When will this team come to pass?

Ravens vs. Colts

September 10, 2005|By JOHN EISENBERG

IT ALL started with a familiar comment. Jamal Lewis was explaining why the Ravens needed to establish their running game against the Indianapolis Colts in tomorrow night's season opener.

"I don't think their defense respects us throwing the football," Lewis said.

My first reaction was: Of course not, why would they? They've seen the preseason films.

And then my second reaction was: How long have we been talking about this? Seriously. How many years in a row have the Ravens started the season with everything seemingly depending on whether they could get their sputtering passing game to function?

Three years? Five years? Do we need to convert to dog years?

How long has this endless conversation gone on?

I knew it didn't go all the way back to when Johnny Unitas and Bert Jones were quarterbacking the Colts. Baltimore's team could pass then.

I also knew there was no NFL team here from 1984 through 1995, so the passing game wasn't a problem then.

But things didn't improve much after the Ravens came to town. Somewhere between their 1996 arrival and now, their passing game became their perpetual burden, like a hunchback's hump.

When did it all start? Not in their first two seasons. Amazingly, the Ravens were air wizards in their Memorial Stadium era. Vinny Testaverde threw balls all over the place, and actual uniformed receivers (not front-row fans) caught them. The passing game was ranked second in the league in 1996 and fifth in 1997.

But sadly, Testaverde was a real-life Charlie Brown; no matter how many yards he threw for, he was uncannily adept at committing the one critical mistake that turned wins into losses. The Ravens let him go and brought in veteran Jim Harbaugh.

Little did they know they were stepping into a long, dark tunnel from which they still haven't escaped.

It was in 1998 that their passing woes began. Harbaugh was a flop, and his sub, Eric Zeier, was mediocre. The Ravens finished the season ranked 25th in passing out of 31 teams.

That was seven years ago. The organization's attempt to fix its passing game remains in progress.

Its first and biggest attempted fix was, of course, bringing in Brian Billick as head coach. He had overseen a record-setting passing attack as the Minnesota Vikings' offensive coordinator. Surely, he would get things going.

Well, here is where the Ravens have ended every season in the passing rankings since Billick arrived: 25, 22, 16, 27, 32 and 31 (out of 32 teams).

One year, Scott Mitchell was going to be the fix. Then it was Tony Banks. Elvis Grbac was supposed to be the fix in 2001. Jeff Blake and Chris Redman each had their chances. Drafting a franchise quarterback, Kyle Boller, was going to be the answer starting in 2003. Bringing in Jim Fassel as a consultant was supposed to help last season.

After a while, it's all yadda, yadda, yadda. Nothing has changed. Somehow, the team has won fairly consistently despite its key shortcoming, and even brought home a Super Bowl victory in January 2001. But the albatross has persisted, causing serious harm, and there was Jamal Lewis on Thursday, repeating the dreaded mantra that coaches, players and fans alike now utter out of habit: Our passing game doesn't get any respect.

Is that right? Since when?

Since the days of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, that's when. Since Albert Belle signed with the Orioles.

The Ravens have struggled in the air since before Lance Armstrong won his first Tour de France; since Michael Jordan was still winning NBA titles with the Chicago Bulls; since George W. Bush was a governor.

A long time. And now, here we go again. Optimism is running high as the 2005 season begins, with a winning record widely predicted and some observers envisioning a playoff run. The Ravens defense is fierce, their running game solid, Matt Stover still money. But they're going to need to throw the ball to beat good teams like the Colts.

Stop me if you have heard that one before.

The Ravens have thrown everything (no pun intended) they can at the problem this year. It's not just an attempted fix; it's a mega-attempt. They signed the year's best free-agent receiver, Derrick Mason. They selected another receiver, Mark Clayton, in the first round of the draft. They changed offensive coordinators, hired a new quarterback coach.

The passing game was no better during the preseason.

In fact, Boller seemed to regress from a year ago.

Meanwhile, it's Year 8 of the search for a reputable passing attack.

Feeling confident?

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