Good, lucky is winning mix

ON THE RAVENS

October 03, 2006|By MIKE PRESTON

If you play or coach sports long enough, there will be seasons like the Ravens experienced the past two years filled with penalties, significant injuries, turnovers and team chemistry problems.

And then there are seasons like the Ravens are having in 2006, where there are few injuries, few penalties, no chemistry problems and everything seems to fall in place. The Ravens are playing poorly enough to lose, but just well enough to win, and they're getting a lot of breaks.

As the saying goes, sometimes it's better to be lucky than good. The Ravens (4-0) are both.

The Ravens got some bad news yesterday when they learned that starting left guard Edwin Mulitalo had torn a triceps and is out for the season. It's a loss, and especially tough for Mulitalo because he worked so hard during the offseason to rebound from a poor showing a year ago.

But overall, the injuries have been minor, and the Ravens fortunate. They've run into three struggling teams early, and then the San Diego Chargers, who also have a young quarterback. The Ravens have played good enough defense to win most games and gotten enough late-game heroics from quarterback Steve McNair to steal two in the final seconds.

And then there is the weird stuff, like San Diego botching two field-goal attempts, or the usually conservative Browns coach Romeo Crennel gambling for a touchdown pass late in the game that backfired. In the same game, the Ravens were fortunate enough to have the wind in the fourth quarter to aid Matt Stover in kicking a game-winning, 52-yard field goal.

This isn't to say the Ravens aren't a playoff-caliber team. They've earned the record because they've made their share of plays at crucial times. But the margin for victory in the NFL is small, and there are a lot of 2-2 teams that could be 4-0, and some 4-0 teams that could be 2-2. So if you're good, that's cool.

If you're lucky, that's even better.

Last year, the Ravens weren't so lucky. There were all kinds of problems from player contracts to head coaching issues. The Ravens lost safety Ed Reed for six games with an ankle injury in the fifth game, and then inside linebacker Ray Lewis for the season with a hamstring/groin injury in the sixth game. The Ravens had 21 penalties in a loss to Detroit, and Kyle Boller had three turnovers that cost the Ravens the game against Denver.

There seemed to be a black cloud over the team.

For the Ravens to have a shot at a successful season in 2006, it was imperative to get off to a good start. It's hard to predict how an NFL schedule will turn out, but in retrospect, it seems like the Ravens put in a custom order.

The first two teams, Tampa Bay and Oakland, have a combined record of 0-6, and with the Browns beating the Raiders on Sunday, the Raiders have unofficially become the worst team in the league. In the first four games, the Ravens have faced young, unproven quarterbacks in Chris Simms, Andrew Walter, Charlie Frye and Philip Rivers.

They're still babies. Major advantage, Ravens.

Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer gave the Ravens a gift Sunday. Clearly, San Diego had the better team, and the Chargers had the Ravens on the ropes after the first half. Offensively, San Diego's offense had the Ravens' defense off balance with a good mixture of pass and run, and then Schottenheimer pulled the plug on his offense in the second half.

He shut it down, and the Ravens were able to win another game with another great finish by McNair. It's a strange twist of fate from a year ago when nothing went right compared to now when Ravens safety Dawan Landry stops Cleveland tight end Kellen Winslow from scoring the game-winning touchdown by tackling him with an outstretched arm around the ankle late in the fourth quarter.

The Ravens have the voodoo working. They have team chemistry going.

In the past two years, a lot of people have said the Ravens wouldn't develop team chemistry even if they were winning.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

You don't need to win to develop team chemistry; you win because of team chemistry. This team has had it since Day One of training camp.

These guys play hard all the time. And they have to because the offense is still inept. Clock management is poor. The passing game is vanilla. There is no running game, and the play selection is amusing at times. The Ravens probably have considered going with more three- or four-receiver packages, but that would make a suspect offensive line even more vulnerable.

But the Ravens have been able to compensate for their weaknesses. Their defense is good, and McNair has been special down the stretch. We'll be kind and call the offense a work in progress. But during a 16-game schedule, it's always good to have some unexpected things fall in place.

A little luck doesn't hurt either.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

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