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Don Banks Inside the NFL

Quick study

First-round draft pick Boller looks to have inside track on Ravens' job

Posted: Thursday August 28, 2003 8:49AM
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Barring a disastrous performance by Kyle Boller in Baltimore's preseason finale against the Giants Thursday night, Ravens head coach Brian Billick is leaning strongly toward naming his rookie quarterback the team's starter for the Sept. 7 regular-season opener at Pittsburgh, sources within the organization have confirmed.

Though Billick has not made any formal decision, and has said he may not announce his starter until game day in Pittsburgh, all indications are that it is Boller's job to lose at this point and a solid showing against New York would steel Billick's resolve to open the regular season and the Boller era all at once. Sources say Billick is convinced Boller's strong arm and aggressive style of play gives Baltimore a better shot to win Week 1 at Pittsburgh compared with Chris Redman's more conservative passing game.

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Reached Wednesday, Billick flatly denied having made up his mind about his starting quarterback, and declined all comment on who leads the competition at this point. Still, providing Boller doesn't lay an egg against the Giants, an announcement of his elevation to the No. 1 role for the regular season could come within days.

Baltimore's second of two first-round picks this year, Boller has received the majority of first-team snaps in practice again this week -- ahead of Redman, the fourth-year veteran -- and is expected to make his second consecutive preseason start when Baltimore (1-2) plays host to the Giants (0-3).

Last Saturday night at Washington, Boller started and played the entire first half of the 24-3 loss, going 14-of-20 for 101 yards. The Ravens offense went nowhere in its first five drives, but Boller was 7-of-7 for 59 yards on his sixth possession, and led Baltimore to its only points of the night, a 24-yard Matt Stover field goal just before the half.

Sources within the Ravens say Billick's decision to let Redman play the entire second half at Washington, with an offense made up almost entirely of second and third-team players was the most telling piece of evidence that points to Boller being the likely choice. Redman finished 17-of-28 for 163 yards, with one interception, and was frequently running for his life against the Redskins pass rush.

"You don't do that if the guy still might be your starting quarterback on opening day,'' a Ravens source said. "I kept waiting to see if [third-team quarterback] Anthony Wright was going to finish up in the fourth quarter, but he never left the bench. That's all I needed to know that it was going to be Boller from the start of the season on.''

As is the long-held policy in Baltimore, Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome cedes final say on all playing time issues to his head coach, and has made it clear that he won't try and dissuade Billick from starting Boller.

Ever since the Ravens traded up to the No. 19 slot in the first round to select Boller, it has hardly been a secret that Billick is eager to get the Boller era under way. Enamored with the former Cal star's arm strength, ability to make something out of nothing on the run, and quick assimilation of the Ravens' offense, Billick has consistently left unanswered the question of whether his rookie quarterback could be ready to start opening day.

But the following reasons for playing Boller early seem to be carrying the day in Billick's estimation:

• First and foremost, though the Ravens can't publicly acknowledge this, the 2003 season is not a must-win situation. Baltimore is a year ahead of schedule in the drastic salary cap-induced rebuilding project it undertook in 2002, with the team willing to live with some growing pains this year in order to continue to develop another Super Bowl window of opportunity in 2004-2006.

Though the Ravens defense is again of championship timber and could very well propel Baltimore into the playoffs this season, the priority in 2003 is to rectify the franchise's perennial quarterback issue, which was the intent of Boller's drafting. Thus, if you know Boller is the long-term answer at quarterback, why not get his inevitable growing pains out of the way as soon as possible, rather than delay them in a year where winning early isn't deemed essential?

• Boller's showing has greatly affected Billick's timeline. Though he still exhibits all the symptoms of a green, inexperienced quarterback at times, Boller has impressed the Ravens with his ability to quickly assimilate the offense and play within the parameters of a controlled, risk-averse game plan. In other words, Billick sees in Boller the necessary discipline and intelligence to be a care-taker quarterback this year while he learns the NFL ropes, allowing the Ravens' stellar defense to make the difference in most games.

Billick was encouraged by Boller's ability to conduct a successful two-minute offense against Buffalo in Baltimore's first preseason game, which came after just four or five days of practice time once he ended his brief holdout. The Ravens' comfort zone that Boller is up to the test of being an early starter is also influenced by the grasp he exhibited of coach Jeff Tedford's offense after just one year in that system at Cal.

The hope is that Boller is smart enough and the Ravens defense good enough that the rookie can execute Baltimore's controlled game plans without having too much of the burden for winning games placed on his shoulders. While some criticized Boller for dumping the ball off too much and throwing underneath against Washington, the Ravens were actually encouraged that he didn't force a bevy of passes into coverage and wind up making typical rookie mistakes of impatience. The type that would lose games in the regular season.

• Lastly, Redman's situation is another key factor in Boller's favor. After four consecutive seasons of uncertainty at the game's most critical position, the last thing Baltimore wants is another muddled quarterback situation. With the Ravens committed to Boller for the foreseeable future, and Redman eligible for unrestricted free agency after this season, Billick's thinking seems to be it's better to go with Boller early and let him begin establishing himself as the starter, rather than allow Redman to complicate the situation and potentially push back Boller's development.

For example, with no real intention of re-signing Redman to any significant deal after this season, the Ravens might risk creating another Trent Dilfer-type situation if Redman plays and plays well enough to hold off Boller for a sizable chunk of the season. If Boller is the team's future, and the Ravens feel the sooner they get him on the field the sooner he gets better, then why give Redman the first month of the season, with Boller taking over for Week 5 after getting little or no first-team reps in September?

Left unanswered in that scenario is the question of how Boller will handle the adversity of playing early, and if Billick and the Ravens really are willing to live with a shaky start to the season -- compared to the potential of a smoother getaway with Redman -- in the name of hastening Boller's development? The gamble is that if you start Boller too soon and he struggles, you might then have to remove him from the lineup in favor of Redman, which would almost certainly represent a setback for the rookie.

One way or another, it looks very likely that we're about to find out what Boller can do in Baltimore. Right from the start.

Don Banks covers pro football for SI.com.

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