Hard questions remain

Progress made, but offense still in flux

Camp wrap-up

August 15, 2008|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN REPORTER

As the Ravens wrap up their first training camp under John Harbaugh today, their fledgling coach leaves Westminster with a sense of satisfaction but not a lot of answers.

"We're definitely a better football team than we were when we started camp," Harbaugh said. "How much better is yet to be determined. But we're getting better every day."

Most of the uncertainty stems from the Ravens' in-flux offense, which seemed to produce more questions than big plays during the 23-day camp.

It's difficult to get a handle on an offense that essentially practiced with a skeleton crew for most of the summer.

The Ravens had a former construction worker (Chad Slaughter) and a former practice squad player (Mike Kracalik) starting at the offensive tackle spots. They had a tight end who was out of football last year (Adam Bergen) running with the first team and a promising rookie (Ray Rice) taking virtually every snap at running back.

Not having the starting offense intact has become an additional challenge for offensive coordinator Cam Cameron as he attempts to install his new system.

"I don't know if it slows [the chemistry]; it doesn't speed it up," Cameron said of the missing starters. "You would ideally want every guy out there every day. But you just kind of consider yourself lucky if that happens."

By the end of yesterday's morning practice, almost half the starters on offense - wide receiver Derrick Mason (knee), tight end Todd Heap (calf), running back Willis McGahee (knee) and offensive tackles Jared Gaither (ankle) and Adam Terry (ankle) - were sidelined with injuries.

While all these players are expected to be ready for the regular season, it's unknown whether the offense will be.

"Those guys are a part of the puzzle," Mason said. "It's going to be hard to rally and move forward and really play the type of football that we need to play if those guys aren't out there on a consistent basis."

A look at what went right and wrong in Harbaugh's first training camp:

What went right

* A new mentality: Much was made about how Harbaugh's camp was significantly tougher than the one run by Brian Billick. But overcoming the hard-hitting practices went beyond strengthening the players' legs.

Many of the Ravens said overcoming the daily grueling challenges bolstered a stronger mind-set.

"We're a smarter football team," Harbaugh said. "I think we're a more disciplined football team."

* No major injuries: It's never a pleasant picture when McGahee is walking around on crutches, cornerback Chris McAlister has a football-sized ice pack on his knee and safety Ed Reed is wearing a red jersey (signifying no contact).

Still, there is a positive amid all the pain: No starter has been lost for the season, which is always an unspoken rule in every NFL training camp.

The biggest concern remains Reed, who expressed uncertainty about his status for the Sept. 7 opener. Besides that, the Ravens are confident they will be at full strength when the regular season begins.

* Younger players: When so many starters went down, many expected the Ravens to experience some growing pains. But this year's draft class has filled the voids admirably.

Rice generated excitement after stepping in for McGahee, running hard between the tackles and catching passes out of the backfield. Marcus Smith improved throughout camp in place of the injured Demetrius Williams, becoming one of the bright spots of the receiving group.

And with Reed sidelined early, rookies Haruki Nakamura and Tom Zbikowski showed flashes while alternating with the starting defense.

What went wrong

* No definition in quarterback race: The Ravens' quarterback battle is as inconclusive as when training camp started. None of the quarterbacks made a move to jump ahead of the others.

Kyle Boller has been the most consistent throughout camp. Troy Smith has made more big plays this summer. And Joe Flacco has looked like a rookie first-round pick at times.

At this rate, the Ravens won't name a starting quarterback until after the third preseason game.

* Injuries at offensive tackle: One of the biggest gambles was heading into training camp with two unproven offensive tackles. Now, it's an even bigger risk because Gaither and Terry missed most of camp.

Gaither (Maryland) needed these practices more than any other offensive player to show he's ready to take over for the retired Jonathan Ogden. Terry needed these practices to prove he's healthy enough to be a full-time starter.

Whether these towering tackles can hold their own in the NFL is not only a concern for fans, but also for the quarterbacks they protect.

* Bumpy road with McGahee: The Ravens wanted McGahee to become a three-down running back this season. They were lucky to get three practices out of him.

There have been questions about McGahee's commitment to the team after he skipped most of the offseason workouts. He didn't report to training camp in great shape, and he missed most of the practices with a knee injury.

If the Ravens can't count on McGahee, their offense might be running on empty this season.

jamison.hensley@baltsun.com

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