Second-half focus, onus on Boller and Billick

So Far, It's Bizarre

Midseason Report

Ravens

November 11, 2005|By JAMISON HENSLEY | JAMISON HENSLEY,SUN REPORTER

Making the playoffs seems hopeless.

Reaching .500 appears as elusive as reaching the end zone these days.

But the second half of the Ravens' season will be far from meaningless. The final eight games will shape how the last-place Ravens (2-6) will look heading into next season.

Is Kyle Boller the quarterback of the future? Is Jamal Lewis running on empty? And is Brian Billick coming back as coach?

Entrenched in his second consecutive underachieving season, Billick has been frequently listed by the national media as a coach on the hot seat.

Billick, though, expects to return for his eighth season.

"There are no guarantees in that, but because of the way we work, because of the personal and professional security that Steve [Bisciotti, owner] has given me, I don't have to dwell on that [job security]," Billick said. "Does that mean 100 percent? I can't go there. That's not for me to say."

When Bisciotti took over as majority owner last year, he said he would decline to comment publicly on football matters. Bisciotti did reward Billick with a new contract before last season, one that reportedly will pay Billick $4.5 million a year in 2006 and 2007.

Billick believes he will be given another opportunity to turn the Ravens into a Super Bowl contender again.

"Fortunately, I've got good people around me, so I don't have to be looking over my shoulder and be wondering, `What does this mean?'" Billick said. "I can focus on how we're going to grow from this and how we're going to come out of it. You have to hold on to that perspective. Otherwise, you might as well go get yourself knee-deep into some scotch and call for your mama."

The first half of the season has bordered on such a meltdown.

The Ravens' six losses have come by an average margin of 11.2 points. Their two wins have come against the New York Jets and Cleveland Browns, whose combined record is 5-11.

If the Ravens want to change their fortunes, they must figure out how to turn around their offense, which ranks last in the NFL in scoring average (12.1 points).

That's why all eyes will focus on Boller for the rest of the season. The Ravens must make a pivotal choice heading into next season: Stick with Boller or look for another starter.

At this point, the free-agent market for veteran quarterbacks looks grim with Cincinnati's Jon Kitna and St. Louis' Jamie Martin likely topping the list.

"It's a priority for us to come out of this season with the quarterback position and Kyle not being a question," Billick said. "If we come into next year with a question mark, then it's going to be a lot tougher to have the kind of year we're talking about."

A similar decision needs to be made about Lewis. An unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, Lewis is averaging 54.5 rushing yards a game, which is 42 yards off his career average.

The Ravens have three viable options at running back:

If they believe he hasn't lost a step, the Ravens could use the franchise tag on Lewis, keeping him for a one-year deal worth about $6.5 million. This is the most likely scenario.

They could let Lewis go and sign a high-profile free agent like the Seattle Seahawks' Shaun Alexander or the Indianapolis Colts' Edgerrin James.

They might determine that re-signing Chester Taylor and Musa Smith is a better value than keeping Lewis. So, the development of Smith over the next two months could become a persuading factor.

"I'm not auditioning to go out and try to prove myself," Lewis said. "I've proven myself. I have had a 2,000-yard season. I haven't forgotten how to run the football. I'm not auditioning for a team, I'm not auditioning for anything else but just to play another year of football."

In assessing the dreadful first half of the season, Billick said the biggest disappointments have been the running game and the inability to create turnovers on defense, two of what he considers to be the "cornerstones" of the team.

The Ravens are on pace to set franchise lows for rushing yards per game (97.1) and per carry (3.6).

"There's no reason why we can't be back running the ball effectively the way we have. There really isn't," Billick said. "Jamal is healthy and he's running hard. The line is blocking fine. We just haven't gotten into that rhythm."

Without their usually steady rushing attack, the Ravens' offense has once again struggled to score. The Ravens are on course to produce 14 touchdowns this season, which would shatter the team-low mark of 29 (1998).

That has put increasing pressure on the Ravens' defense, which ranks ninth in fewest points allowed (17.6) despite playing the past two weeks without Defensive Players of the Year Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. Of the top 13 scoring defenses in the NFL, only the Ravens and Cleveland Browns have losing records.

"It's frustrating at times because we've got to play a perfect game," cornerback Samari Rolle said. "At the same time, we haven't been getting the breaks and making turnovers."

The Ravens have forced just nine turnovers, the fifth fewest in the NFL.

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