Ravens' preseason is over, but offense has ways to go

Preseason is finished, but offense not ready

September 01, 2006|By RICK MAESE

Landover -- You tune in to the final preseason game and really hope for something crazy to make it worth your while. And because the Ravens were facing the Redskins, there was actually a pretty good chance at some preseason drama.

Maybe Dan Snyder's latest signee, Tom Cruise, would make his first appearance in uniform ...

Maybe Clinton Portis would come dressed as Katie Holmes ...

And maybe, just maybe, the Ravens' first-team offense could find the end zone again ...

I know, the last option seemed like Mission Impossible IV, but it happened all right, which was just enough to inject a pinch of intrigue into the Ravens' preseason finale and a touch of hope into the regular-season opener.

Their first-team offense reached the end zone midway through the first quarter, and suddenly Cruise wasn't the only one hopping on a couch. All across Baltimore, the faithful tuned in because they needed just a little reminder, a tiny taste of what they swallowed in Steve McNair's very first drive in a Ravens uniform last month.

Last night, the sloppy first-quarter drive capped by McNair's 15-yard touchdown pass to Mark Clayton was a respectable conclusion to a ho-hum preseason. The drive, like the previous three weeks, was short of spectacular but was just enough to rekindle some optimism, which was partially doused the previous week in Minnesota.

"It feels good," Clayton said of the touchdown, "like there is a completion to the preseason and you're ready for the next step."

Like every August, we've been listening to players repeatedly lament how long the preseason seems to last. It gets so tiring that you want to shake them each by the facemask and remind them that they're well-compensated football players, some of the toughest men on the planet, the latest in a line of weekend warriors who aren't supposed to whine over bumps and bruises; their ancestors played with breaks and fractures.

In fact, four games wasn't enough for these Ravens, not this year. The preseason is about addressing holes and answering questions. The first-stringers could use one more week to try this offense against an NFL defense.

They capped it all last night with a touchdown, which inspired hope. But every other snap we saw these past couple of weeks did little more than inspire winces.

Their first possession against the Redskins was perfect for those with a short attention span. On third-and-three, McNair underthrew Devard Darling, ending a 90-second possession.

The next time the Ravens touched the ball, the Redskins earned as much credit as anyone in purple. McNair led the Ravens downfield, thanks to Darling. The third-year wide receiver learned something on the first possession and curled back around to catch McNair's second underthrown pass - this one good for a 35-yard gain.

Three plays later and the Ravens' field-goal unit was tightening its chinstraps. On the field-goal attempt, though, the Redskins failed to distinguish between 12 men and 11 (something that really should've been mastered in the first preseason game), and the Ravens' offensive first-stringers were back on the field. They converted the fourth-and-one and inched their way into the red zone, a pair of short passes from McNair finally setting up the touchdown.

Not exciting, not dynamic, but just enough.

McNair finishes the preseason 35 of 46 for 335 yards. He threw for a touchdown, ran for another and was intercepted once.

"It went well," McNair said of the preseason. "I feel good about myself and I feel good about my teammates. We have a great team here, and now we just have to prove that to ourselves."

Last night's first-quarter score was a confidence-builder, but it only tells the Ravens what they're capable of, not who they are. A fifth, sixth or seventh preseason game wouldn't cement the offensive identity, either, but it would buy more time.

Through four games, do you know what you're getting with this offense? Of course not.

Based on his performance, is McNair a remarkable upgrade over Kyle Boller? Not yet.

Was four games enough for him to "get" the offense? Maybe - you just wish there was more to get.

Would you know more with one more game? Perhaps. Would the Ravens know more? Definitely.

Of course, the NFL isn't about to add one more game, and most years, four is more than enough for the Ravens. But this isn't most years. This is a team that needed to come together on offense in a relatively short period.

In one month, it didn't happen. You have no idea what to expect when the Ravens take on the Buccaneers in nine days.

The defense has fewer concerns, but on offense, we don't know whether Jamal Lewis is the 2005 version who rammed into a lineman after 2 yards or the one from 2003 who plowed through a hole and didn't look back.

We don't know whether the offensive line is stronger, smarter and quicker - or just older.

We know McNair looks healthy and sufficiently mobile, but we don't know how much of an impact the offensive scheme will allow him to have.

There is no fifth game, no more time to work out the bugs. That's why last night's first-quarter touchdown was the best the Ravens could've hoped for in a contest that held few opportunities for meaning.

After four games, the Ravens have flirted with the possible and barely made eye contact with the probable. Uncertainty looms on Week 1 of the regular season, casting a shadow that stretches to January.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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