Set to take flight

THE BALTIMORE SUN

For a fleeting moment, Ravens quarterback Tony Banks came unhinged.

There he was, shuffling down an aisle at Best Buy the other day, when the image of St. Louis Rams quarterback Kurt Warner leaped up at him from one of the video racks.

Kurt Warner, the NFL's MVP a year ago. The MVP of last season's Super Bowl. Successor to Banks' old job. Savior in St. Louis.

Ouch.

"I felt," Banks said later, "like throwing him across the room."

Banks thought better of it, though, gently placing Warner's video game back among the rest. They are great friends, after all, Banks said. Nothing personal.

It's just that Banks paid with three years of his NFL life for the Rams' growing pains in the '90s. He played without an adequate running game, without a consistent deep threat, without a line that could keep him upright, then got traded to Baltimore a year ago.

Warner, who got the Rams' job by injury, had Marshall Faulk in his backfield, Isaac Bruce out wide and a line that could protect him through even the perfect storm. While Banks watched from a distance, Warner took his Rams all the way.

That's what the 2000 season is about for Tony Banks. It's about claiming what he believes to be his rightful place in the NFL's roll call of quarterbacks. It's about raising the Ravens to the playoff elite. It's about finding peace with his St. Louis past.

When the Ravens report to Westminster tonight for the start of training camp, Banks, 27, will be motivated by what happened not only in Baltimore last year, but in St. Louis as well.

Would the Rams have reached the Super Bowl with Banks at quarterback?

"I'd have to say yeah," he said. "I wouldn't mind having [1,000-yard running back] Marshall Faulk and a healthy Isaac Bruce [at wide receiver]. That'd be nice."

Life plays funny games sometimes. Banks doesn't have Faulk or Bruce in Baltimore. But he's got Shannon Sharpe and Jamal Lewis. He's got Qadry Ismail and Travis Taylor. He's got Priest Holmes and Patrick Johnson. He's got Jermaine Lewis and Marcus Nash. Line them up, spread them out, let Banks pick his target.

He's got more weapons than he's ever had. And he'll dial long distance in an offense that coach Brian Billick had tweaked with the arrival of two all-decade tight ends, Sharpe and former New England Patriots star Ben Coates.

"I think last year Coach Billick was calling [conservative] plays out of character early in the year," Banks said. "He's an aggressive play-calling coach. As aggressive as I've been around or heard about.

"As a quarterback, you lick your chops, knowing [on] first down, even on the 1-inch line, he might call something to try to get all 99 of it right there. I like throwing the deep ball, I have a lot of confidence in my ability to get the ball downfield. We have the weapons this year, and guys were improving at the end of last year. Now they're going to take advantage of my abilities."

For the sake of his career, they had better. It is time for Banks to deliver on the raw potential of his considerable talent. There are no more excuses for not turning the page and moving forward.

Billick likens Banks' situation to that of Tennessee Titans quarterback Steve McNair. "Last year was supposed to be a breakout year for Steve," he said.

While the Titans went to the Super Bowl opposite the Rams, it wasn't necessarily because of McNair.

"So this is a pivotal year for Steve McNair, and it's a pivotal year for Tony in the same sense," Billick said. "If this was just his second year, if he was a rookie last year and did what he did, you wouldn't necessarily say that.

"But I think it's fair because the asterisks that people have put on him to try to qualify why Tony maybe hasn't had the success that his physical talent would indicate have been removed. He's familiar with the system, and he's been given more talent around him than he's ever had."

At the same time, Billick stresses that Banks is not expected to shoulder the whole load. Banks not only has reinforcements on offense, he has one of the league's top defenses to lean on.

"Although Tony certainly has to play well for us to progress, unlike some quarterbacks in other situations, he doesn't have to go out and win it for us every week," Billick said. "He's going to have to make his share of big plays, and he's going to have to win some games."

There is another dimension to Banks' coming-out party this season. That's his relationship with Billick. A year ago, Banks got off to a rocky start with the Ravens' new coach. He started training camp second-team to Scott Mitchell and finished it third-team behind Stoney Case.

A rift was budding, and trade rumors surfaced by the end of camp. After playing for a nurturing Dick Vermeil in St. Louis, Banks found himself in Billick's doghouse. It took half the season to get out.

"I don't think he understood my persona, and I didn't really understand his," Banks said. "I'm used to being close to a head coach, and I didn't have that with him last year. He's expressed to me he doesn't want that in his players. He wants to have that distance. That's fine with me. It was just my first time last year dealing with it.

"Maybe he never had a quarterback come in with his pants [stylishly] down, his hat turned to the side a little bit."

Billick says his expectations of Banks are predicated on the potential he sees in him.

"Dick and I approach it the same," the coach said. "But mine's kind of tough love. And Tony needed that kind of nurturing coming out."[Now] Tony is old enough, he's been in the league long enough, we're a good enough team, that it's time to cut to the chase. I don't have the time or the inclination to cozy up to my quarterback and say, 'Gee, you know, those three interceptions you just threw, I don't think that's going to get it done.'

"Tony understands that. I'm going to be very demanding of him because I know he's capable of doing it. If I didn't think he's capable of doing it, I wouldn't ride him the way I do."

Serving as a buffer in all of this is offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Matt Cavanaugh. A former quarterback, Cavanaugh can appreciate both perspectives. It's his job to pull Banks through the rough spots.

With Billick interpreting and Cavanaugh filtering, Banks threw 17 touchdowns and eight interceptions last season, winning six of 10 starts. Billick projects that if Banks completes just two more passes a game, he'll throw for 3,800 yards, 30 touchdowns and 14 interceptions over 16 games.

"If he does that, he'll go to the Pro Bowl," Billick said.

If Banks does that, newly acquired backup Trent Dilfer likely will move on next season after one year on the Ravens' bench. And Banks, who signed a four-year, $18.6 million contract in February, will have exorcised his St. Louis past.

"This is by far the best team I've ever been on," Banks said. "My comfort level is as high as it's ever been. I don't want to say it's a make-or-break year. But the team we have set for me, I imagine if we don't win a lot of games this year, these people will be ready to run me out of town. And I'll probably be the first one running."

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