There's reason for hope, but retread roster brings familiar pick: 8-8; RAVENS OUTLOOK


A year ago, the pick here was 8-8, with the admission that such a prediction was probably optimistic for Ted Marchibroda's final season.

Well, the pick here is again 8-8.

But this time, it should be closer to reality.

The coach is better. The schedule is easier. And once the offensive talent improves, the Ravens finally might become legitimate contenders.

But not yet.

All but six of the Ravens' top 24 players -- the 22 starters and two kickers -- were members of last season's 6-10 club.

And of the six new players, only offensive tackle Harry Swayne and fullback Charles Evans were starters for their previous teams.

Yes, the addition of Brian Billick alone might be enough to push the Ravens from 6-10 to 8-8, or even beyond.

But Billick is a first-year head coach. He's going to make mistakes. And his talent gives him little margin for error.

Start with the offense, Billick's specialty. Yes, the Ravens juggled some pieces, but to what end? They're still inadequate at the skill positions.

The new quarterback, Scott Mitchell, was notoriously erratic in Detroit, forcing Billick to request a "leap of faith" from skeptical fans in Baltimore.

The starting running back, Priest Holmes, is a terrific story and better person, but he averaged 6.35 yards a carry against Cincinnati last season, 3.58 against the rest of the league.

The top receiver, Jermaine Lewis, is 5 feet 7. The No. 2 receiver, Qadry Ismail, hasn't caught an NFL pass since 1996. The new tight end, Aaron Pierce, did not play last season.

You get the picture.

No doubt, the 4-0 preseason was encouraging, not so much because of the record -- few things in sports are as meaningless as fourth-quarter August comebacks -- but because of the first glimpse it offered into Billick's creativity.

The offense will be more imaginative, that's for certain. But Pro Bowl left tackle Jonathan Ogden remains by far the unit's best player. And for all his promise, Billick has yet to coach a single down in the NFL, much less win with mediocre talent.

The good news is, the schedule includes two games with expansion Cleveland, two with sad-sack Cincinnati and an opener against a team with an injured quarterback, St. Louis. The only games that look like certain defeats are the two against Jacksonville and the one in Atlanta.

The Ravens' strength of schedule has dropped from 11th to 16th, and when you factor in Cleveland, it should rank even lower. The rating is based on opponents' winning percentages the previous season. Obviously, Cleveland was not included.

If you want to get excited, consider that the Ravens open at St. Louis, then play at home against Pittsburgh and Cleveland. A 2-1 start appears likely and a 3-0 start possible, if Steelers quarterback Kordell Stewart has an off day.

At 3-0, the city would come alive, rallying behind the Ravens for the first time, evoking memories of the Colts' glory days, nominating Billick for mayor (not a bad idea, come to think of it).

But slow down.

The '97 Ravens opened 3-1 before finishing 6-9-1. And the '99 team faces disturbing injury questions on its best unit, with Pro Bowl defenders Michael McCrary and Peter Boulware opening the season as part-time players.

McCrary sat out the preseason coming off knee surgery. Boulware is a major concern because of a cranky shoulder. The loss of either for an extended period would be a major blow, as would an injury to Ray Lewis.

Yes, Lewis will open the season healthy, but the Ravens cut Tyrus McCloud, leaving Tyrell Peters -- a special teams player -- as their backup middle linebacker.

Then again, those are all what-ifs, and the defense should be the least of the Ravens' problems, even with McCrary and Boulware at less than full strength, even with two young cornerbacks.

The Ravens improved their defensive ranking from 30th to 25th to 22nd in their first three seasons, allowing 16 or fewer points in half of their games last year. Unless injuries mount, there's no logical reason for the defense to regress.

No, the more significant concern is the offense, and Billick's biggest overall challenge will be developing a winning identity -- no easy task with a franchise that is 16-31-1.

Some of the new players will help -- Swayne came from Denver, Evans and others from Minnesota. But there is no evidence that the holdovers know how to win, and at least for now, no evidence that Billick can instill that edge.

Will the Ravens be more fun? Will they be more interesting? Will they show enough improvement to satisfy their fans?

The answers to all of those questions should be yes.

Will the Ravens post a winning record?

Soon, perhaps. But not yet.

Pub Date: 9/10/99

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