Johnson quickly shows his value, but Boller answers skeptics, too

Ravens Gameday

Ravens 30 Vikings 23

December 26, 2005|By DAVID STEELE

He was the quarterback the Ravens hoped they would see, playing the position the way they've always envisioned someone playing it. And he was right in front of the Baltimore faithful, giving them a glimmer of hope.

But it wasn't just Kyle Boller. For that matter, it wasn't just Brad Johnson. It was both.

Both looked like they belonged, like they were supposed to look and how they're expected to look, for nearly all of last night's game at M&T Bank Stadium. Even Boller's first big mistake, a fourth-quarter interception in Vikings' territory when the Ravens were up 24-20, was almost tame compared to what we've seen not long ago.

In the days after Boller's nightmarish performance in Denver two Sundays ago - when the idea of getting Boller's head examined was first raised, and when support for the starter was at its lowest - fans began wondering aloud if the presence of a veteran quarterback wouldn't have been a better plan. One could either have served as a mentor to Boller during his first three seasons, or played in front of him while Boller developed.

The name suggested most was Johnson, who once played for Brian Billick in Minnesota and who now was leading the Vikings on an 11th-hour playoff drive.

The hardy souls who left their holiday meals last night to help bring the Ravens' home schedule to a close got to see the best of Johnson. They got all they could stand on the Vikings' very first possession, when Johnson marched them right downfield into the end zone - hitting all five passes, including the last, a 13-yard touchdown to ex-Raven Travis Taylor, of all people.

Johnson did more carving on that drive than all the fans had done at their dinner tables. His touch was exquisite, his timing impeccable, his field vision 20-20. It got at least a few supporters' stomachs feeling unsettled. Particularly since it was hard to imagine Boller duplicating the performance from last Monday against the woeful Packers.

Then ... Boller duplicated it. At least he came close. On the Ravens' first possession, right after the Vikings' kickoff. Seventeen plays, 73 yards, 9 1/2 minutes chewed up -- and Boller was at the controls. Seven out of eight, capped by a touchdown pass of his own, on a textbook pass of his own, to Todd Heap.

Maybe the pining for Johnson was a bit hasty, after all.

But not really. This season, Johnson turned into exactly the kind of quarterback the Vikings needed him to be - ready and capable to take over and win when the starter went down. Daunte Culpepper did go down in Week 8, when his knee went out and while the Vikings were 2-5 and - pun intended - sinking fast.

While a lot of factors besides Johnson's promotion contributed to the Vikings' winning his first six starts, he definitely was the reason they were in the midst of a see-saw game last night with their playoff lives on the line.

On the other side, though, Boller was just as much on the money, never more so than on his two second-half touchdown passes. The second, which gave the Ravens the lead again in the fourth quarter (and gave him six in his last two games), was to Derrick Mason, who had described the offensive doldrums perfectly after the Denver game by saying he felt like "a glorified running back."

On his touchdown catch, he looked like the wide receiver the Ravens signed in the offseason, and Boller deserves credit for that as much as Mason does.

All game long, Boller wasn't inducing nearly the number of cringes he has most days, certainly not the way he had in Denver. He had a few throws batted down at the line, but on the second one, at least, defensive tackle Kevin Williams had to pull off as acrobatic a move as a 311-pounder can, twisting and slapping at the pass with one hand while being held (yeah, it wasn't called). Even on those scary Boller heaves while backpedaling away from the rush, he heaved them away from danger instead of straight to a defender.

And he got no small amount of help from Mark Clayton, in the latest expansion of his role in the offense. In the third quarter, with the Vikings up by a touchdown, Clayton got loose downfield, reached up and speared Boller's throw down the middle and raced into the end zone to finish a 47-yard play that tied the score at 17.

It wasn't a play Boller has made often in his career here, if at all, but he hasn't had receivers like Clayton who can make them for him.

This was a sign of encouragement that even topped the juggernaut of last Monday - against a playoff contender, rather than the doormats the Packers imitated.

In a real game that counted, Boller looked like a real quarterback. Just as much as the other quarterback did.

david.steele@baltsun.com

Read David Steele's blog at baltimoresun.com/steeleblog

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