Tony Banks debuts as the Ravens' starting quarterback today against the Buffalo Bills at PSINet Stadium, and his performance for the rest of the 1999 season could have a major impact on the franchise's future.
Banks, 26, will become the team's third starting quarterback this season, following a six-quarter stretch by Scott Mitchell and 4 1/2 games from Stoney Case. If Banks plays well and becomes the team's possible quarterback of the future, then the Ravens could use their two first-round draft picks in April to select impact players for an offense ranked 24th in the league and averaging only 14 points a game.
But if like Mitchell and Case, Banks struggles, then the Ravens (2-4) might be forced to draft a quarterback, and that would almost guarantee another two years of rebuilding around the new offensive centerpiece.
"I'll be the first to admit that our development has been slower than expected," said Ravens owner Art Modell, referring to the team's tenure in Baltimore.
"We have a defense that is awesome, but our offense is putting too much pressure on them," he said. "That's where our emphasis will be for next year. I have a lot of confidence in our staff and Brian Billick that he will get things corrected, especially our quarterback situation.
"Right now, we plan on keeping them, unless something comes along, like a Ricky Williams deal," Modell said of the team's top two picks. "It would be foolish to say we're only one or two players away, but what happened in St. Louis can happen here. Their team is a result of years of good drafting, adding players like Torry Holt, Orlando Pace, and then adding a free agent like Marshall Faulk.
"Somehow, I believe Brian will salvage our quarterback situation with Tony Banks or Stoney Case. If it doesn't work out to everyone's satisfaction, then we'll change our emphasis for the draft."
That's why Banks has suddenly become a prominent figure. He started training camp in July as the backup to Mitchell and then was demoted to No. 3 behind Case without playing a down during the regular season.
Now he has a chance to resurrect his career and become a major part of the Ravens' rebuilding after struggling three years in St. Louis.
"I'd be lying if I said I wasn't nervous," Banks said. "I've been nervous before every game. Not nervous as in scared, but an anxious nervous. Almost every player is anxious to get out there and see how it's going to go. This is a big step for the team and me. It's been in the back of my mind throughout this whole thing.
"That would be nice if it worked out, and they went out and drafted some players to help this offense. This is my opportunity to stay or leave."
In 44 NFL games, 43 as starter, Banks has thrown 36 touchdown passes. But he has been hampered by turnovers throughout his career, particularly fumbles on the snap exchange from center; he has 46 fumbles and also has thrown 42 interceptions.
"His attention to learning a game plan has changed from when he got here. It was different for him coming in as a backup," said Billick, who would prefer that Banks operated more within the structure of the offense and cut down on improvising.
"He is big, physical, a good athlete and has an extremely strong arm, sometimes too strong. Like a lot of strong-armed quarterbacks, he has to learn how to temper his throws, change the velocity from one throw to the next. That has been a long process for him.
"We'll find out if he has cleaned up the turnovers. He knows that has to be a priority. Those are some of the little things he has to clean up -- when to check and when not to, managing the clock, fumbles -- if players around him are to play better."
At least Banks' offensive line will be near full strength. Left tackle Jonathan Ogden seems to have recovered from a sprained neck that has affected him the previous three games. Right tackle Harry Swayne is expected to start after missing the previous two games with a lower-leg injury.
The Ravens need the manpower. If they beat Buffalo (4-3) today, the Ravens would pull within one game of .500 with a road game against the winless Cleveland Browns next Sunday.
"If we win the next two games, then we're at .500 and back in the hunt," Modell said. "That's the way the league is now, and we've got a chance. There are still 10 games left in the season, so there is a lot of football left to play. I'm not making any predictions, but theoretically, we could still go 12-4. Realistically, let's just get to 4-4 first."
Buffalo has the league's 12th-ranked defense, allowing 289.6 yards a game, only 88.1 rushing. The Bills are one of few NFL teams still using a 3-4 defense. There will be two battles to watch when the Ravens have the ball: Ogden vs. defensive end Bruce Smith and Ravens center Jeff Mitchell against nose tackle Ted Washington.
"There's really not much difference in the 3-4 compared to the 4-3 except for the number of linebackers," said Ravens right guard Jeff Blackshear. "I like the 3-4 myself, because it gives me a chance to get up on the linebackers. As for Ted Washington, we really haven't game-planned for him. We know where he is going to be, and he is going to sit in the box. We're going to do all the things we naturally do.
"We don't have to prove anything to the Bills, but we have something to prove personally to our fans. It was disturbing to lose to Kansas City the way we did," said Blackshear, referring to the Ravens' 35-8 loss on Oct. 21. "We have to put some points up on the board and help our defense out."
Defensively, the Ravens match up well with Buffalo's offense. The Bills have lost to injury such key players as wide receiver Eric Moulds (hamstring) and running back Thurman Thomas (liver). The Bills have lost their last two games and haven't had much of a running attack.
The right side of the offensive line is suspect, which is why the Bills' best play is quarterback Doug Flutie scrambling. Flutie has passed for 1,586 yards and rushed for 262 on 40 attempts. The Ravens have to find a way to slow Flutie.
"If you try [to] keep him in the pocket, you are going to have problems, because he can throw the football," said Buffalo coach Wade Phillips. "If you pressure him too much, he can get out of the pocket and hurt you, too. I don't think anybody has an answer for him. He doesn't have a great game every game, but he is pretty constant. He can make plays other players don't make."
Ravens defensive end Michael McCrary said: "We need to force more turnovers and provide the offense with more opportunities to score. Flutie is a very dangerous man. He doesn't look nervous when people come after him; he's like a little kid out there. He may be more dangerous than Kordell Stewart. Scratch that. I'd rather face Kordell than Doug Flutie."