Preseason ends, but old fears remain

September 02, 2005|By Rick Maese

AFTER THE game, Brian Billick faced the cameras and the microphones. The questions came at him one at a time, and the Ravens' coach did his best to answer.

But there are no answers, and that's why this preseason left a lot to be desired.

It's too easy to look at last night's 26-20 overtime win over the Washington Redskins and say it lacked meaning. At the very least, it cemented some fears.

The Ravens will enter Week 1 of the regular season haunted by the same lingering questions that were hanging above them a month ago. It shouldn't be that way. Training camp, four games, a month of practice - that's the time to address your question marks, not add any.

But the win was an exciting finish to a lackluster preseason.

"Emotionally, it makes the next week and a half easier," Billick said, looking ahead to the Ravens' season opener against Indianapolis on Sept. 11.

Looking back on the preseason, Billick said his team "got done what we needed to get done."

But quarterback Kyle Boller has done nothing over the past month to quell the fans' worries. He should be approaching the season opener with loads of confidence and tons of fan support. He finished last year with momentum that could have carried over into his third season in the league.

We can no longer blame the team for failing to develop him. Though it does raise the question: What exactly have new offensive coordinator Jim Fassel - a former quarterback himself - and new quarterbacks coach Rick Neuheisel been telling him these past few weeks? Hopefully, something more profound than, "You probably don't want to listen to talk radio right now, Kyle."

Even though the team avoided major injuries this year, the preseason has gone about as bad as possible for the offense. At no point has Boller even hinted that fans should still have faith in him. With him in the pocket last night, the Ravens' sole first down came courtesy of a Redskins penalty. He played into the second quarter, finishing the game two of six for 15 yards.

Boller said afterward that he felt the preseason has prepared him well for what lies ahead.

"I got plenty of reps. I feel like I have a better understanding of the offseason," he said. "I'm just ready for the regular season to start."

But when your biggest accomplishment is the mere fact that you survived, things are not looking good. But for that we can blame the offensive line, another question the team has failed to answer.

They're big. We knew that. When these guys line up, they resemble a downtown city block. But that's all they are. The offensive line isn't athletic enough to protect the pass. I'm not sure they're athletic enough to protect a playground swing set at recess right now.

Again last night we watched Boller take the snap and make a couple of poor decisions while he evaluated his options. It makes you wonder whether the game is moving too fast for him. It also makes it tough to evaluate the receiving corps.

A year ago, the team was next to last in the league in passing offense. Free-agent signee Derrick Mason and first-round draft pick Mark Clayton both seemed like upgrades over Kevin Johnson and Travis Taylor. Plus, Todd Heap, a Pro Bowl tight end in 2002 and '03, appears healthy after missing 10 games last year.

In four preseason games, often with Boller falling to the ground and the linemen barely serving as speed bumps against the blitz, the receivers have shown little, dropping some catchable passes and finding the end zone just twice. Against the Redskins, Mason and wide receiver Clarence Moore failed to make a reception.

Good thing Jamal is back, right? Jamal Lewis is the closest we have to an answered question.

Lewis, who started training camp locked up in a Florida halfway house, played for the first time in the preseason last night. He missed the first two games as he eased his way back into playing shape and then missed the third because of bone spurs.

Here's what we can surmise from his performance against the Redskins: Lewis is healthy enough to stand upright and tiptoe to the line before plowing forward. That's all anyone can ask. He was in for 13 plays, took the ball six times and totaled 15 yards rushing. But he showed what we needed to see, namely that he can wear pads and step onto a football field.

So the preseason's over and we know the same things we knew before it started: The passing offense is shaky, the defense is scary good, and if this team is going to move the ball, it'll be on the ground.

But we knew all of that during the offseason.

It's worked in the past for this group, but is it enough to win games this year?

Count that as the biggest question mark. It's the only one that really matters.

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