Beneath the surface of the Ravens' last-second, 28-24 win over the New York Giants yesterday at PSINet Stadium, there was a stunning development as Peter Boulware, the team's Pro Bowl outside linebacker, was only able to participate in 16 plays before re-injuring his right shoulder.
Boulware first hurt the shoulder while tackling running back Sean Bennett on a draw play with 1 minute, 44 seconds left in the first quarter. He left the game a play later and was replaced by third-year player Cornell Brown. Boulware had only one assisted tackle yesterday in his first action of the preseason.
The Ravens had limited Boulware and defensive end Michael McCrary, who had off-season knee surgery, during training camp and both were held out of the first three preseason games. Boulware's debut yesterday was supposed to be a springboard into the regular season.
The Ravens tried to downplay the injury yesterday, but it has become apparent that Boulware could have problems during the regular season, too. He initially hurt the shoulder in the second game of the 1998 season against the New York Jets, and then re-injured it on the last play of a June minicamp.
"Basically, I took a shot in the arm and it tweaked my shoulder a little bit," said Boulware from his home last night. "If this was the regular season, I could have played. But because it's still the preseason, I thought it was best to come out.
"Because there is still some pain lingering, it just tells me this is something I'm going to have to deal with the rest of the season," said Boulware, who was named to the 1998 AFC Pro Bowl squad, and is expected to start next Sunday in the opener against St. Louis.
There was speculation early in training camp that the team had misdiagnosed the injury, but Boulware repeated yesterday that was not the case. He said he thought his shoulder was fully healed and did not have his shoulder harness fully laced yesterday because it hinders his mobility. Boulware said that won't happen again.
"The injury was definitely diagnosed correctly," Boulware said. "Some people can play with the injury and they are fine. Others can't because of the position they play or the way they get hit. If I tie the harness tight, the shoulder won't come out. But I thought it was healthy so I didn't tie it like I might have before. It was disappointing, but injuries are part of the game."
Said Ravens coach Brian Billick: "The alternative is to IR [injured reserve] him right now and give up on the season. The doctors have told us that would be ill-advised at this time. That's not what Peter wants to do, that's not what the doc says is right. We'll take this one step at a time and whatever capacity we can get out of Peter, however long that would last -- it may last the whole season, it may be one game."
Boulware's injury was the biggest setback of an otherwise decent training camp and preseason as the Ravens finished 4-0 for the second straight season. The Ravens still have problems and probably aren't playoff bound, but the team has displayed character in winning its last two games in the final 30 seconds.
Yesterday, No. 3 quarterback Stoney Case threw a 37-yard touchdown pass to rookie receiver Brandon Stokley down the right sideline as safety Lyle West, a rookie from San Jose State, gambled for an interception and lost. Last Saturday, Case threw a 41-yard touchdown pass over the middle to Billy Davis with 10 second remaining for a 28-24 win over the Carolina Panthers.
Case won't skip past backup Tony Banks to challenge Scott Mitchell for the starting quarterback job, but he exhibits a strong work ethic that Billick likes in this team. Case threw the ball in a perfect spot to the outside of Stokley, who has been one of the team's most impressive players in preseason.
"I thought we'd have had a couple of ticks left on the clock, but it doesn't matter now, does it?" Case said. "I felt really confident today. I'm getting the system down. That's a backup's job, to come off the bench when your number or name is called. Two games, two wins, two come-from-behind wins, that's a quarterback's dream."
"I like this team. I like these guys," Billick said. "I can't say that about every team I've been with. They work hard and they want to do well. There has been no quit in these guys. We're just beginning to think and talk about being a team, but so far, they have shown great character."
The Ravens needed the comeback because they blew two goal-line opportunities. Running back Jay Graham fumbled at the Giants' 1 with two minutes left in the game, and six minutes earlier Case, again on the New York 1, had a pass tipped at the line of scrimmage and intercepted by cornerback Andre Weathers in the end zone. If the pass had not been tipped, tight end A. J. Ofodile was wide open in the back of the end zone.
"If you can get him not to fumble and them not to bat it down, you've got two good plays," Billick said.
There are some other problems the Ravens have to iron out. While the offense has improved, there still needs to be more consistency. The Ravens had only 57 total yards rushing yesterday and the best offensive play for the first team were long bombs to receiver Jermaine Lewis, one that went for a 39-yard touchdown in the first quarter and the other that set up a 1-yard touchdown run by Errict Rhett in the second quarter after Emmaunel McDaniel was called for pass interference on Lewis during a 43-yard pass attempt from Banks.
"I'm glad we scored on their first-team defense," said Ravens starting right tackle Harry Swayne. "This makes the second week we have scored. After the first two games when we didn't, it started to become disconcerting. But we've made a lot of improvement over the last two or three weeks."
Defensively, the Ravens had their problems, too. New York's first team moved the the ball effectively and the Ravens, like they have since moving to Baltimore, gave up some big plays over the middle. The Giants converted on seven of 15 third-down situations.
The Ravens have a solid defense, but it remains to be seen if it can be great. The defense had problems shutting down Carolina quarterback Steve Beuerlein last week and Kent Graham yesterday. Will it ever be able to stop Jacksonville quarterback Mark Brunell?
"When those long passes happen over the middle, it's usually a breakdown of one or two people in a zone," said Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis. "We can be as good as we want to be. When we become a team, I mean really a team, that's when we can become great."
Billick has to cut 12 players before 4 p.m. tomorrow to get down to the league-imposed roster of 53. He wouldn't comment on individual competition, but said this game would be a factor.
"There are a number of players on the bubble," Billick said. "This game will be a factor but just one factor in a long progression that we use to determine who is going to be on this football team."
Next for Ravens
Opponent: St. Louis Rams
Site: Trans World Dome
When: Sept. 12, 1 p.m.
TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM) Pub Date: 9/04/99