The fans didn't have to wait until the Cincinnati Bengals scored their final touchdown with six minutes left to clear out of M&T Bank Stadium yesterday. They could have left with about 13 minutes to go, when Kordell Stewart came off the field.
It wasn't going to get any better than that for the Ravens or their faithful. It might not get any better the final eight - eight! - games of the season.
"It wasn't hard, because I was just playing, like a kid in the Toys R Us, just having fun," Stewart said after scraping off enough rust on short notice to limber up, just briefly, the NFL's creakiest offense. "[After] being at home in the beginning of the season, getting a chance to be thrust in a situation like that, to get some points out of the drive - what more can you ask for?
"Unfortunately," he continued, "we didn't come through as a team."
But what goes for the third-string recycled veteran quarterback goes for the entire team. What more can you ask for? The Ravens earned their 2-6 record and spot in last place at the halfway mark. It's not about a lack of passion or anyone's agendas or their perceived enemies; it's about their doing their best, but not having it amount to much.
It's about, as Brian Billick and several of his players put it, trading touchdowns for field goals. It's about relying on Kordell Stewart, unemployed until Kyle Boller went down in the opener, to press the paddles on the Ravens' chests and yell, "Clear!"
And it's about Stewart bringing his offense and the crowd back to life - and still, as his predecessors had managed, producing three points.
When Anthony Wright had to be helped off the field one play into that third-quarter possession, the crowd groaned, justifiably so considering how deep down the depth chart the Ravens were reaching.
But Stewart, celebrating his own Turn Back the Clock Day, gave the Ravens 6 minutes, 24 seconds of fun, of electricity, of hope. The numbers don't do him justice to his one series on the field; they can't describe his turning the corner like in the old days, faking a linebacker into midair or stretching out for that option pass by Randy Hymes.
"I had to talk to Slash in the middle of the run," Stewart cracked, recalling the nickname of his youth. "I had to dig a little more than I expected to - Randy threw such a horrible pass," he added, throwing a jab at his teammate across the locker room.
Yet it amounted to exactly what Wright had managed in less-theatrical fashion: a trip to Stoverville. Down 14-6 when Stewart entered the game, the Ravens didn't get a crack at tying the score. Nine gruesome minutes elapsed before they got the ball back, because the Bengals worked them for a 91-yard, 12-play touchdown drive.
When the Ravens did get it back, Wright returned. Half the crowd, with their backs to the field as they headed up the aisles, didn't see him.
"He came in and ran the ball well, gave us a spark, the kind of spark we needed at the time," Wright said admiringly of Stewart.
But - and there's always a but - "When they got the ball back, they answered," Wright continued. "When they answered, it made it really tough."
With this offense, it's always really tough, no matter the time, score, down or distance. It's tough on the defense, too, because it now gives up one of those "answer" drives every week. It also has an "almost" moment every week: a ball going through someone's hands, a near-sack, a foolish penalty, even a thoroughly messed-up call like yesterday's on the Will Demps fumble return.
Still, even if they had a chance at a touchdown taken away, the Ravens got the ball near midfield after the non-return. They went three-and-out. The Bengals took that and nearly drove the nail in on the next drive: They held the ball for almost six minutes, saw a touchdown pass overturned by replay, survived a Rudi Johnson fumble and an interception that Demps dropped, moved 61 yards in all and finally missed a field goal.
No wonder the life had been sucked out of the stadium by the time Stewart trotted into the huddle.
This was not supposed to happen, not after all the roster and coaching shakeups and all the oxygen expelled about how good this offense would be.
"When you come into a season, you never think about this stuff," said Derrick Mason, who got absolutely no pleasure out of his 500th career reception in the game. "Especially when you look at the team - you look at bunch of guys who have been through a lot, who have won a bunch of games, and you look at the character of the team. It's great, but you never expect to have the season that you're having now."
You also never expect the biggest ovation of the day to go to Kordell Stewart. But he deserved it. That says it all, and it says too much.