Picking up Mitchell no pick-me-up

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When the Ravens made their interest in Scott Mitchell known, drawing a public response that was tepid at best, Ravens coach Brian Billick asked the doubters to take a "leap of faith" in his ability to transform Mitchell into a productive starter.

Given Billick's history of developing quarterbacks in Minnesota, he certainly deserves the chance to prove himself here. His potential as a head coach is the most exciting thing about the Ravens right now.

But blind faith? Sorry, that's asking a little too much.

Let's face it, Billick is entering his first season as a head coach on any level, and Mitchell never won a playoff game in Detroit despite having Barry Sanders in the backfield. Billick is going to have to work his wonders with the Ravens' new starting quarterback before anyone really believes this is a step in the right direction for the franchise.

A team can't win only 16 games over three seasons, bring in a quarterback who'd been on the bench of a losing team and expect the fans to throw a parade.

You have to go out and prove it's the right move before anyone is going to believe it.

The Ravens should understand that and accept the prevailing skepticism in a city that, so far, has paid a lot of money to watch a lot of losing football.

The answer at quarterback is a guy who lost his job to a sixth-round draft pick early last season and never won it back?

Prove it.

Not that Mitchell, 31, is without assets. He has started a lot of games and thrown for a lot of yards and touchdowns. He is a big, experienced veteran with a strong arm. He has led a team to the playoffs. He can play. And he isn't damaged goods, as was Jim Harbaugh.

Could he become Billick's next miracle? It's not impossible.

He also makes more sense as a starter than Warren Moon, even though Moon probably will make the Hall of Fame one day. At 42, Moon is just too old to depend on for a full season uninterrupted by injuries or the effects of age.

If Moon, Eric Zeier and, say, a rookie were the quarterbacks next season, there'd be a big problem: None could be expected to play all 16 games. Zeier blew a chance to prove himself as a starter when Harbaugh was injured last season; you have to pencil him in as a backup. A rookie would need seasoning. And Moon would be a lock to get hurt.

The result would be a quarterback shuffle, which is no way to win games.

That's why it's critical the Ravens still draft a quarterback with their first-round pick this year, despite having now filled their starting spot for 1999. They still need a long-term solution at the position, a building block instead of a Band-Aid. This year's draft class, so rich in quarterbacks, is the one to mine.

Billick has said several times recently that the team still was seriously considering drafting a quarterback. Let's hope there's no wavering.

Not that it would be wrong to trade up and draft a franchise running back such as Ricky Williams. Now there's an addition that might draw a parade.

But in the end, a team needs stability at quarterback to win with any consistency. You have to have the quarterback before you have the running back. And who knows when the Ravens will have another high draft pick putting them in position to take a quarterback?

Actually, given that they're starting over with a new coach and turning over at least one-third of their starting lineup, they're probably looking at another modest season at best in 1999 (and another high pick in the 2000 draft). No matter what owner Art Modell says about winning now, please, let's not entertain such great expectations again.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with losing in the short term as long as a building plan is in place. That's why adding Mitchell isn't really a big deal. If he turns out to be a long-term answer, terrific. But he's signing just for one year, and the chances are good he's not a lifer.

In a transition year, with Billick's help, he could be a capable quarterback. Oh, and by the way, if Johnny Unitas has no problem with his wearing No. 19, no one else should. It was a good, sensitive move for Mitchell and agent Tony Agnone to pay heed to that, but this isn't the team Unitas played for. It's not an issue.

In the end, the long term is what counts for this franchise, which has had only one winning season in the '90s. The only way to break that cycle is to establish a plan and stick to it. Billick, with his six-year contract, obviously is going to draft the plan. And the key to the plan is a young franchise quarterback.

Mitchell has the job for now. He's found life again after losing his job in Detroit. The response here? Something less than an ovation. Way less, in fact. But that's only fair for a quarterback with a relatively modest record who barely played last season. If he's the answer, he and his coach have to prove it.

Pub Date: 3/17/99

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