Too early to make call on Ravens


It is tempting to suggest that a true picture of the Ravens' mettle is coming into focus after three exhibition games, two wins and a loss to the Packers on Saturday night.

A few of the pros and cons are indeed becoming clear.

But can we say with any certainty how well, or poorly, the Ravens will fare in 1996?


Exhibition games don't prove anything.

As loud and frantic as they get sometimes, they're just glorified scrimmages.

Or maybe you didn't notice the name of the kicker who won the game for the Packers in the final seconds.

Richie Cunningham.

The Ravens got beat by Opie.

He was a second-stringer who has been out of football since 1994 and has no chance of making Green Bay's team.

That the Packers put the game in his hands, or feet, showed just how little they cared about winning.

The Ravens didn't care, either; backups and rookies played the second half, mostly against their Packers counterparts in what amounted to a junior varsity game.

Had Cunningham missed the kick -- a poor hold by Fonzie? -- the Ravens would have run their exhibition record to 3-0 and fans would have begun saving for playoff tickets.

But what would the victory have proved?

Merely that the Ravens' future cuts were better than the Packers' future cuts.

Certainly not that the Ravens were the better team.

L The exhibition season isn't the time to make such judgments.

It isn't the time to make any judgments, at least not sweeping ones.

The Ravens are 2-1 and the Cowboys are 1-3, but who would you rather have in the office Super Bowl pool?

Exhibition games feel important because they're played at home in front of noisy crowds, but they're not much more meaningful than baseball's irrelevant Grapefruit League games.

Jimmy Johnson won three of four exhibition games in his first season in Dallas in 1989, then lost 15 of 16 real games.

Asked about his team's 3-0 exhibition record Saturday night, Packers coach Mike Holmgren said, "You don't know if you're on schedule until you start playing the season."

The Ravens barely even prepared to play the Packers, and they won't prepare hard for Friday's final exhibition game against the Bills.

They're spending their time preparing for their regular-season opener against the Raiders, reserving many essential tactics and tricks for use in games that count.

Still, starters do play against starters in the first half of exhibition games, and some truths about the Ravens have become inescapably evident. Some are positive and some are negative.

The biggest positive is that the team is well-coached.

The hiring of Ted Marchibroda was seen by some as Art Modell's attempt to tickle Baltimore's nostalgic fancy, but it was a solid hire.

Marchibroda and his staff know what they're doing, and that matters in the NFL with the talent level differing so little from team to team, thanks to the salary cap.

The Ravens are employing sound concepts on both sides of the ball. Their play-calling is relatively original. Penalties are rare.

The players seem to be a) on the same page, b) concentrating well and c) having fun again after Bill Belichick's joyless tenure.

When the Packers drove right down the field for a touchdown on their first series Saturday night, the Ravens' defense adjusted and the Packers were shut out for the rest of the half.

The defense is going to keep the Ravens in games.

It isn't one of the league's best, and it's vulnerable in places, but it's not bad.

The safeties, Eric Turner and Stevon Moore, are particularly capable, which should limit big plays. And the front four is professional, able to play the run and pressure passers.

But the Packers also illuminated the defense's weaknesses on that first drive. They trapped rookie middle linebacker Ray Lewis out of position and isolated right cornerback Issac Booth, leading to big plays.

The Ravens are vulnerable at those positions, particularly at the corner, and opponents are going to go right at them.

Offensively, it's becoming clear that the running game is somewhat problematic. The offensive line is big, but none of the starters has made the Pro Bowl. Leroy Hoard runs hard but isn't exceptional. Earnest Byner is too old to carry a load, Earnest Hunter too inconsistent.

The Ravens were right to draft franchise lineman Jonathan Ogden instead of troublesome tailback Lawrence Phillips, but they'll pay for it this year.

Trading for another back might help some, but probably not enough.

As for Vinny Testaverde, it's too soon to tell whether he will benefit from playing under Marchibroda and quarterback coach Don Strock. He looks great passing the ball, but he's making a lot of mistakes.

Add it all up and you have . . . what?

A team that could win as many as nine games and lose as many as 12, and probably will linger around .500 or a little below.

But then there is that X factor to consider: an incredibly easy schedule, with just four of 16 games against teams that had winning records in 1995.

Basically, we just don't yet know how well, or poorly, the Ravens' regular season will go.

And the exhibition season is not a telling gauge.

Exhibition games are a fraud perpetrated on the public, with tickets priced at regular-season levels and included in season-ticket packages.

The games make owners richer and make heroes out of guys named Richie Cunningham.

But they don't prove much of anything that will matter come September.

Pub Date: 8/19/96

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