Time For Return To Glory?

... but variables likely to bring them down

Point/counterpoint

September 07, 2006|By PETER SCHMUCK

Heaven knows it would be great to go to Miami in late January, sip a couple of umbrella drinks at South Beach and spend a week listening to the Ravens tell the national media that no one gave them any credit or believed they could get to the Super Bowl.

It would be great to predict that Steve McNair will lead the team to an 11-win season and bang out a couple of playoff wins and maybe get another Most Valuable Player Award. Who among the purple-clad legions wouldn't want to see that?

So, let me be the first to say that it is not out of the question ... that it is within the realm of possibility ... that the Ravens are a good-looking team on paper and have a chance to be pretty good on FieldTurf. And yet there are a whole bunch of things standing in the way of the Super Bowl.

They're called variables.

They are the things that cannot be predicted, and they are the unseen obstacles on the road to riches and ruin. Every team encounters them, but the Ravens have so many that it is hard to imagine them turning around last year's 6-10 record, much less breezing through the playoffs.

Let's start with McNair, whose arrival has unleashed a new wave of understandable optimism after several years of quarterback angst. The guy is one tough hombre and an outstanding leader (those are intangibles, not variables), but he is not indestructible. If he can stay on the field for, say, 14 of the 16 regular-season games, the Ravens could make the playoffs. If not, well, why spoil a perfectly good NFL opening weekend worrying about it?

The thing about variables is that they are basically individual strands in a fabric of uncertainty. No discussion of McNair's ability to remain on the field is possible without an examination of the entire starting offense, which didn't exactly light the world on fire during the preseason.

McNair's productivity depends on the success of the running game, the depth of the receiving corps and, most importantly, a much-maligned offensive line that needs to take a big step forward from 2005.

There were some positive signs during the final preseason game against the Washington Redskins, but the offensive line might be the most important variable of all, since the running game, the passing game and McNair's best chance of staying off the injured reserve list pretty much depend on the chemistry Jonathan Ogden and Co. develop up front.

The running game was supposed to be a major strength - and may still pan out that way - but the nagging hip injury that kept Jamal Lewis off the field the last two preseason games has created still another area of uncertainty as the Ravens prepare to open the season on the road against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Mike Anderson and Musa Smith represent solid depth at running back, but Anderson averaged 2.6 yards per carry during the preseason and Smith's flashy performance came largely against third-string competition.

The Ravens are confident that Lewis will be ready to go against the Bucs, but no one really knows where he's going to be - production-wise - at that point.

Certainly, there aren't as many ifs on the other side of the ball, but there are a few questions that were not answered over the past five weeks. No. 1 draft choice Haloti Ngata has yet to make a strong impression on the defensive line, and team leader Ray Lewis is coming off a difficult 2005 season that left room to wonder how much longer he'll be a major force at linebacker.

The wondering doesn't stop there. The Ravens have two of the top big-play defenders in the game, but Ed Reed and Chris McAlister had just one interception each last season. To get where this team wants to go, those two have to make some game-breaking plays.

By the way, it could all happen, in which case the Ravens might go 11-5 and head into the postseason on a roll, but the odds say otherwise because too many different things have to go right for them to get deep into the playoffs.

It's sort of like flipping a coin 10 times and not being able to afford it ever coming up tails.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

"The Peter Schmuck Show" airs on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon on Saturdays.

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