Trial by Fire
For better or worse, the Ravens are sticking with rookie Kyle Boller
"Guru, genius, mastermind," Ravens coach Brian Billick, a man who has been called all three at times by the media, said derisively after Sunday's game at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati. "But in 30 years coaching football, I've never heard one coach refer to another one that way. They're silly titles. You guys in the media just use them against us when we struggle."
Obviously it wasn't the best time to raise the topic of offensive wizardry. Billick's struggling rookie quarterback, Kyle Boller, had had a three-turnover day in a deflating 34-26 loss to the Bengals. The 19th pick in the draft, Boller is the ninth quarterback Billick has put under center since taking over the Ravens in 1999. Though he's sure Boller will become a winner, success won't come without much suffering.
Boller had entered the game against Cincinnati as the lowest-rated passer in the league, and though Baltimore was in first place in the weak AFC North with a 3-2 record, patience was already wearing thin in the Ravens' locker room. Jamal Lewis, the NFL's leading rusher, told The Baltimore Sun last week that the passing game "sooner or later is going to have to pick up." And tight end Todd Heap called the offense "embarrassing" after it did not score a touchdown against the woeful Cardinals on Oct. 12, adding, "There's really no reason why we should be in last place in the league in passing."
As the Vikings' offensive coordinator from 1993 through '98, Billick worked wonders with a variety of quarterbacks, including Brad Johnson and Randall Cunningham, and his last Minnesota unit scored a league-record 556 points. Though the Ravens won the Super Bowl in Billick's second year, he hasn't had much luck developing a pass attack. The last four seasons Baltimore ranked 25th, 22nd, 16th and 27th in the league in passing offense. Billick's 40-30 record is due largely to a dominant defense, strong special teams and a solid running game.
Against the Bengals, Boller lost a pair of fumbles and threw an interception, but he also completed 15 of 27 passes for a career-high 302 yards and two touchdowns. His rating rose to 58.7, still the lowest in the AFC. "Quarterback rating is the most useless stat in all of football," Billick said. "It doesn't take into account sacks or quarterback runs. Michael Vick's play can't be measured by quarterback rating."
Billick knows that starting Boller so soon wasn't an ideal situation for the quarterback or the team, but the other option was Chris Redman, who had shown only marginal accuracy and mobility while making six starts in his first three NFL seasons. Besides, despite his 47.8% completion rate over four seasons at Cal, Boller was the guy Billick wanted from the time the coach started reviewing tapes of college quarterbacks last winter. Boller is athletic, tough, strong-armed and as peppy and optimistic as Richard Simmons. Against a constant Cincinnati blitz he made two or three dumb throws and missed three open receivers. On the plus side he threw a gorgeous 73-yard touchdown pass to wideout Travis Taylor and found his bread-and-butter receiver, Heap, seven times for 129 yards. "He's shown improvement every game, a lot of it today," said Heap.
Nevertheless, why didn't the Ravens sign a proven veteran to tide them over while Boller was learning the ropes? Billick simply liked what he saw in Boller.
"I know the odds are against me," Boller said, with a smile, after Sunday's game. "But I think the best way to learn is against the live bullets. I made some mistakes today, but I think I threw the ball the best I've thrown it."
He's right about that. In addition to his strong arm, Boller showed good pocket presence, and most of his throws to Heap hit the receiver perfectly in stride. He appears to have a bright future—provided the experiences of this season don't beat him down too much. Billick is confident they won't.