Baltimore Ravens; RAVENS OUTLOOK


Last season: 6-10, fourth in AFC Central.

Coach: Brian Billick (0-0), first year with Ravens.

Strength of schedule: The Ravens' schedule is tied for 16th-toughest in the league and is the toughest among the teams in the AFC Central. Their opponents have a combined record of 111-113 (.496), and they will face four teams that went to the playoffs in 1998. Incidentally, the Ravens also are scheduled to log 9,118 miles of regular-season travel, the lowest in the NFL.

Starting quarterback: Scott Mitchell, a 10-year veteran playing for his third team. Mitchell has started 64 games since 1993. He is 30-34 as a starter.

Best move: Hiring Billick to replace Ted Marchibroda as coach. As the man behind the most prolific, single-season offense in league history with the Minnesota Vikings, Billick gives the Ravens the best chance to awaken one of the NFL's worst attacks.

Toughest call: Before they attempt to win their first game in the Billick era, the Ravens face a serious deadline. Defensive end Michael McCrary, their top pass rusher, wants a long-term contract extension before the opener, or McCrary said he will test the free-agent market next winter. The Ravens simply cannot afford to lose this guy.

Pressure's on: Mitchell must prove he can still be the guy who dazzled the NFC four years ago with Detroit, when he threw for 32 touchdowns and more than 4,000 yards. The Ravens have a talented, emerging defense, but their fate largely will be determined by Mitchell's performance. Neither Tony Banks nor Stoney Case is ready to carry a team yet.

Biggest questions: Can the backfield tandem of Priest Holmes and Errict Rhett gain the respect of defenses and give Mitchell a chance to carve up opponents? Can a largely unproven cast of receivers, featuring Patrick Johnson, Justin Armour and Brandon Stokley, step up?

Key statistic: The Ravens had the worst red-zone efficiency in the NFL a year ago. If this offense is not more efficient once it gets inside the opponents' 20, this will be another long season.

Ticket to Atlanta: Let's not get carried away. The Ravens gladly will settle for being in the playoff hunt mathematically come December. Any thoughts of a Super Bowl trip are strictly delusional.

Pub Date: 9/10/99

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