Simply put, McNair ran the offense

August 12, 2006|By JOHN EISENBERG

The "new" Brian Billick is saying less in 2006, but he hasn't lost his fastball. Asked the other day what he wanted Steve McNair to accomplish in the Ravens' preseason opener against the New York Giants, Billick said he wanted to see his new quarterback "articulate the offense."

I'm guessing that means run it, not recite it using proper grammar and punctuation.

McNair didn't play long enough to enunciate much last night, but in his brief time on the field, he spoke as clearly and succinctly as a professional linguist.

If first impressions are worth anything, it is, indeed, a new day in Baltimore.

McNair took just 12 snaps before giving way to the deposed Kyle Boller, and all 12 came on the Ravens' first series, an 80-yard masterpiece that lasted more than seven minutes and ended with McNair carrying a couple of Giants into the end zone for a touchdown.

It was just an early score in a meaningless game, but in that series McNair exhibited everything the Ravens hoped he would provide when they acquired him - patience in the pocket, an accurate passing arm, toughness, leadership, presence ... and hope.

You could feel the electricity in the stands and on the Ravens' sideline as he trotted off the field after scoring. McNair couldn't have articulated the offense more clearly. And interestingly, none of his four completions (out of five pass attempts) traveled farther than 10 yards in the air.

He got the job done with short stuff, basic stuff, boilerplate passes - a second-down strike to Todd Heap breaking open over the middle, good for 17 yards; a similar dump to Heap on third-and-five (also good for 17 yards); a just-beat-the-rush toss to Derrick Mason near the goal line, keeping the drive alive.

His one errant throw came on a long ball that he basically threw up for grabs down the left sideline. It was easily batted away.

But he calmly overcame the miss, and when he pulled the ball down on a third-and-goal pass attempt and lugged it across the goal line, the crowd's roar was as loud as football fans get in August, and Billick's choice of words suddenly made sense.

The coach's charged-up vocabulary can make people crazy, but, hey, an articulated offense is precisely what the Ravens have lacked for the past few years. An offense that operated clearly, precisely and effectively, as designed in the playbook.

The fundamental problem of the past lay in the relatively simple passes McNair completed last night.

His predecessors, Boller and Anthony Wright, misfired on far too many of those plays. Swing passes to running backs and third-and-six "possession" throws landed at their receivers' feet or went wild high downfield, ending series after series and killing any chance of the Ravens' offense establishing a rhythm and, well, articulating the playbook.

It was the simple stuff that did them in. And as last night's touchdown drive suggested, it is the simple stuff McNair needs to master to succeed here.

His arrival has understandably fueled a lot of speculation about what he can do for the passing game, especially since the Ravens are so solid and dangerous at receiver with Mason, Heap and Mark Clayton. But these are the Ravens, folks. They aren't suddenly going to start pitching the ball all over the field.

For starters, they're still going to run more than they throw; please note that the first, third, fourth and sixth plays of the McNair era were handoffs to Jamal Lewis, who ran hard and effectively last night, gaining 34 yards on six carries.

That run-pass ratio isn't going to change much, if any. And while the Ravens surely will cut loose and try the occasional long ball, there'll be five dinks here and six dunks there for each long pass. There'll be many more dumps to Heap and slants to Mason and Clayton. That's the "profile" (to borrow another Billick catchphrase) of the West Coast offense, which serves as the foundation for most teams' passing games today, Ravens included.

The hully-gully long ball offense might be a fan favorite, but it went out of fashion years ago. Today's passing games are all about taking high-percentage risks and turning short balls into long gains. A quarterback needs to be precise, accurate, effective.

Yes, articulate.

It was borderline cruel of Billick to replace McNair with Boller after the one brilliant series, but that was the plan, and Billick stuck to it. Although Boller ran around and completed a lot of balls, the offense was much more helter-skelter, not nearly as crisp.

It looked, not coincidentally, like last year's offense. But fortunately for the Ravens, after McNair's debut on the night's majestic opening drive, last year is a fast-fading memory.

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