course. But the clock is ticking toward the regular season, and the Ravens are running out of time to turn excuses, explanations and lessons into answers. Can it be done? "There's no mistake in the world that can't be corrected," Billick said.

But can the corrections be made in time?

Grim-faced, he replied, "They've got to be."

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