Low point at Mile High set stage for QB change

October 09, 2006|By DAVID STEELE

Denver — Denver-- --Tonight, the Ravens return to the city where their 2006 season, their so-far-perfect season, began.

It's unlikely that they're celebrating the return or commemorating the occasion, though. Unfortunately, even the most optimistic Ravens supporter booking his flight to Miami for February can't erase the memory of the Dec. 11, 2005, trip to Invesco Field at Mile High.

That was when the Ravens' sinking season hit rock bottom. It also was the worst game of Kyle Boller's professional career, the game in which it was concluded by most that, barring a miraculous reversal of fortune, the team would need a new quarterback in 2006.

Boller almost had that miraculous reversal during the following two weeks, but it wasn't enough to offset that fateful day in Denver. Now, 10 months later, Steve McNair is in charge. The offense is still a sputtering mess. But the Ravens are 4-0. And McNair has not only led shocking comebacks in the past two games, he also has done it without once fumbling without getting hit.

At this point, sincere apologies go out to Boller, who has held up well this season and kept a smile on his face throughout the endless discussions of how much better things are with someone else at his old position. Two weeks ago in Cleveland, after Rally No. 1, Boller was as congratulatory toward McNair as anybody, maybe more, as they dressed next to each other, chatting and laughing. It was a nice scene.

Whatever his faults as a quarterback, Boller has never been accused of having no pride or of not being competitive. So this has to be tough on him.

But facts are facts: The Ravens with McNair on the sideline and in the huddle are 180 degrees from when Boller was there.

Fans don't forget. They made that obvious in the week leading up to tonight's Ravens-Broncos game; the scars from last year's game hadn't healed, even with McNair's presence now easing the sting.

Oh, the conversation about the Ravens has been uniformly positive, until someone, someplace, somehow - at the barber shop, the mall, a coffee shop, the BWI gate area - mentions how the Ravens can keep it up this week because of how well they've played against the Broncos over the years. They are 4-2 all time, including a 21-3 home victory over Denver that started their 2000 season playoff run.

Yeah, someone else then counters, except that last year. ... The ugly memories come bubbling to the surface, and the Boller bash-a-thon commences.

Of course, it wasn't as if the Ravens got drilled like a rotting tooth, as they did in Cincinnati two weeks earlier. Or as if they made fans want to disown them, as they did with the 21-penalty game in Detroit in October.

It was that the Ravens lost, 12-10, on a day the Broncos were begging to be beaten. On offense, defense and special teams, they kept giving the Ravens chances to steal the game.

Boller kept giving those chances back.

It really was hideous, not that anyone needs reminding. Tripping while dropping back. Throwing an ill-advised (to put it mildly) interception in the end zone. Throwing another pick that made one wonder exactly what he had been looking at. The infamous no-touch fumble.

The rest of the offense followed him into the abyss. A fumble to halt a third-quarter drive. A failure on four shots after getting first-and-goal from the Denver 5 in the fourth quarter.

Worst of all, however, was that after the game, in body language, carefully worded comments and under-the-breath revelations, Boller's teammates gave him a vote of no-confidence. Remember, Boller had been back from his injured toe barely a month, and he had led comeback wins two of the previous three weeks. There had been a glimmer of possibility that Boller was turning a corner.

That was extinguished that afternoon; even with the explosions against the Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings, it never really re-lit, for anybody, particularly his teammates.

To see and hear the unquestioned faith the Ravens players have in McNair now, you almost wouldn't recognize them from a year ago.

It's hard for most to understand how one player, even with McNair's credentials, can make that big a difference, especially when his stats so far are underwhelming at best.

If you allow yourself to recall last year's trip to Denver, though, you'd understand completely.

But try not to recall that game. If you must, console yourself with the thought that if not for that game, the Ravens might not be where they are today.

david.steele@baltsun.com

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