Ravens set for good start, if not finish


ST. LOUIS -- The chance is there. They have a relatively forgiving schedule, the good vibes left over from an undefeated preseason and the spark that a popular coaching change always provides.

If the Ravens are up to it, they could get off to a fast start in Brian Billick's first season, starting with today's season opener against the Rams at the Trans World Dome.

At the same time, the watchword for the fans in 1999 should be patience. The first commandment should be keeping the big picture in mind. All season.

Yes, we know, those are conflicting sentiments. How can you get excited about the possibility of a fast start when you also have to get ready to rationalize the things destined to go wrong at some point?

Actually, it's easy.

Only loyalists and pipe-dreamers are picking the Ravens to fare better than .500 over the long haul of the 16-game season, so it's important to keep any success in perspective.

But a good start would make the season more interesting at least, and that'd be a welcomed change after three years of slow-paced, losing football.

There's no doubt the chance for a good start is real, too.

The Rams are the NFL's losingest team in the '90s, with a front office that botched a waiver move earlier this week, costing the team a young player. That kind of stuff depresses players, make no mistake.

Even worse, head coach Dick Vermeil has to start an Arena Football League transplant at quarterback today, in the wake of Trent Green's season-ending knee injury.

Although the Ravens have a history of losing to unknown quarterbacks, they're sitting in unbeatably positive circumstances for a road opener. Can't do any better.

If they could somehow take advantage, they'd fly home tonight with a chance to make some real gains at Camden Yards on the next two Sundays.

Their home opener against the Steelers next weekend will be tough -- the Ravens are 1-5 against Pittsburgh -- but the Steelers aren't the forbidding powerhouse of a few years ago, and the Ravens should compete well, as they did in losing two close games a year ago.

Then the Cleveland Browns come to town for a game rich in ironies, and while fans in both cities are sure to be raging, the reality is the Browns are an expansion team the Ravens should beat.

Can anyone say 3-0?

Of course, having the chance of getting off to such a start is by no means a guarantee. In fact, given their history, the Ravens could just as easily go 0-3, dooming their season.

But the point is they can't complain either way -- opening the season with three games against teams that weren't in the playoffs a year ago is all they could want.

Things get tougher after that, with games at Atlanta and Tennessee, and then, later, a pair of games with Jacksonville, a Super Bowl contender. Sustaining any early success would be tough.

But no matter what happens, here's the deal, the key point every fan should remember all season: Billick is in the first year of the six-year contract he signed last January.

That's huge.

As much as every coach tries to win every game every season, a coach just setting out with a six-year deal is going to do some building. Some long-range planning.

Some targeting well beyond his first season.

Billick has done a fine job of installing a new offense, sharpening the team's mental approach and setting off sparks of optimism around town -- the latter quite a feat with 18 starters returning from last year's 6-10 team -- but he's just dabbling with the blueprint at this point. He isn't anywhere close to having what he wants at many positions.

He's just getting started.

As much as he has complimented this team for its character throughout the exhibition season, you're dreaming if you think he believes these are the quarterbacks, wide receivers, running backs and safeties to get him where he wants to go.

Basically, the Ravens are a work in progress this season. Billick's work in progress.

That doesn't mean they can't win some, or at least get off to a good start and take their chances.

The fans would settle for the latter, no doubt. The fans probably would settle for anything as long as the Ravens play interesting football, which they didn't a year ago.

That's the bottom line -- some success, at any point in the season, will be welcomed as a break from the dreadful past.

But you have to remember, in the end, that this season is just a beginning.

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad