Trial by Fire For better or worse, the Ravens are sticking with rookie Kyle Boller

October 27, 2003

"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.

"I thought at the beginning of the year, and still think, that if
we played good defense and ran the ball well, which we've done,
that we'd have a great situation," Billick said. "We've got a
dominating left tackle [Jon Ogden], a Pro Bowl tight end [Heap]
and a great back [Lewis], and we invested a lot in Kyle. I think
he's our guy."

COLOR PHOTO: ANDY LYONS/GETTY IMAGES Boller had his best day as a pro against the Bengals, but he took his lumps too.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)