NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Is this what the NFL has come to?
The Houston-Memphis-Nashville-Oilers-Titans are playing this year at Vanderbilt Stadium, a relic of a place that made it look as if the Oilers and Ravens were playing in a big high school stadium yesterday.
"The fans are right behind you, and they can talk to you the whole game," Ravens linebacker Jamie Sharper said. "The little kids have their feet hanging off the sides. They can almost touch you, like high school basketball or something in a gymnasium."
Adding to the high school atmosphere were the officials, who virtually lost control of the game and came close to turning it into a free-for-all. Among other things, they didn't call a fourth-quarter, out-of-bounds hit that Joe Bowden made on Jim Harbaugh, which could have turned the game around.
Almost lost in all the extracurricular activity was that the Ravens suffered a 16-14 loss that exemplified coach Ted Marchibroda's three-year tenure.
The Ravens fell behind 13-0, cut the deficit to 16-14 and were beginning a drive to what could have been the winning field goal when Steve Jackson made a diving interception at the Tennessee 37 on a pass that bounced off teammate Samari Rolle.
It came down to a bad bounce. So close and yet so far. The Ravens might have had a dozen games like that. On top of that, they were down to one healthy offensive lineman at the end.
The unfortunate thing is that the loss also virtually guarantees the end of the Marchibroda regime in Baltimore.
Marchibroda falls into the "When Bad Things Happen to Good People" category. He is one of the sport's good people, but this is a bottom-line business and the Ravens are 15-29-1 over three years.
It can be debated whether Marchibroda didn't do a good coaching job or whether the Ravens are simply so short of talent that even Marchibroda -- who turned around losing teams with the Colts in Baltimore and Indianapolis -- couldn't make them into winners.
In any case, the Ravens will be rounding up the usual coaching suspects when the season ends in three weeks. George Seifert's name has been mentioned, but he could be scooped up by Seattle. The name of UCLA's Bob Toledo has surfaced in the rumor mill, although the Bruins' loss to Miami on Saturday night could hurt his chances. It's anybody's guess whom the next coach will be.
Regardless of who the coach is, his first assignment will be to figure out how to win division games. The Ravens finished 2-6 this year in the AFC Central and are 6-18 in their three years. The first thing a team has to do is learn how to win division games.
Highlights and lowlights of another frustrating loss:
Turning point: The Ravens were trailing 13-7 with 10: 47 left in the game when Harbaugh scrambled out of bounds at the Baltimore 37. Bowden's late hit should have given the Ravens a first down near midfield. But the officials didn't call it, making it third-and-15, Harbaugh got sacked and the Ravens had to punt.
That non-call cost the Ravens a shot to put together a drive that could have given them the lead.
"I felt like I was pretty close to out of bounds, if not out of bounds," Harbaugh said. "I felt like it should have been called. [The officials] said clearly you were in bounds. I said clearly you blew the call.
"Are you the same crew that worked the [dirty-play-filled, first] Kansas City-Denver game a few weeks ago?"
Effort: Give Marchibroda and the Ravens this: They didn't tank it. After a poor first half, they came back and almost pulled out a victory.
"I'll tell you one thing, they fought," the coach said. "You can say whatever you want, but they fought and they fought hard. You have to give these guys a lot of credit."
The scary thing for the Ravens is that firing Marchibroda might not be the answer. The two times he was pushed out in Baltimore and Indianapolis, the Colts got worse.
Zebras: After all the controversies over bad calls around the league last week, the answer for Ed Hochuli's crew seemed to be not calling anything. The result: numerous scuffles.
"There were a lot of cheap shots," Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis said.
Sharper said: "It got out of hand. When teams get close to fighting, that's when you've got to start making calls, but they wanted to keep [the flags] in their pockets or call offsetting penalties."
Tight end Brian Kinchen, also the long snapper, who got a $7,500 fine for retaliating against Gary Walker in the first meeting, said the Oilers were practically trying to mug him.
"The guy was literally trying to gouge my eye out of my head right in front of him [official]. He had me on the ground with his hand around my face mask, and he was trying to dig my eye out of my socket," Kinchen said.
Kinchen called Walker a "thug" and said his concern about the Oilers affected his last snap, when Kyle Richardson got off a 21-yard punt.
"The last punt snap, I was worried about my head getting taken off, so I'm coming up quick and it was taking away from my game," he said. "How can you expect a guy to do his job when you know you're going to get physically assaulted by somebody and the referees are going to sit there and let it happen?
"I'm at a loss. It irritates me because I've been doing this a long time and never in my life have I had to face anything like this."
Big plays: Veteran Floyd Turner, making his first start because both starting wide receivers were injured, caught two touchdown passes. It's still puzzling why the Ravens didn't bench unproductive Michael Jackson for Turner earlier this year.
But Turner dodged the question when he was asked if his performance showed he should have played more. "I didn't know if it shows it or not, but I wish I could have played more," Turner said.
Courageous: Offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden suffered sprained ligaments in his left ankle in the fourth quarter, but the Ravens had already run out of healthy linemen, so he stayed in the rest of the series, even though he could barely walk to the line of scrimmage.
The Ravens would have had to finish the game with Eric Green at tackle, but Jeff Blackshear came back after going out earlier with a pulled groin muscle. The offensive line gave up six sacks, but it was hurting.
Punting: Craig Hentrich is one big-money free agent who has paid big dividends for the Oilers. Signed from the Packers, he's leading the league in punting. Yesterday, he boomed punts of 52, 69 and 49 in the fourth quarter to give the Ravens poor field position, even though he supposedly pulled a groin muscle in the first half.
Blunders: It doesn't make sense that Oilers coach Jeff Fisher is going to keep his job and Marchibroda is going to lose his. Fisher has blown a couple of games with poor clock management this year, and almost did it again.
With 10 seconds left in the first half, the Oilers didn't call a timeout after Yancey Thigpen caught a pass on the Ravens' 33. By the time they spiked the ball, there were three seconds left. During the spike, the Oilers got a 15-yard penalty that cost them a shot at a field goal.
In the second half, Fisher seemed content to sit on the lead. He ran on third-and-12 on the first series.
Looking ahead: The Ravens, now playing just for pride, face one of their toughest assignments Sunday when the Vikings come to Camden Yards and pit Cris Carter and Randy Moss against the shaky Ravens secondary. Moss, who says he looks at the video board at the Metrodome to keep track of those Randall Cunningham rainbows while they're in the air, should love the Ravens' SmartVision boards.
The Ravens finished their AFC Central schedule with yesterday's loss to the Oilers. A look at the Ravens' three-year division and overall records:
Year .. .. Div. .. .. Overall .. .. Pos.
1996 .. .. 1-7 .. .. ... 4-12 .. .. 5th
1997 .. .. 3-5 .. .. .. 6-9-1 .. .. 5th
1998 .. .. 2-6 .. .. .. . 5-8 .. . 4th*
Totals .. 6-18 .. .. .. 15-29-1
Pub Date: 12/07/98