Baseball's no fun from now until September, and we can only watch old NFL highlights on YouTube for so long before we need to start prognosticating on the '06-'07 NFL season. Fall can't come soon enough. In the meantime, here's the third of our 32 team previews for the upcoming season, the Baltimore Ravens.
TOM'S TAKE: Year after year, so-called offensive genius Brian Billick fields a dominant defense and painfully boring offense. This might be the year that changes, but that depends on one man -- Steve McNair. The cost to acquire McNair from the Titans this offseason was cheap (a fourth-rounder), but Ravens fans feel a far greater emotional investment in McNair already. After years of dealing with horribly average quarterbacks, they've got a former co-MVP, a man who would've won the Superbowl if Kevin Dyson's arms happened to be another foot longer. Unfortunately, they got him about three years too late.
The Ravens brought McNair in to replace Kyle Boller at the helm of an offense that suddenly has a few weapons. He's got his old running mate from Tennessee out wide in Derrick Mason along with Mark Clayton, who (like most rookie receivers) showed flashes of potential along with bouts of inconsistency last year but who could become a valuable target in the future and another reliable target in All-Pro tight end Todd Heap. The sleeper on the Ravens' receiving corps is Oregon's Demetrius Williams, who has the potential to be the type of quiet, hard-working possession receivers teams love. At running back, Jamal Lewis is enjoying a healthy and quiet offseason after concerns about his ankle and recent release from jail dominated headlines last summer, and he should at least sniff 1,000 yards. But the Ravens brought in Mike Anderson to join him. I doubt the duo will be as explosive as Tatum Bell and Anderson on Denver last year, but with a competent line in front of them that includes Jonathan Ogden and promising second round center Chris Chester, they should keep the Ravens' offense rolling. On paper, this reads like a top 10 offense. Unfortunately, it's also one hanging onto a thread. The same characteristics that gained McNair his early successes have jeopardized longevity. Long known as a daredevil, someone willing to put his body on the line to pick up the yards necessary, McNair has been falling apart at the joints over the last couple of years. At this point it's practically gauranteed that he'll miss some games, and if he's out for a considerable amount of time everything will unravel. Kyle Boller's proven he's got trouble dealing with NFL defenses, and with no threat to the air defenses will stack eight in the box and force Lewis and Anderson to run through them.
The defense is a blend of old and new. Gone is a majority of the record-setting Superbowl defense from 2001, although inspirational leader (and possible murderer) Ray Lewis is still manning the middle. They were smart to hold onto linebacker Bart Scott, a reserve who will step into the starting WILL spot after gaining a considerable amount of interest on the free agent market. They let two young d-linemen (DE Anthony Weaver and DT Maake Kemoeatu) walk to Houston and Carolina respectively, and downgraded each position with declining DE Trevor Pryce and rookie DT Haloti Ngata, the team's first round pick. Ngata could eventually learn to use his weight to effectively open holes for Lewis to get to the ball, but most scouts rated Broderick Bunkley ahead of him on their charts because of Ngata's questionable motivation. Defensive tackles, specifically "2-gap" DTs like Ngata who's 300+ lb. bodies are used to clog lanes, are usually boom or bust and you don't know exactly what you have in one until he sees the field. The fact that flags about Ngata were raised prior to the draft isn't exactly great news. What is great news for Ravens fans is the extension superstar safety Ed Reed signed this offseason, keeping him in Baltimore for the considerable future. But if the Ravens don't pick up a free safety to play alongside him after the next batch of cuts they'll be left with a glaring hole.
The biggest concern I have for the Ravens this year is their age. Many of their key players are nearing the end of their careers (McNair and Anderson are 33, Ogden and Mason are 32, Lewis is 31), and in a division that features two younger teams that are already better than them (Cincinatti and Pittsburgh) and one that is younger and will possibly surpass them by season's end (Cleveland), this year might be the last for the current core to win. With no room for error, any missed time from McNair might be enough to cost them a wild card spot. Unfortunately, history indicates the days of Air McNair flying for 16 consecutive games are long gone. There'll be no playoff football in Baltimore.
KYLE'S TAKE: I think Tom and I are gonna disagree on this one. I went to University of Maryland for four years and because of that I was surrounded by Ravens fans, forced to watch my fair share of games. I think the acquisition of Steve McNair will give the Ravens a one-year window to return to the playoffs. If they take advantage of that is entirely up to them.
The Ravens haven't had a good quarterback for as long as I can remember. When they won the Superbowl, Trent Dilfer was good enough to get the job done, but nothing spectacular. They won that on defense. They've had Chris Redman, who was a disaster. They've had Vinny Testaverde, but he hasn't been in his prime in forever. Baltimore fans all gave latest QB Kyle Boller their love. They all gave him time to get better. But he never did. He was never comfortable. When Boller went down a few times last year (which helped impede his progress) Anthony Wright took over, and although at first I thought he was good enough, he wasn't.
So finally, the Ravens took advantage of an ugly situation in Tennessee and traded a draft pick for Steve McNair, who the Titans were done with. They signed him for five years (which was too much because he'll be 38 and washed up by the time that's done -- thank God for no-guarantee contracts). McNair had a mediocre season last year with 16 TDs and 11 INTs and a 82.4 passer rating. He's battled injuries lately, missing most of 2004 due a bruised sternum. The numbers on paper aren't the greatest for Baltimore's hope this year. However, I believe the vengence factor can apply. McNair was humiliated on the way out of Tennessee. He wasn't even allowed to work out in the Titans training facility before he was traded. The front office over there thinks he's washed up. And now, he has a team that's giving him a chance to prove Tennessee wrong. When healthy, McNair is a good QB. He was co-MVP 3 years ago. He's obviously better than Boller, who has also stuggled with injuries but has none of the experience and composure that McNair does. McNair will also have familiar target Derrick Mason to throw to. Mason had 1303 yards and 8 TDs in McNair's MVP year. With stud TE Todd Heap, who has shown the ability to catch even Kyle Boller's most erratic catches and alongside sophomore receiver Mark Clayton, McNair will have options to throw to.
Last year, the running game in Baltimiore sucked. And with so much pressure on it because of poor quarterbacks, it doomed their season. Jamal Lewis followed up jail time for attempting to distribute cocaine with just 909 yards and 3 rushing TDs (and 1 receiving). However, Baltimore went out and acquired Mike Anderson from Denver who, while splitting time with Tatum Bell last year, still put up 1014 yards and 12 TDs. The Ravens re-signed Jamal Lewis for three years, and with his job on the line, he'll have a chance to prove himself, possibly creating a nasty 1-2 combo (or if not, at least one good RB between them).
The Ravens have never had a problem with defense. And with a more competent offense on the field, a rested Baltimore defense could be deadly. There's still questions about Ray Lewis and his alleged demands to be traded. However, he'll play with the same intensity as always, the type that causes QBs everywhere to piss themselves.
They also have safety Ed Reed, who two years ago lit it up with nine INTs, 76 tackles, and two sacks to be named defensive MVP. He didn't play much last year because of an ankle injury, but if he's healthy this year, he'll rock out. Terrell Suggs is a monster at DE (he had 68 tackles, eight sacks, two INTs, and one fumble recoverly last year.) They were so excited about potential draft pick Haloti Ngata that they traded up a spot to get him. I could go on forever, but in short, their defense is still strong.
It's tough to make a prediction on the Baltimore Ravens because there are a lot of question marks with health, especially with Steve McNair, who the Ravens need. Plus, I believe the AFC North is one of the toughest divisions now, with up-and-comers the Browns, the Bengals, and the champion Steelers. Their schedule isn't easy but isn't excrutiating.
Right now, I say they finish 9-7 and just miss the wild card spot in the AFC North because the Bengals finish a game ahead. However, say Carson Palmer can't fully recover from his torn ACL last year. The Ravens could sneak into the playoffs. Either way, they'll be a pretty tough team to beat this year and noone should underestimate them.