Meat of schedule requires well-done QB handling

ON THE RAVENS

Ravens Weekend

October 05, 2007|By MIKE PRESTON

It's clear at this point that it really doesn't make a difference whether the Ravens start Steve McNair or Kyle Boller at quarterback.

It will matter Nov. 5, when the Ravens play the Steelers in Pittsburgh, and then afterward when the Ravens play the Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, San Diego Chargers, New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts. That's when McNair has to be healthy, and be the starter.

No players want to talk about it, but the veterans know McNair gives the Ravens the best chance of winning against the better teams in the league because he is proven and Boller is unproven.

Yes, it really is as simple as that. It's all about confidence.

It was painful at times watching McNair play Sunday in the Ravens' loss to the Browns. He threw and completed a lot of passes, but you could tell the groin injury was bothering him.

He didn't always plant his feet. Sometimes he didn't step into his throws. There wasn't always a follow-through. Almost everyone at Cleveland Browns Stadium and at home in Baltimore watching the game knew McNair was having leg problems.

Yet, Ravens coach Brian Billick kept McNair in the game. That's understandable, because McNair wants to play all the time, injured or not. But the week before, Billick replaced McNair with Boller early in the fourth quarter against the Arizona Cardinals because he thought McNair had "tweaked" the injury, even though McNair was playing reasonably well.

Even when the Cardinals rallied at the end of the game, Billick stayed with Boller. The way Billick has handled this quarterback situation is strange. When McNair tweaks it, he pulls him. When it seems like it really hurts, he leaves McNair in the game.

My gut feeling is Billick knew he made a bad decision in the Arizona game by pulling McNair and was gun-shy about doing it again against Cleveland.

Here's a suggestion for the next three games against the San Francisco 49ers, St. Louis Rams and Buffalo Bills: If McNair shows discomfort and his passes start sailing over the stadiums like UFOs, give him the hook, because he is hurting the team.

At that point, McNair would be no better and no more accurate than Boller. If he needs the rest, just give it to him and gear McNair up for the stretch run.

Boller certainly has looked better this season than in previous years. When he comes into a game, he actually looks calm instead of having panic written all over his face.

He is no longer just a mad bomber who looks to Billick on the sideline for fatherly approval when he completes a long pass. He plays within the system and has become more efficient and accurate on short passes.

The offense wouldn't change much with Boller in the lineup. The Ravens would still have the high school passing attack. It's dink and dunk, throw short to slot receiver Derrick Mason, who might end up having more catches than yards before the season is over.

The passing scheme won't change in the red zone, either. It's still this formula: find the player with the one-on-one matchup and chuck it up to see if he can make a play.

So, why not Boller?

He couldn't have rescued the Ravens against Cleveland with all of the team's problems, but neither could have Superman. But with McNair injured, Boller is good enough to beat the 49ers, Rams and Bills going into the bye week.

It would be a gutsy call by Billick. It almost would be like mortgaging the present for the future. But the Ravens knew they were taking a risk when they signed McNair in June 2006. He had a career hampered by injuries, but also a resume filled with gutsy performances and comeback wins.

But, at 34, has age finally caught up with McNair?

The mind-set is different with McNair as the starter instead of Boller. McNair has been selected to four Pro Bowls, been the NFL's co-Most Valuable Player and came within a yard of maybe winning the Super Bowl. Last season, he guided the Ravens to a 13-3 record, and he exudes the kind of confidence from a quarterback that this team has lacked for almost seven years.

Meanwhile, the Ravens signed Boller to a one-year extension last month just for this situation - to be the stopgap quarterback when McNair gets hurt.

The Ravens might not be planning this, but it appears defensive end Trevor Pryce (fractured wrist) and offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden (foot) might return for the Pittsburgh game. And if McNair shows some discomfort Sunday, the Ravens might want to rest him, too.

They'll need him as they load up for the stretch run. mike.preston@baltsun.com

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