Practice had just ended on a sweltering August afternoon, and as usual, someone was giving quarterback Kyle Boller advice. In this case it was tight end Todd Heap discussing ball placement on a route over the middle. It just as easily could have been linebacker Ray Lewis tutoring Boller on how to look off defenders, or any one of the four coaches who work directly with the second-year quarterback: offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh (game plan and strategy), senior consultant Jim Fassell (mechanics), quarterbacks and receivers coach David Shaw (film breakdown and day-to-day adjustments) or coach Brian Billick (general oversight). In fact, Boller has been so inundated with counsel that he probably wouldn't be surprised if a water boy tried to give him pointers on how to make his reads. "Sometimes it gets a little, well ... you hear different things," Boller says diplomatically. "But if there are too many coaches talking at once, I just go in and tell [Billick]. So far it's worked out."
All the attention may be a bit stifling, but it is understandable. The Ravens are as deep and as talented as any team in the league at almost every position except quarterback. As a rookie last season Boller played in 11 games, going 5--4 as a starter before suffering an injury to his left quadriceps against the Rams on Nov. 9. (Backup Anthony Wright then won five of seven starts in leading the team to the division title.) Though Boller is still regarded as the team's quarterback of the future, he must overcome his erratic play. He threw the deep ball well but too often stared down his primary receiver, jittered in the pocket and made questionable decisions. He was next to last in the league in passer rating (62.4), completion percentage (51.8%) and yards per attempt (5.62).
Along the way, however, he received a crash course in NFL Quarterbacking 101. He was the starter in the season opener at Pittsburgh and through nine games learned what it's like to shoulder the expectations of a football-mad town like Baltimore. Billick says it was all part of a master plan. "When we started a rookie quarterback at Pittsburgh, everybody was saying, 'God, how can you do that?'" says Billick. "But now I think they can see that it's a huge asset for us. That first start of a season is not looming over Kyle's head. He's been there, done that. That's invaluable experience."
Not every rookie quarterback benefits from that sort of on-the-job training (see Ryan Leaf), but Boller is certainly further along than most second-year passers. Having had a house built in the Baltimore area, he spent more of the off-season at the team's practice facility training, rehabbing his quad injury and recovering from minor surgery on his left (nonthrowing) shoulder. Working with Fassell this summer, he focused on ball security--his nine fumbles last season were converted into 31 points by opponents--and footwork, specifically "sitting soft" in the pocket instead of dropping back and then hopping forward as he looks downfield. "Last year I would hitch up, and next thing you know I'd be in a lineman's a," says Boller, who will work with backup center Casey Rabach while Mike Flynn recovers from a broken collarbone. "So this year I'll start out fast, take my drop and then kind of bounce and settle soft."
Boller's small armada of coaches and unsolicited advisers have also emphasized to him that he doesn't have to have an AllPro-caliber season for Baltimore to win. The Ravens have three of the best defensive players in the league in Lewis, strong safety Ed Reed and cornerback Chris McAlister; offensive stars in Heap, running back Jamal Lewis (who is scheduled to go on trial for drug charges on Nov. 1) and tackle Jonathan Ogden; and plenty of veteran role players with playoff experience. All they need from Boller is, as Heap puts it, "a few more completions a game."
So Billick talks about how his young quarterback has to learn that "discretion is the better part of valor" and says Boller can give his team a better chance of winning by avoiding the egregious mistake. "We don't need crazy, explosive plays," says Heap. "This team won a Super Bowl with Trent Dilfer."
Be like Trent is not the motto of most Super Bowl contenders, but Boller understands the point being made. "I just need to play smart and complete 60 percent of my passes," he says. That may not sound like much, he allows, but it's all relative. "Expectations," he says, "are a lot different when your goal is the Super Bowl."
Now, that's sound advice.
-- Chris Ballard