ST. LOUIS -- The Arena Football League has never commanded such respect. The NFL's European minor league has never seemed more legitimate.
Those pro football versions of nowhere are where Kurt Warner played quarterback before torching the Ravens in his debut as an NFL starter yesterday.
"Every dog has his day, and I guess this was his," Ravens safety Rod Woodson said after the Nowhere Man passed for 316 yards and three touchdowns to lead the Rams to a 27-10 victory at the Trans World Dome.
Actually, when a former quarterback for the Iowa Barnstormers and Amsterdam Admirals rips you, you shouldn't call anyone else a dog.
"A guy in his first game, and we let him move the ball on us pretty good," Ravens coach Brian Billick said.
That's what the Ravens get for investing four straight first-round draft picks in their defense? A unit that presses a refugee quarterback less than the defenses of the Barcelona Dragons and Grand Rapids Rampage?
What a pathetic way to open Billick's career as the Ravens' head coach.
As miserable as quarterback Scott Mitchell and the offense were, the defense was just as inept. Just as culpable.
The pass rush was weak, pressuring Warner only occasionally. Michael McCrary, the Ravens' $38 million defensive end, had no sacks. Peter Boulware, their Pro Bowl linebacker, had no tackles.
And the secondary with all the high draft picks at the corners and a Hall of Famer at safety? Rams receivers were wide-open all afternoon. The Ravens barely got a glimpse of Isaac Bruce, the Rams' Pro Bowl end.
"They were jumping around all over the place," said Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis, who had a monster game with 14 tackles, a sack and an interception.
Warner, 28, made several blunders, as you'd expect. He was intercepted twice and lost a fumble.
But the Ravens converted the mistakes into all of three points.
They could have returned all three for touchdowns, but cornerback Chris McAlister stumbled on Woodson's feet within sight of the end zone, Lewis ran out of gas at midfield, and Boulware couldn't pick up the fumble.
"I should have taken that one in," McAlister said. "As a matter of fact, I can't believe I didn't."
That he stumbled and fell without being touched by a Ram was symbolic of the defense's performance. The Rams totaled 23 first downs (to 13 for the Ravens) and more than 37 minutes of possession.
The Ravens' run defense actually was solid, limiting the Rams' Marshall Faulk to 54 yards on 19 carries, but what did it matter with Warner picking apart the pass defense so easily?
He probably almost thought he was back in the Arena League, throwing passes off the boards or whatever they do there.
The Ravens made his dreams come true yesterday.
Billick said before the season that his defense "could become an elite unit" this season, but he was quickly re-assessing after the game.
"We can't even spell the word [elite] right now," he said. "We're a long way from that level."
Maybe they should have looked for defensive help from the Rhein Fire, another team in NFL Europe, where Warner never had days like this.
Come to think of it, after watching Mitchell yesterday, maybe they should check the Arena League for quarterbacks. Those guys are good.
"Everyone is very disappointed," Woodson said. "I know, as a defense, that we can do better than this. The Rams didn't throw anything at us that we didn't expect. What we practiced for all week was exactly what we saw. We just couldn't stop it. They outplayed us, pure and simple."
Translation: The defense just wasn't good enough.
Anyone want a mulligan on those 10-6 predictions?
Actually, there were some mitigating circumstances working against the defense merit mentioning. Boulware has a sore shoulder. McCrary was in uniform for the first time in 1999 after sitting out the preseason while recovering from knee surgery. If they're at 100 percent, things are different.
And hey, the Rams had some terrific players at the skill positions surrounding Warner. Bruce is superb. Az-Zahir Hakim is no slouch. Faulk is one of the league's best backs.
If injured quarterback Trent Green had played instead of Warner, the Rams would have blown the game open long before they did in the fourth quarter.
"I used to get upset at a game like this when I was a rookie," Ray Lewis said. "But this is the NFL. No one is here unless they're good, and every team has someone that's real good, regardless of their record. The Rams have some excellent players."
Billick agreed. "That's a gifted group of skill people," he said.
But Kurt Warner? A guy who'd thrown 11 NFL passes before yesterday? No one is calling him gifted. Prior no-name Ravens-beaters such as Craig Whelihan and Steve Stenstrom are Pro Bowlers compared to him.
It doesn't matter what the players say, what the circumstances were or how the Ravens try to spin this latest embarrassment.
When a guy from the Arena League blisters your defense, you're not nearly as good as you think.
Pub Date: 9/13/99