He can alter a game with a flick of his mighty right arm, filling the narrowest gap with a football that seems powered by propellers. Still, for all his prodigious physical ability, Baltimore Ravens quarterback Elvis Grbac has never been regarded as an inspirational leader. That's why the most striking moment of his first career playoff victory occurred not on the field but in the visitors' locker room at Miami's Pro Player Stadium, where Grbac came out of his cocoon and changed the Ravens' mood.
Although Baltimore held a 7-3 lead, the players' faces were long and their tempers short as the Ravens headed into the tunnel at halftime of their wild-card playoff with the Dolphins, time having expired as Baltimore's Matt Stover clanged a wayward 40-yard field goal attempt off the left upright. Before he knew what had come over him, the introverted Grbac was delivering the most important pep talk of his nine-year NFL career. "Hey, screw that!" Grbac yelled, referring to Stover's miss. "Don't worry—we're going to stop them on defense, get the ball back, then take it right down and score seven and put the game away. This is our game to win. Let's go!"
Sure enough, the Ravens, the AFC's most feared and loathed team, finished the job, rolling to a 20-3 win that featured a pair of picturesque passes from their vilified quarterback. In a performance that evoked memories of last year, when wild-card Baltimore rode a record-setting defense to a Super Bowl triumph, the Ravens were physically dominant during the game and verbally defiant afterward. The action was barely over when they began talking trash to their next opponent, the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"I'm sure that the Steelers think they're better and more physical than we are and that the home field advantage will carry them," said fullback Obafemi Ayanbadejo. "That's what Oakland and Tennessee thought last year, and that's what Miami thought today, but all of them learned that you can't play our style of football and beat us. If the Steelers try it, they'll learn too."
By now we expect prideful predictions from the Ravens, who were a so-so 10-6 in the regular season, the way we do boasts from a boxer before a tide fight. What gives Baltimore's bravado its bite is the way the Ravens back it up. Last year it was quarterback Trent Dilfer hanging in against an all-out Oakland Raiders' blitz and firing a 96-yard touchdown pass to tight end Shannon Sharpe in the AFC Championship Game. On Sunday, Grbac made a similarly gutsy throw that hastened another playoff disaster for the Dolphins.
Though Baltimore's offense, with 50 rushes for 226 yards, was more conservative than Martha Stewart's wardrobe, Grbac let 'er rip when Miami least expected it. Facing third-and-one from the Ravens' 10 with 5:53 left in the third quarter, Grbac whispered, "Yes!" when he heard offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh's play call: Fox 989 All-Go. After a cursory play fake to halfback Terry Allen, Grbac, who would complete 12 of 18 passes for 133 yards on the day, heaved a pretty ball down the right sideline to wideout Travis Taylor. Dolphins cornerback Patrick Surtain was beaten for a 45-yard catch. Miami was still reeling eight plays later when Grbac, on third-and-goal from the four, found Taylor on an improvised fade pattern, completing a 99-yard drive that staked Baltimore to a 14-3 lead.
Leave it to coach Brian Billick, who green-lighted the long pass on third-and-one, to pander to the Ravens haters in a postgame aside. "That's my arrogance," he said of the call, in a tone somewhere between defensive and playful. Yet if many people, even some who wore purple jerseys on Sunday, find Billick insufferable, Grbac isn't among them. "A lot of people say he's arrogant, but he wants to show people what he can accomplish, and if you don't have that attitude as a head coach, you're through," Grbac says. "I've had coaches whose attitude was, Just don't f—- up, and it's no fun."
Grbac, after all, owes his presence in Baltimore to Billick's ego. Not satisfied to have won a Super Bowl with the statistically unimpressive Dilfer, who nevertheless went 11-1 as the Ravens' starter last year, Billick, who fashions himself as an offensive innovator, felt Grbac could better accentuate the Billick system. So he let the popular Dilfer walk and signed the free agent Grbac.
To the delight of virtually everyone outside Baltimore, the move wasn't a big success. Whereas Dilfer went 4-0 with a passer rating of 100.4 as a spot starter for Seattle, Grbac struggled, throwing 18 interceptions against 15 touchdowns and finishing 28th in the NFL with a 71.1 rating.
As the Ravens staggered into the playoffs, Grbac absorbed most of the blame, but some Baltimore insiders wondered if the blame wasn't misplaced. Said one Ravens starter last week, "When Elvis got here, I saw him throw and said, 'Wow, what an upgrade.' Then, once the season began, our offense looked as ugly as last year's. So you wonder—maybe it's not the quarterback. There's not a lot of freshness to our scheme."