With this offense, QB is irrelevant

Panthers 23 Ravens 21

Ravens Gameday

October 16, 2006|By RICK MAESE

Before the season, the consensus around the league seemed to be that if Ravens quarterback Steve McNair could remain healthy, his new team could again be a playoff contender.

The injury fans dreaded came late in the first quarter yesterday, when McNair was sacked hard, his back nestled against the grass and his eyes pointed straight up at the sky. He didn't return to the game, and we later learned that he had suffered a concussion.

By the time the Ravens' 23-21 loss to the Panthers was over, a new reality had presented itself, a what-if far scarier than linking the team's postseason chances to one man's health: Maybe it doesn't matter who plays quarterback.

Because it certainly didn't yesterday. If your quarterback is an important cog in the offense - and you'd hope that he is - losing him to injury mid-game should have a profound effect on the final result. But no one could say that the Ravens would have beaten the Panthers had McNair stayed in yesterday, a truth that should make everyone from the bosses in the front office to the fans on the Internet message boards a bit queasy this morning.

Yesterday's injury, coupled with the quarterback's subpar performances this season, underscore how important it is for the Ravens to figure out a way to win without McNair. Even though many of us thought and said differently before the season, the Ravens' success and failure cannot be pinned solely on the new quarterback. Otherwise, the final 10 games of the season could be painful to watch.

With an open date Sunday, the Ravens have two weeks to figure what's wrong with the offense. They have former Pro Bowl players at quarterback, running back, tight end and wide receiver, and they're underperforming - individually and as a unit.

With three touchdowns and 292 yards of offense, the numbers from yesterday's game might reflect a decent outing. But you have to remember that 76 yards and 14 points came from a pair of fluke plays - deflected passes that turned into touchdowns but just as easily could have been interceptions.

If you take away those plays, no wide receiver had more than 50 receiving yards, no running back had more than 50 rushing yards and the quarterbacks, McNair and Kyle Boller, combined for 154 passing yards and two interceptions.

There's no making sense of this offense. The players are better than they're playing. And best as I can tell, coaches aren't sure what exactly they want out of the running game.

The Ravens opened the game with three pass plays (followed, of course, by a punt), and after one quarter of play, they had called only two running plays. Jamal Lewis finished with only nine carries, one of just seven times in 81 career games that he has had fewer than 10 carries in a game.

On the Ravens' second drive in the third quarter, on a first-and-10, we saw Lewis trot forward for 17 yards, one of his best runs of the season. He was immediately taken out of the game. "I guess I wasn't hot enough," Lewis said.

He returned a play later, losing a yard, and then was essentially shelved for the day. Mike Anderson had 5 yards on five carries to finish out the drive. In the fourth quarter, trailing by nine, the Ravens had just one designed run play (a thrilling 2-yard gain for Anderson).

It makes no sense that a team that lived and died by the run for so long would abandon it for no reason. Check out what Carolina safety Mike Minter had to say: "We're going to stop the run and make a team one-dimensional. Again, if you take away those fluke passes, their passing game isn't going to do anything, either."

Ravens coaches talk about the offense and make it sound very complex, like they're undertaking the Human Genome Project with a dry-erase board and a whistle. But why then can a defender describe so succinctly how easy it is to shut down the offense?

Brian Billick, a man with a leaguewide reputation for talking a lot and saying a little, closed his post-game news conference with a pretty terse summation: "There's not a lot I can tell you right now."

Surely, it's not because he doesn't have the answers; rather, he'd prefer to consult with videotape from the game before he offers any analysis. The Ravens - and many teams in the league - talk about game footage like it's some Holy Grail with explanations to all of life's mysteries.

Why do I get the feeling, though, that the answers to the Ravens' problems aren't on game film? You can't collect all the X's and O's, shake them up like Yahtzee dice and expect the winning combination to come up. Not with this group.

Over the next two weeks, instead of focusing immediately on game footage, the search needs to take place internally. Each player has to figure out why he has underachieved and what his role is going to be in the next 10 games.

The Ravens can't afford to count solely on McNair. No more worrying about what happens if he gets hurt. It's time to simplify: What happens if McNair stays healthy? The way the Ravens' offense is right now, it really doesn't make a difference.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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