McNair isn't only puzzle piece that has to fit

July 27, 2006|By JOHN EISENBERG

The Ravens report to training camp today with fairly high expectations for a team that went 6-10 in 2005. They think they should make the playoffs, not that they're going to shout that just yet.

Enough prognosticators support the idea that it would seem to have merit, or at least, shouldn't be immediately dismissed as the blather of a losing team that tends to overrate itself.

Veteran quarterback Steve McNair's arrival is, of course, the reason people are excited, and given Kyle Boller's struggles, there's little doubt the Ravens are about to fare better at the game's most important position.

But the notion that McNair alone can turn 6-10 into 10-6 is absurd. He could have his greatest season in 2006, but the Ravens won't accomplish anything unless there's significant improvement from within at the many trouble spots that brought them down a year ago.

Jamal Lewis needs to produce more at running back. The offensive line, across the board, needs to perform better. Chris McAlister needs to become the shut-down corner he was supposed to be when he signed his big contract.

Ray Lewis needs to stay healthy and not sulk because Ed Reed signed the big contract Lewis wanted. Reed needs to stay healthy and make more big plays.

The locker room needs to be united instead of divided. Coach Brian Billick needs to accede to owner Steve Bisciotti's pointed demand that he interact differently with just about everyone, from players to reporters.

That's a lot of "needs to," and hey, there's more. Trevor Pryce needs to play like a big-money free agent defensive end instead of one with a bad back, for instance.

But you get the point, right? It "took a village," as the saying goes, for the Ravens to fall apart in 2005, and it's going to take another village, not just McNair, to rectify what went wrong.

There are some positive early signs, starting with the renewed dedication shown by offensive linemen Edwin Mulitalo and Jonathan Ogden. Mulitalo, in particular, didn't play well in 2005, but he will start camp significantly thinner and more agile after a rigorous offseason regimen. Ogden also appears to be in better shape. To say the line could use the boost is an understatement.

As for Jamal Lewis, it will be interesting to see how he responds to having veteran Mike Anderson behind him instead of Chester Taylor. Lewis never worried about former backup Taylor (now with the Minnesota Vikings) taking his job, but Anderson gained more yards than Lewis last season (1,014 to 906) as just a part-time player in Denver. Anderson could easily take over if Lewis falters.

"You don't preclude Mike Anderson and the success he's had from [the possibility of] a primary role," Billick said during the spring minicamp season.

Will that push from behind (along with having a clear mind now that his legal issues are behind him, and also having a healthy ankle) help Lewis regain a semblance of his 2,000-yard form?

If not, well, there's only so much McNair can do.

As for the defensive soap opera involving Ray Lewis, Reed and McAlister, there's no telling at this point how things will work out. All you can say is it's up to them to have their heads on straight.

Reed figures to be fine after signing a lucrative contract extension last month; the organization made it clear it believes he is the future defensive cornerstone, as if there were any doubt. But will Ray Lewis be fine, too? He is scheduled to speak to reporters after the first workout tomorrow.

The Ravens went 6-10 last year because something was wrong deep inside them. Boller's erratic play didn't help, but that was the least of their problems on the day they committed 21 penalties in Detroit, and the day they all but lay down in Cleveland, and the days when Jacksonville and Cincinnati absolutely took them apart.

The team that lost on those days needed more than a new quarterback to turn itself around.

Make no mistake, McNair is bound to help, especially in close games. At the very least, he should give the Ravens a chance to overcome bad starts and come from behind to win, which Boller couldn't do.

But to follow through on the idea that they're going to contend this year, the Ravens need to see check marks beside many of the items on a long wish list, starting with Billick making the "changes" Bisciotti demanded, which were never clearly stipulated but seem to involve setting a more positive tone and controlling the locker room.

McNair represents a start, but the rest of any collective improvement - the bulk of it, really - must come from within.

john.eisenberg@baltsun.com

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