Four days before delivering the touchdown pass that would give the Baltimore Ravens the biggest victory in their brief history, quarterback Tony Banks was doing the little things that people used to criticize him for not doing. After practice ended last Thursday, Banks stayed behind, ball in hand, and set up in the middle of the field. Coach Brian Billick, impersonating a Jacksonville Jaguars linebacker, positioned himself about 20 yards downfield, with offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh, playing the role of a safety, about 10 yards behind Billick. The two coaches watched Banks work for nearly 20 minutes, tossing one pass after another to tight end Shannon Sharpe, running a pattern to a point between them. The ball had to arc over Billick and land in Sharpe's hands before the tight end reached Cavanaugh.
Fast forward to Sunday: Banks hits Sharpe on a similar route for a 29-yard touchdown with 41 seconds left to give Baltimore a 39-36 victory over Jacksonville. As a result the Ravens are 2-0 for the first time since they moved to Baltimore, in 1996, and more important, Banks looks like a new man. At this point last season he might not have put in the time required to make such a precise delivery. But he has learned to appreciate the subtleties that separate erratic quarterbacks from effective ones, and he is coming of age at the right time for a team that looks like it's capable of contending for the AFC Central title.
The ride hasn't been an easy one for the 27-year-old Banks. He floundered with the St. Louis Rams for three seasons and started his Ravens career in Billick's doghouse because of poor practice habits. However, with every start he is showing he has what it takes to be a standout NFL signal-caller. That much was clear on Sunday, after the Ravens fell behind 17-0 in the first quarter. Jacksonville quarterback Mark Brunell, who finished the game with 386 passing yards, and wideout Jimmy Smith (15 receptions, 291 yards, three touchdowns) were having their way with Baltimore's vaunted defense. The Jaguars had won all eight of the teams' previous meetings and appeared to be on their way to the ninth before Banks turned the tide. Displaying poise and the talent that made him a second-round draft pick out of Michigan State in 1996, he threw a career-high five touchdown passes and drove the Ravens 75 yards in 1:04 for the winning score.
"I've had comebacks before, but never in this fashion," said Banks, who completed 23 of 40 passes for 262 yards. He also threw two interceptions, but one was a desperation throw at the end of the first half, and the other came on a tipped ball that should have been caught. "It did a lot for our confidence. We showed our defense that they don't have to do it all by themselves."
"Tony has a lot of talent," Jaguars tackle Zach Wiegert, a former teammate of Banks's with the Rams, said on Sunday. "When you give him the time, he's as good as anyone in the league. He had a tough time early in St. Louis because he got thrown into the mix too early, but he was the best guy we had. His confidence is back. He has the skills to be a good quarterback, and he showed that today."
Banks's struggles in St. Louis can't all be attributed to his being pressed into service. He was too reliant on his strong right arm and too lazy to put in the study required to make the most of his talent. He's finally shaking those bad habits, thanks largely to his maturation and to a coach who isn't short on swagger.
Banks certainly wouldn't be as far along as he is today if not for Billick, Baltimore's second-year coach. The coordinator for the Minnesota Vikings offense that set the league scoring record in 1998, Billick is a stickler for details. He wanted a quarterback whose confidence came from preparation, not potential, so Banks opened last year third on the depth chart, behind Scott Mitchell and Stoney Case. Banks pouted over his backup role, but then he began visiting team chaplain Rod Hairston. "I needed to find something that was more important than football," Banks says. "I was reluctant at first, because I didn't want to be one of those guys who preaches about being a Christian in the media and then lives another life out of the public eye. In my first few years in the league I was pretty wild. But [religion] settled me down."
After Mitchell and Case struggled during the first six games of the 1999 season, Billick reluctantly turned the job over to Banks. He started the last 10 games and showed flashes of brilliance as the Ravens won six of their last nine to finish 8-8. In the off-season Banks focused on his footwork to help improve his accuracy on short throws. Now he watches more film than he ever did, scrutinizing matchups and defensive tendencies and considering plays he might run in various situations. The 6' 4", 230-pound Banks also realizes he doesn't have to win games by himself. The Ravens beefed up the offense in the off-season by adding Sharpe, Ben Coates, another veteran tight end, and two rookie first-round picks, running back Jamal Lewis and wideout Travis Taylor. On Sunday, Banks completed passes to six receivers, and his five scoring tosses were spread among four players.
"Tony has confidence in [wideout] Qadry Ismail because Qadry bailed him out a lot last season," Sharpe says. "But in time he has to have that same trust in me, Ben, Travis and the other receivers, that we'll be where we're supposed to be. Once we get that mix, the sky is the limit."
"Tony is getting more comfortable with the offense," Billick says. "This is the first time since high school that he's been in the same system two years in a row, and that's tough for any quarterback. If he can get that understanding of this offense, he'll put his fingerprints on it. This offense will [be distinguished by] whatever strengths Tony Banks has."