Saturday, February 9, 2008

The Quarterback Quiz: Baltimore Ravens

Interesting note: The Ravens are the latest hot ticket for people trying to cadge another record $2.6 million bleeder out of Vegas. Seeing as the odds laid on them to win Super Bowl XLIII are wavering between 100-1 and 50-1, some enterprising Marylanders are trying to get rich quick by placing bets on their lovable poltroons to win the big banana. This, to say the least, is, uh... unlikely. Oh, America.

Baltimore Ravens (5-11): Kyle Boller/Steve McNair/Troy Smith/Yo Momma

Every year that goes by is another that the Ravens are removed, in more ways than one, from their Super Bowl XXXV title, which came in 2000, coincidentally against the current World Champion Giants. (Fun fact: The name "Ravens" references Edgar Allan Poe, who spent the last part of his life in Baltimore and is buried there. "Quoth the Raven: Nevermore" takes on a whole new meaning when applied to this currently hapless franchise). This upcoming season will be their 11th, once all the Cleveland moving controversy got settled in the mid 90's, and while they surprised everyone by going 13-3 in 2006 and got talked about as a preseason contender, they came crashing back to earth with a 5-11 record this year. In the meantime, they're having a quarterback shuffle enough to inspire more Poe-ian existential crises, with Boller having served the most duty this year, McNair a wily (but no longer particularly good) veteran, and Smith a former Heisman winner who dropped all the way to the fifth round in the 2007 draft, where the Ravens scooped him up. Smith nominally took over the starting job with Boller's injury (and helped the Ravens break a nine-game losing skid in Week 17) but it'll take another year to see how that plays out on the field.

Boller, in his fifth year in the league, is not a top-flight talent. His 75.2 rating this year was his highest ever as a starter, and he threw 9 TD to 10 INT, with 1,743 yards and a 61.1 CP. In 2004, his last year as a full-time starter, his rating was a fairly dismal 70.9, and since he's had five years with the team, it's not likely he's suddenly going to showcase an improved ability, even though he's still young at the age of 26 and the case of Eli Manning proved you have to be patient with quarterback prospects. This is a fall for a prospect considered one of the top in the nation coming out of Berkeley for the 2003 draft, and who was taken first by the Ravens, nineteenth overall. Boller, the franchise leader in passing yards, attempts, and completions (not that difficult, considering the team's been around for just over a decade) has had his moments, but when Steve McNair was acquired by the team in 2006, they named him the starter instead. McNair made good on this for that season, registering numbers of a 63% CP, 3,050 yards, 16 TD to 12 INT, and a 82.5 rating while leading the Ravens to their 13-3 finish. He took a sharp fall in 2007, starting six games and throwing only two TD passes and four picks; oddly enough, he recorded the highest completion percentage of his career at 64.9. His rating was 73.9, and since the Ravens themselves weren't particularly good (to put a charitable gloss on it) it didn't really matter who was taking the snaps.

Boller started the fateful Monday Night Football game against the Patriots, where the Ravens had twice stopped the Pats on fourth down in the closing minutes of the game, only to have both negated, one by a timeout that shouldn't have been allowed to be called and one on a holding penalty. Naturally, Tom Brady did his thing and the Patriots just escaped with a victory, but the game raised hopes of future great things; at the time, it put them at 4-8, the sixth game of their losing streak after starting 4-2. The Ravens proceeded to lose their next three games as well, including a 22-16 overtime defeat to the previously winless Dolphins, and entered Week 17 at 4-11.

Their third option for the offense was rookie Troy Smith. An OSU prospect that had played three years for the Buckeyes, he'd won a Heisman and yet the Buckeyes' sloppy loss to the Gators in the BCS National Championship, coupled with poor personal play, dropped his draft stock dramatically. Skipping the NFL Combine, where prospects traditionally showcase their skills for scouts and recruiters, also didn't help, which combined to let him slip on the board all the way to the fifth round. Smith had been lobbying hard for his hometown Browns to draft him, but they of course ended up with Brady Quinn and Smith went to Baltimore. He signed with the Ravens in July 2007 and was elevated to third-stringer status when Drew Olson was released, second-stringer when Boller was named the starter and McNair went on IR. However, Smith was given a chance for the starting job in Week 16 and 17, and in the last game of the season, helped the Ravens break their nine-game losing streak with a win over the division-rival Steelers. Smith went 16 of 27 with 1 TD pass and a 90.2 rating for the game, and the Ravens edged the Steelers 27-21 to finish at 5-11.

This monstrously disappointing season caused Brian Billick to be relieved of his job on New Year's Eve, and the 2008 Ravens will enter the season with an overhauled coaching corps (oddly enough, they fired, and then re-hired, defensive coordinator Rex Ryan). John Harbaugh, the former Eagles special teams coach, is now head coach, and exiled ex-Dolphin head coach Cam Cameron is offensive coordinator. (Which, if I was a Ravens fan, wouldn't make me feel very confident). Cameron, however, has a reputation for developing quarterbacks, which could be a good thing for Smith's prospects as a starter. It doesn't seem likely that they'll go back to McNair, but might give Boller another shot out of nepotism. Boller's contract only goes one more year, so it's most likely that they'll groom Smith to be the signal-caller of the future. It remains to be seen if this will help them, or if the Ravens will keep croaking "Nevermore" in regards to their status as a competitive team.

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