Kyle Boller has a gun, but his numbers consistently rank in the league's bottom half.
While Ray Lewis and Ed Reed get all the glory as back-to-back NFL Defensive Player of the Year award winners, Terrell Suggs has quietly become one of the top pass rushers in the league. The third-year outside linebacker and end already has 22 1/2 career sacks and will play primarily with his hand down in the 4-3 defense of new coordinator Rex Ryan, who says Suggs is in the company of the Colts' Dwight Freeney and the Dolphins' Jason Taylor as one of the game's elite sack specialists.
Everybody is terrified of their defense, but can Kyle Boller strike fear into opposing secondaries? He finally has the receiving weapons to do it
He still doesn't read defenses like a savvy veteran, but Kyle Boller knows a good thing when he sees it. After getting a glimpse of the Ravens' top pick in the 2005 draft -- former Oklahoma wideout Mark Clayton -- at a spring minicamp, Boller took care of the new kid in town by hooking him up with plush, cost-effective accommodations. "I invited him to stay at my house," says Boller, who has been Baltimore's starting quarterback since his rookie season in '03. "I know how it is being a rookie, and I figured that was one less thing he'd have to worry about."
As the Ravens keep working to get their offensive house in order, seventh-year coach Brian Billick may finally possess the tools to restore his reputation as an offensive guru. If all goes according to his plan, opposing teams will now have to worry about more than Baltimore's menacing defense and star halfback Jamal Lewis.
In addition to drafting Clayton, a dangerous slot receiver and return specialist, the Ravens signed free-agent wideout Derrick Mason, a two-time Pro Bowl selection with the Titans. Throw in the return of fifth-year tight end Todd Heap, who missed 10 games last season with a severely sprained right ankle after trips to the Pro Bowl in 2002 and '03, and there should be plenty of targets for Boller's gun of a right arm.
"Our defense puts so much fear into an opposing offense, and as an offense we've got to start having that same [effect]," says Mason of his new unit, which ranked 31st in the league in yards per game last season. "This group is as talented as any group of receivers in the NFL. If you're on the outside, you can't see it, but I practice with these guys every day, and I know what we've got."
In Mason the Ravens snagged a go-to receiver who has more catches (191) over the past two seasons than anyone in the league except the Rams' Torry Holt. The ninth-year veteran's smooth moves and ability to find holes in the coverages have blown away his new teammates and coaches. "If there's a better route runner in the league, I haven't seen him," Heap says. "He's so precise, he has great hands and a great suddenness about him."
Billick, the onetime Vikings offensive coordinator, goes even further in his praise of Mason: "He's as good coming in and out of breaks as anybody I've been around -- and I had Cris Carter."
In Clayton, Baltimore believes it got a younger version of Mason, complete with a penchant for making big plays on special teams. "He's special, man," Boller says of his housemate. "He's a natural playmaker."
The plan is to ease Clayton into the lineup as a slot man in three- and four-receiver sets, with 6'6", 220-pound, second-year wideout Clarence Moore starting opposite Mason. By spreading out the offense, the Ravens hope to clear the middle for the physically gifted Heap, a 6'5", 252-pound target who presents a heap of trouble for the smaller safeties or slower linebackers who try to cover him. "If you can create a mismatch with Todd, it's a done deal," Boller says. "When I see a linebacker on him, I lick my chops."
With so many enticing options, Boller is well aware that the onus is on him to upgrade his game. Last year he was the AFC's second-lowest-rated passer (70.9), with a 55.6% completion rate and a 5.52-yard average per attempt. "There is not one man in this organization who doesn't think Kyle's not going to have a great year and be a great quarterback," Billick says.
Says Boller, "It's all on my shoulders. It's my offense, and guys are looking at me to be a leader. You'll see a lot smoother quarterback, a guy who's not so hurried."
Ravens fans should be comforted to know that Boller has already thrown his first dramatic touchdown pass of 2005. Granted, it happened in an early-summer game of Madden 2005 on a big-screen TV in the quarterback's five-bedroom home. Clayton, who plays the video game obsessively, had presented the less-polished Boller with an enticing challenge: Score even a single point against him in four quarters, and his landlord could declare victory. Trailing 72-0, Boller, who was playing as the '04 Vikings, finally hit pay dirt on a late Hail Mary from Daunte Culpepper to Randy Moss.
"The final score was 80-7," Boller recalls with a laugh, "but I got to brag about it to everyone the next day, saying, 'I beat Mark.' Hey, I'm not proud."