Ravens' offense, ranked 29th, is all work and no progress

ON THE RAVENS

October 11, 2006|By MIKE PRESTON

The Ravens don't need to search for an offensive identity because they found a new one yesterday. Let's call them No. 29.

That's where their offense was ranked among the 32 NFL teams. A week ago, they were No. 28.

And if you look at the team's recent history and some of the offensive personnel in 2006, there probably won't be significant progress during the season. They could be No. 30 next Monday. They could be No. 27 in two weeks, and No. 25 a week later.

That won't change the perception of this team. The Ravens are good, and they practice and play hard, which means they'll get their share of breaks and victories. But haven't we been here before with this offense? It's like another rerun of Gilligan's Island or I Love Lucy.

The Ravens haven't had an identity since Jamal Lewis rushed for 2,066 yards in 2003. Since then, they have done whatever it takes to win games. That's why they're No. 29 now. They don't have a clue.

Ideally, the Ravens would like to be a power running team, but they don't have a dominating, physical offensive line, and their so-called power back, Lewis, hasn't shown much power. The Ravens could become a passing team because they have a good group of receivers, but they have a quarterback with an erratic arm and an offensive line that doesn't pass block very well.

So, that leaves the Ravens in limbo.

Ravens coach Brian Billick and offensive coordinator Jim Fassel have said this offense and new quarterback Steve McNair are works in progress. We've heard this offense called a few other names through the years, and it's always been a work in progress. The Ravens have tried just about everything. They've changed quarterbacks, receivers, offensive linemen and even coordinators. They've changed everything except the system and the coach ...

Oh, never mind.

And they're still No. 29.

That's why there isn't much optimism about significant progress. We're seeing some of the same things that have hampered this offense for years, like using all three timeouts in the third quarter.

The Ravens have Lewis on the field in passing situations, and he has some of the worst hands on the team. We see tight end Todd Heap disappear from the game plan, then watch receiver Derrick Mason walk off the field shrugging his shoulders in disbelief on third and long. We see little creativity in pass routes, and question why it takes the team so long to finally get receiver Mark Clayton several touches per game.

And just when you thought you had seen enough, the Ravens run a fade route to seldom-used receiver Clarence Moore while defended by Denver Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey at the end of the first half Monday night. Bailey intercepted a poorly thrown pass by McNair to Moore who ran a poor route, and then showed lackluster effort in trying to knock the ball away from Bailey.

What gives?

"It was ill-advised," Billick said of the call yesterday.

It was downright pathetic. Was Heap still on the roster? But we've seen these calls over the years, and the poor ones have outweighed the good ones. You wonder, will it ever change, or will the defense always have to bail the Ravens out?

When McNair signed here in June, you expected him to make a difference, and he has. The team has more confidence. The Ravens have won two games in the final minutes on McNair-led drives, something that former starter Kyle Boller probably couldn't have done. But except for the two game-winning drives, McNair has performed poorly. Many of his passes are underthrown and lack zip. If Cleveland's defensive backs could catch, the Ravens would have lost that game, too.

In honesty, McNair deserves more time, but only about three to four more weeks. This is the Ravens' system, not the Seattle Seahawks'. It's so vanilla that it can't take that long to learn. Regardless, there won't be significant progress because McNair has been in the league 12 years, and his best days are behind him.

The Ravens have a great trio of receivers in Mason, Clayton and Heap, but they can't have McNair passing 40 times per game. And if they replace McNair with Boller without just cause, it might destroy this team.

The Ravens have other options at running back, but Billick isn't ready to pull the plug on Lewis. Lewis has rushed for 311 yards on 88 carries, but has shown no acceleration. He is hesitant in finding holes when there are holes to find. Backups Musa Smith and Mike Anderson are sending the Ravens messages. They want to play. They want to be No. 1. When they're playing, they're trying to run through and over people instead of just giving Lewis a rest.

Is Billick getting the message? Even if he is, is Smith or Anderson a feature back?

"We feel confident in all of our backs. We were able to get all of them involved," said Billick, who played all three against the Broncos. "I feel good about our balance. We ran the ball better then we have and against a very good defense. We will play the hot hand. Each of them deserves to be the guy. We're just looking for some productivity."

Sometimes, you wonder if it all matters. The Ravens have an average offensive line at best, one that doesn't have a specialty. There were times Monday night when pulling guards ran into the fullback, or both players blocked the same person. According to the Broncos, they got a lot of pressure on McNair without blitzing as much as usual. That's not a good sign.

Even in the old days when the Ravens couldn't score points, they could run the ball and use up time to keep the defense off the field. Now, they can't run or throw. You feel compassion for players such as Mason, Heap, Clayton and offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden because they play so hard, and this team does has much more offensive talent then they've shown. But right now, they can't do anything.

They're stuck in limbo.

They're stuck at No. 29.

Mike.Preston@baltsun.com

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