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Packing it in early adds to baggage of sad season


There's one good thing that can be said about the Ravens' first season: It's over.

Unfortunately, some of the Ravens played as if they were just happy to get it over during a dreary 24-21 loss to the Houston Oilers in the season finale that left the team with a 1-7 division record to go along with its 0-8 road mark.

The Ravens, who already had earned the dubious distinction of getting the fifth-place schedule, showed why they're the worst team in the division and have a long climb back to respectability after a 4-12 finish.

The most disturbing thing was that after weeks of playing hard with nothing at stake, some players said that some of their teammates packed it in against the Oilers.

Not all of them appeared to be focused as the Ravens made numerous mistakes, including having to burn timeouts because they didn't have the right players on the field. On top of that, they were guilty of careless penalties that stopped drives.

"I don't think everybody gave their all. Guys know they're going home, no matter what they say," said offensive tackle Tony Jones, who was fired up because it was probably his last game as a Raven.

One positive thing is that the Ravens clinched the fourth spot in the draft -- assuming they can afford the $6 million to $7 million signing bonus a player selected in that spot is likely to get.

A look at the highlights and lowlights of the game that may be remembered as the start of the Steve McNair era:

Turning point: After cutting a 24-7 deficit to 24-14, the Ravens forced the Oilers to punt and then moved to the Houston 36 with about 9 minutes left in the game. But Bam Morris was thrown for a 5-yard loss, Vinny Testaverde was sacked for a 10-yard loss and, on third-and-25, Testaverde crossed the line of scrimmage before throwing an illegal forward pass. It didn't make any difference because Floyd Turner fumbled it.

A star is born: The Oilers started the McNair era on an upbeat note as their decision to bring him along slowly seemed vindicated. McNair was poised as he passed 19 yards for one touchdown and ran 24 for another. He wasn't intercepted and even turned a bobbled snap into a 43-yard pass completion. McNair seems to have unlimited potential, although it helped that he was playing against the Ravens' porous defense.

Rookie honors: Eddie George all but wrapped up Rookie of the Year honors as he rushed 21 times for 85 yards, although he limped off with a sprained ankle and then suffered a mild concussion. George finished with 1,368 yards. Look for him to be complementing McNair's passing for many years.

Testaverde file: In the first meeting, the Oilers blitzed Testaverde to force him into three interceptions. They figured the Ravens would be looking for the blitz this time so they tried to confuse Testaverde with a zone defense. He threw two interceptions, but also tossed three touchdown passes to Michael Jackson. As usual, Testaverde's stats (307 yards passing) were better than his play.

Where was Morris?: The Oilers came in worried about Morris' running because he had burned them when he was in Pittsburgh and Houston was missing two starting defensive linemen. Sure enough, Morris averaged 6.8 yards a carry, but he got just 12 carries. The Ravens opened with three straight incomplete passes on their first series. On the first play of the second series, Jackson caught an 86-yard touchdown pass and the Ravens were lured into sticking with the pass. But they never exploited the run.

Ugly: On the first series of the second half, the Ravens were penalized 10 yards for holding on the kickoff and then were called for two offensive holding penalties. The Ravens overcame those penalties to get a first down on the Oilers' 42 and then they ran an ugly-looking flea flicker, Morris was all but tackled before he managed to flip the ball back to Testaverde, who threw the ball into triple coverage. Turner was surrounded by Oilers and Blaine Bishop picked it off.

Too much loft: On Testaverde's first interception in the second quarter, Turner was wide-open in the end zone for an easy touchdown. But Testaverde lofted the ball instead of rifling it and the time it came down, safety Marcus Robertson was able to dash over for the interception. That cost the Ravens a 14-10 lead and they never did get the lead.

RTC Big catches: Jackson, who believes he should have made the Pro Bowl, made a statement by catching five passes, including three for touchdowns to pick up the slack because Derrick Alexander was out with a shoulder injury.

Valuable: The Ravens are always trying to replace Brian Kinchen -- Eric Green was the latest to try and fail at that role -- but he continues to make plays. His seven catches gave him 55 for the season, third best on the team. But he did get beat by Robertson on a sack.

Bad hands: Randy Baldwin took his eyes off the ball and fumbled the kickoff after the Oilers took a 17-7 lead with 1: 52 left in the first half. That put the Ravens back on their 7 and the bad field position cost them when they ran out of time at the Houston 48.

Zebras: A Ravens game isn't complete without the officials making themselves look bad. When Testaverde threw an illegal pass and Turner fumbled it, the officials first gave the Oilers the recovery before they remembered the play was dead once Testaverde threw the ball after crossing the line of scrimmage. They also seemed to forget the in-the-grasp rule was modified a few years ago and gave the Oilers' Steve Jackson an 18-yard sack even though Testaverde pulled away from him.

Defense: Even though linebacker Ray Lewis returned (and made 10 tackles), the Ravens stuck with the 4-3 defense they returned to last week. Not that it made much difference as the Ravens got just one sack and the Oilers piled up 351 net yards. One of the key decisions the team will make in the off-season is whether to be a 3-4 team or a 4-3 team. The Ravens figure to go with the 3-4 because defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis likes that alignment.

Looking ahead: This will be an important off-season for the Ravens as they start to rebuild the team. They'll be helped by the fact they won't be dealing with the turmoil caused by the move last year. They should be able to concentrate more on football.

Pub Date: 12/23/96

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