Back at square one, Ravens have seven weeks to shape up

Jaguars 30 Ravens 3

Ravens Gameday

November 14, 2005|By DAVID STEELE

JACKSONVILLE, FLA. -- So, what are the Ravens playing for now?

Wins, obviously, but they're not going to get any playing the way they did yesterday against the Jacksonville Jaguars. If only this 30-3 spanking were rock bottom -- but the way this season has gone, nobody can rule out something even more humiliating next week, or the week after.

As for the original question, the answers given by Ravens players afterward sounded great: pride, self-respect, dignity, family, the city they represent.

"Nothing to play for? That statement is as far from the truth as anything I've heard," Todd Heap said just before exiting the visiting locker room at Alltel Stadium.

No one, though, went as far as to say he was playing for his future, not even the players whose contract entanglements are known to all.

The question never came up to coach Brian Billick, but by now, he has to be the only person in town who doesn't think he's on the hot seat. It's getting dangerously close to being too late to save his job. Losses like this are indefensible, more indefensible than the 2-7 record. Biggest margin of defeat, fewest points and fewest yards this season. At least no one got thrown out this week.

The only defense might be that a lot of crucial players are just getting back into the mix, and Billick is obligated to put them out there and see what they can do. That definitely was the case with Kyle Boller, but the idea Billick put forth all week, that the return of the injured starting quarterback would provide the offense a much-needed spark, was comical at best, delusional at worst.

It seemed to be the case with the odd rotation of the running backs. The Ravens' only touchdown in the past four games belongs to Chester Taylor, and when Jamal Lewis' inability to break loose became the norm instead of the exception, Taylor was the obvious alternative.

Yet Taylor, averaging 5.7 yards every time he touches the ball, never touched it yesterday, playing only on special teams, and Musa Smith, returning 51 weeks after gruesomely breaking his leg, got the snaps behind Lewis.

"You'll have to ask the coach about that," Taylor said diplomatically.

Mark Clayton, his development delayed by a sprained ankle that cost him two games, also got more looks than he has before. It didn't amount to much (one carry on an end-around for no gain, two catches for 3 yards, one fourth-quarter pass sent his way that was underthrown and picked off).

On the other side, the player drafted one spot before him last spring, Matt Jones, baptized the Ravens for 129 total yards, including his three longest receptions of the year. But before anyone gets angry about a possible draft gaffe, think about whether Jones could have duplicated those numbers as a Raven, in this offense. Yeah, right.

Finally, in the fourth quarter, the sight of little-used Brian Rimpf at right guard -- and of Keydrick Vincent gazing from the sideline -- drove the message home. Of course, at that point, so did the score: 20-3, Jags.

The fact that the Jaguars padded the lead by 10 more raises even more questions about what this team is made of. Is it short on the pride and professionalism everyone was talking about afterward? Or is it simply a bad team, poorly prepared and incapable of executing?

Clearly, decisions have to be made, and with the Ravens staking their claim among the worst teams in the entire NFL, they might as well start making them now. So much of yesterday's game felt like a preseason affair. The final seven games run the risk of looking like one big exhibition schedule.

Boller, for one, has to get his reps, get up to speed, get in sync with the receivers and the scheme. It's the same scenario as the preseason, and in light of his taking hits in the first half that could be felt in the covered-up seats in the upper deck, the results were the same, too. The pounding he took resembled the one he absorbed in New Orleans in late August, the interceptions a sour reminder of the preseason opener in Atlanta.

In other words, this team has gone backward, almost to the very beginning -- back to when players were playing for jobs.

The Ravens have to sort through this mess and figure out what to keep and what to discard -- on the roster and the coaching staff. It's going to make for an ugly final two months, and it's hard to find wins in the midst of it. But, if nothing else, they'll get answers to their questions.

"Be a professional, be a team guy, but first of all, look at yourself and decide what you want to do," Boller said of the challenge of the rest of the season. "And if you don't want to do that, don't be out there, because there are a lot of guys out there who want to be out there."

Seven weeks remain to find out who does want to be out there, and who deserves to be.

david.steele@baltsun.com

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