More than a passing fancy?; 3rd-choice QB Banks holds key to Ravens' present and future; Midseason report

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The second half of the Ravens' 1999 season and their future revolve around starting quarterback Tony Banks.

If Banks succeeds and limits the turnovers, then the Ravens have a decent shot at winning six of their remaining eight games.

If Banks succeeds, then the Ravens don't have to search through free agency to find another possible starting quarterback.

If Banks succeeds, then the Ravens have other pressing holes they can fill in the first round of the draft, where they have two picks.

If, if, if

"In this league, regardless of your quarterback situation, if there is a quarterback you value, and he's available, you got to think about him," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "This is becoming a quarterback-starved league. We're at the cross sections where the marquee names like Elway, Testaverde, Chandler, Marino or Young have moved on or are about to move on. That void has to be filled.

"This draft and every draft, you have to consider the position, even though it doesn't have to be in the first round," said Billick. "But if you find one in a round and he matches you're value, then you've got to think about taking him."

Thus far, Banks has turned a failing position into a competent one. He has completed 35 of 73 passes for 327 yards in the last nine quarters. He committed two turnovers in his first start, a 13-10 loss to Buffalo, but was perfect in handling the ball in the team's 41-9 win against the Cleveland Browns last Sunday.

As far as pure arm strength and mobility, neither former starters Stoney Case or Scott Mitchell come close to Banks. Against Cleveland, it was the first time all season that a quarterback had started throwing passes consistently before receivers were coming out of the break.

Banks' impressive showing also brings into question how and why Billick could start Case over Banks for four games after Mitchell was benched during halftime of the second game of the season. Billick has yet to provide a definitive answer, but instead of being 3-5 at the midway point, the Ravens could be 4-4 or 5-3 if Banks had been playing.

"Let's say there are a lot of factors involved in the decision that I'm not going to share. I don't think you can make that kind of conjecture," said Billick, when asked what might have been if Banks had played early. "I think it's a valid observation for someone to say what-ifs but it's a moot point. I don't know how you can make those kind of comparisons because you don't know what would have happened in those situations."

But this point is clear: Banks is starting to win over Billick.

"Right now, I have two young men who I believe can become pretty good quarterbacks," said Billick. "We'll see if we can develop them both and an offense for this year and years to come. I can only play one. I see signs in Tony that he is starting to understand what he has to do to become a pretty good NFL quarterback."

That's partially a good sign about Billick. He is almost stubborn to a fault, but not stupid. He will adjust like he did when he moved from Priest Holmes to Errict Rhett, but just needs to do it faster. He came into Baltimore with the reputation as a pass-happy guru, but has figured out his best chance for winning is field position from his punter, great defense and an offense that features Rhett mixed in with short to intermediate passes and a few long-ball attempts.

Billick tried to make the passing game work, but the revolving door at quarterback was too much of a problem. Also, the Ravens didn't spend a great deal of money during the off-season and they have gotten what they paid for, especially at the wide receiver position. Minimum salaries ($400,000) produce average players like receivers Justin Armour, Qadry Ismail and tight end Aaron Pierce, role players who need a stronger supporting cast.

The Ravens have an offensive line that run blocks well, but has problems pass protecting even when they're healthy. The unit won't be as productive in the second half with right offensive tackle Harry Swayne out for the season with a foot injury.

And then there is receiver Jermaine Lewis, who has gone from big-play threat to no threat at all. Lewis has gone from 41 catches for 784 yards and six touchdowns in 1998 to 15 catches for 145 yards in 1999. That's a joke. The Ravens are defending themselves by not having him on the field at times in passing situations.

Until the Ravens develop some type of consistent passing game, they will lose close games like they did against Tennessee and Buffalo in games No. 5 and No. 7 and continue to have one of the worst passing offenses in the league.

"First off, no one is working harder than Jermaine," said Billick. "The quarterbacks have confidence in him. We've tried a number of ways to get him the ball. Sometimes when he has been open, they went to other receivers for whatever reason. Other times we were supposed to go to him and he was double-covered. I really don't understand when people say it's Billick's system that doesn't allow him to get the ball. This system can get Cris Carter the ball in his hands 122 times in one year and David Palmer the ball 35 to 40 times as a third receiver or backup running back. Jermaine is going to have a breakout game. It's going to happen.

"This system has been good to us," said Billick. "It has given us one of the best defenses in the league and we have a good, solid punting game. Our coverage teams have done well and there is a lot to feel very good about right now. Except for Kansas City, there hasn't been a positive that we couldn't take away from a game that didn't make us a better football team."

Defensively, the Ravens are bordering on greatness. They are ranked No. 2 in the league, and finally converting turnovers into points. The front seven is as good as any and the linebacking trio of Ray Lewis, Peter Boulware and Jamie Sharper may be the best in the league.

The real test comes Sunday against Jacksonville, a team loaded with offensive weapons such as receivers Keenan McCardell and Jimmy Smith, quarterback Mark Brunell and running back Fred Taylor.

The Ravens pieced this defense together over the years for one reason: Stop Jacksonville. The Ravens will get a chance to find out how much young cornerbacks DeRon Jenkins, Duane Starks and Chris McAlister have developed. The secondary is once again the weakest unit on defense.

"That in itself is worth the price of admission," said Billick. "There has been a lot of money spent on both sides of the ball for both teams. If the defense can keep it close and we play the field-position game and hold down the turnovers, then we got a chance."

That's the Ravens' battle cry for the rest of the season. Billick has no other choice, except for allowing Banks to throw deep more often. But Billick remains optimistic about the team's second half and future. A lot can be determined if Banks plays well.

"I went through 2-14 and 6-10 seasons with Bill Walsh in San Francisco under difficult circumstances," said Billick. "In those kind of situations, you have to have faith and conviction that you can get the job done. There is no future in changing schemes or players midway in my first year. If we make that touchdown catch in the end zone against Tennessee, or don't fumble or hold them on fourth-and-15 against Buffalo, then we're talking about a different situation with the same team.

"I have to look at this from a different perspective from the fans and media," said Billick. "Now, as we look at the second half of the season, we take those tough lessons we learned in the first half and flop the record around in the second."

Next for Ravens

Opponent:Jacksonville Jaguars

Site: ALLTEL Stadium, Jacksonville, Fla.

When: Sunday, 4: 05 p.m.

TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)

Line: Jaguars by 13

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