Losses, lack of QB go arm and arm

November 09, 2005|By JOHN EISENBERG

The Ravens' recent losses to the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals not only consigned them to a disappointing season, but also emphasized the biggest reason they have fallen behind their AFC North rivals - in the big-picture developmental sense, not just in the standings.

When the Steelers needed a late score on Halloween night, Ben Roethlisberger - their star second-year quarterback - drove them to a game-winning field goal.

When the Bengals needed to hold on to the ball to snuff out a Ravens rally last Sunday, Carson Palmer - their star third-year quarterback - led them on a 12-play, 91-yard touchdown drive that wrapped up a victory.

In both games, the Ravens, with backup Anthony Wright leading the offense, were unable to deliver the kind of counterpunch that, believe it or not, is relatively routine in the NFL. The back-to-back failures spoke volumes.

If they had a Roethlisberger or a Palmer - even just a facsimile - they probably would have won at least one of the games. But therein lies what, for the Ravens, is an increasingly ominous problem.

The Steelers and Bengals have unearthed fine, young quarterbacks around whom they can build over the next decade, but the Ravens are still looking. Eternally looking.

Call it a double whammy - while their rivals for playoff trips have effectively hit the jackpot at the game's most important position, the Ravens remain unstable. And make no mistake, the disparity is only going to worsen if the Ravens continue to flail for an answer at the position while Roethlisberger and Palmer continue to mature.

The Ravens need to think hard about that set of circumstances as Kyle Boller returns from his toe injury Sunday and the team assesses him throughout the second half of the 2005 season.

It's easy to lose sight of the bigger picture when coach Brian Billick starts ruminating about profiles and paradigms, but the Ravens are in a full-blown decline, not to mention last place in the division, primarily because they don't have a guy who can pitch it.

They've scored a league-low seven touchdowns in eight games, and three of those scores were meaningless, coming late in lopsided losses.

Their defense is of playoff caliber and their kicking game is as solid as ever, but when your offense is only good for a meaningful touchdown once every two games, you're in trouble.

Yet for all their shortcomings, they would probably be at least .500 and in playoff contention right now if they were solid at quarterback. A strong quarterback is the NFL's great equalizer, capable of offsetting many weaknesses.

The Green Bay Packers aren't any good this year, but they're always in games because they have Brett Favre, who, even at 36, can still run around and make plays and keep his team competitive.

The Ravens have the opposite problem. If (when) they fall 10 points behind in a game, you can go outside and start raking leaves without worrying about missing a comeback. The issue is settled.

The Ravens are losing an arms race with the Steelers and Bengals, and it's becoming imperative that they do something about it.

As much as they have numerous other problems that need to be addressed - their suddenly impotent running game, the advancing age of some of their best players - they aren't going to experience any substantive improvement until they find their answer at quarterback.

Boller, in his third season, certainly deserves his chance to show what he can do, but the Ravens are selling out their future and their public if they don't hold him to a high standard and then head boldly in another direction if he fails to meet that standard.

Enough with such see-no-evil prattle as Billick's Monday pronouncement that "we have no reason to think [Boller] isn't the quarterback we all thought he could be." Please. No one believes that anymore.

The kid struggled to begin with, took a few steps in the right direction in 2004, went backward during the 2005 preseason and was on shaky ground as this season began. No one thinks of him in the same vein as Palmer or Roethlisberger.

For a variety of reasons, he hasn't been the quarterback the Ravens hoped he would be, and barring a sharp improvement in his production over these next eight games, the Ravens need to do something about it. Draft someone else. Trade for an established veteran. Deal for San Diego's Philip Rivers, Atlanta's Matt Schaub or another youngster deemed ready to take off.

One way or another, they need to get back into a divisional arms race they're now plainly losing, with crushing consequences.

john.eisenberg@baltsun.com

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