Window closes on title chance

On the Ravens

With Boller deed, Ravens mortgaged future, and now old team is paying bill

November 15, 2005|By MIKE PRESTON

The date was April 26, 2003, and it was supposed to be a milestone in Ravens history. On that day, the Ravens drafted a franchise quarterback named Kyle Boller in the first round, the 19th pick overall. Nearly four months later, the Ravens had named Boller their starting quarterback.

That was the beginning of the end of a successful run by the Ravens.

If you want to trace the team's recent demise, it started on the day it announced Boller as the starter, which meant the franchise was mortgaging the present for the future. The Ravens were willing to make that gamble, and it hasn't paid off.

The window of opportunity is now closed.

Instead of bringing in a veteran to challenge Boller or tutor him for the starting job, players who had been cornerstones are now past their primes while Boller still hasn't matured to a point where he can carry a team.

Middle linebacker Ray Lewis doesn't make as many plays as he once did. Left offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden isn't as dominating. Outside linebacker Peter Boulware can't bring the heat on the pass rush like he once could, and cornerback Chris McAlister and running back Jamal Lewis seem a step slower.

There's more.

Money issues are at the root of a lot of the Ravens' locker room problems because they have too many stars, and coach Brian Billick's style has worn out both the players and members of the front office since then.

The Ravens grew old in a hurry.

Who's to blame?

Three years ago, then-owner Art Modell wanted to leave the Ravens with a franchise quarterback, something he had been unable to do since he came to Baltimore in 1996. The absence of a marquee quarterback was the only blemish on the resume of general manager Ozzie Newsome, and had become a nagging headache for Billick. Modell and Newsome wanted Byron Leftwich. Billick wanted Boller.

Boller became the choice.

That was an OK decision. The worse was a no-decision during the offseason. The Ravens failed to sign a veteran who could have had an impact. Instead, Billick gave the job to Boller in a preseason competition with Chris Redman that was as fake as a pro wrestling match. Boller was Billick's choice, and he was going to prove to everyone that he could get to the playoffs with a rookie, and then make a serious Super Bowl run in Boller's second season.

It never happened.

Boller, partly because of injuries but largely because of poor mechanics, has yet to prove he can become a playmaker. And while he has struggled, the team has gotten older, older and older.

Ever since 2000, the Ravens have had one of the strongest run blocking offensive lines in the NFL. But in 2005, they are the oldest group in the league, with four starters over age 30.

The team's best player, Ray Lewis, has trouble shedding blocks and has missed more tackles in the past two seasons than in his previous eight. Boulware has become strictly a third-down rusher. Who knows what's up with McAlister?

As for Jamal Lewis, the Ravens have become a victim of their own drafting success. He was a star who wants more money, just like tight end Todd Heap, who was rewarded with a new contract during the offseason. Safety Ed Reed wants a new deal, and Ray Lewis wants a contract extension. The love of money has separated this team. Last year there were the superstars like the Lewises, Deion Sanders and Reed, and then the budding stars like Ed Hartwell, Gary Baxter, Marques Douglas and Casey Rabach.

Now, everybody has his hand out.

It's a team where not only the players have gotten old, but so has the message of the coach. Players are turning a deaf ear. Billick's abrasive, arrogant style was perfectly suited for the Ravens when he came here in 1999. Most of the defensive players were close to their prime. They didn't need X's and O's, but direction, organization and motivation.

Enter Billick.

But that same style wears on people. It's safe to say that his personality has exhausted almost everyone in the Ravens' training facility at Owings Mills. Team discipline has been a problem with the Ravens averaging nearly nine penalties a game.

Theoretically, this was the year for the Ravens' return trip to the Super Bowl. The defense was supposed to be top notch, reshaped in the 46 mode of the old Chicago Bears, and anchored by veterans like Sanders and Dale Carter. The offense was supposed to be rejuvenated under offensive coordinator Jim Fassel. He would devise a passing game to complement a strong running attack with the addition of Pro Bowl receiver Derrick Mason and top draft pick Mark Clayton, a receiver out of Oklahoma, in the offseason. And this was supposed to be the breakout year of Boller.

But instead of a team of destiny, this is a team that seems destined to do some housecleaning, saying goodbye to some veterans like Orlando Brown, Anthony Wright, Sanders and Carter. And if the Ravens continue to play like they did Sunday against Jacksonville, Billick will be swept out, too. Both Ogden and Ray Lewis have privately talked about retiring, and the team will be forced to choose between running backs Chester Taylor and Lewis before free agency begins.

You can't blame this on Boller. He was just a young, California kid waiting there on draft day 2 1/2 years ago for a team to select him. He had no idea about the Ravens' game plan. But in the months that followed, the Ravens became risk takers. They thought the window of opportunity exceeded more than two years. They thought they could mesh the present with the future for a great run in 2005.

They were wrong.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

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