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
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 title 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."
While a loss to Miami probably wouldn't have ended Grbac's stay
in Baltimore, he knows anything less than a Super Bowl victory
will paint him as a failure. "Listen, it's really very simple,"
says defensive tackle Tony Siragusa. "We're only going to go as
far as Elvis takes us." At the very least, as his teammates
learned on Sunday, Grbac won't go down quietly.