All pain, no gain is possible as Ravens close preseason

August 31, 2006|By DAVID STEELE

On the surface, tonight's final Ravens preseason game is a disaster waiting to happen.

Below the surface, though ... uh, it's pretty much the same.

The best thing about the Ravens' trip to Landover to play the Washington Redskins, the most eagerly anticipated and wildly celebrated moment, will be the final gun. It will be excruciating to watch, and outside of the youngsters and borderline cases fighting for jobs, nerve-wracking to play. For participants and spectators, there will be little potential joy and lots of potential pain.

You can't beat that for your entertainment dollar.

Overall, tonight's game is a walking, heavy-breathing, possibly screaming-in-agony advertisement for cutting the preseason schedule in half, if not for cutting it out altogether. Here's a partial list of what could go wrong tonight:

Somebody could get hurt. No matter how much or how little the starters play, every snap will be an exercise in sweaty, white-knuckled tension for everybody watching.

The Ravens could look wretched on offense again, sending them into the regular season awash in doubt instead of high on success.

The Ravens could look crisp on offense, a result that would be dismissed by most followers because it's only preseason.

Here's what could go right:

If you leave early enough, you might find your car in the FedEx Field parking lots quickly and beat traffic. Then again, the savvy fan will bail at halftime or earlier, so the better move might be to leave late. If you can stand it.

Of course, truly savvy fans will stay home and watch on television; they know the perils inherent tonight, and they saw the twin shellackings last weekend - Vikings 30, Ravens 7 and Patriots 41, Redskins 0. In fact, the most savvy of them all will be watching Grey's Anatomy or Celebrity Duets.

Not surprisingly, in light of what happened in Minnesota, many Ravens players want to play tonight, and play hard, for however long it takes to wash that taste out of their mouths. Indications are that coach Brian Billick, testy about that game, will grant their wishes. Yesterday, he ruled out the obviously injured - specifically Jamal Lewis - but that was about it. Expect the traditional night off for the finale to be revoked this year.

As it turns out, by stinking out the Metrodome, the Ravens made one of the most compelling cases for leaving the preseason setup as is. For one, they couldn't have even considered going into the regular season without seeing Steve McNair and the offense in live-action conditions, as risky as that is.

For another, nobody wants to ride a performance like that into Tampa Bay for the opener.

"Yeah, we need to get it together. And it definitely would be better for me to get out there, get the feel of it, get it right before the season starts," said left tackle Jonathan Ogden, whose first preseason game of the year was last week.

"But," he added with a laugh, "that's this year. Any other time ..."

He didn't need to finish. He's a veteran Raven, used to Billick's way of running camp - which, with the uproar over preseason injuries across the league, comes off as smarter every day.

One problem is that you can't tell football players to turn it on and off. That goes for real games, fake games, scrimmages, drills, whatever. Ask Lewis about that, since all it took in 2001 was a hit on the knee in the first few days of training camp - long before the threat of a preseason game - to ruin his season.

And holding back when a game, meaningful or not, begins is a lot to ask.

"You always want to play. Always. Regardless," linebacker Adalius Thomas said. "You always want to win whenever you go onto the field."

Proof of that will be standing on the opposite sideline tonight, wearing a sling and a miserable expression. Nobody told the Redskins' Clinton Portis to ease up, it's only preseason, when Cincinnati Bengals defensive back Keiwan Ratliff was racing his way during the first possession of the first game.

On the other hand, are fans of either team going to go into their openers relaxed and confident if they repeat what happened last week - or if last week were the final look before the games count?

The preference, then, is for the players to play well tonight, get off the field fast and in one piece, and wear their seatbelts on the ride home.

The reality is that watching and hoping for all of that will be a teeth-grinding, headache-inducing experience. Win or lose, there won't be anything fun about it.

If ever there was an NFL game to not watch, this is it. Thus, it's pretty hard to find a reason even to play.

david.steele@baltsun.com

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