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Banks can't afford to fumble this opportunity

THE BALTIMORE SUN

PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE, Tony Banks, get off to a great start and end any hint of a quarterback controversy.

Despite his three decent showings in the preseason, a poor one in Game No. 4 against the New York Giants started the e-mails flowing and got those people without lives to begin phoning talk shows. Some already wanted Banks benched in the season opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers for either backup Trent Dilfer or - get this one - rookie Chris Redman.

So, in order to end all the potential madness that might occur with a quarterback debate, including ugly questions about race and chants for Redman when the Ravens show Johnny U. and Mr. Nobody's picture up on the jumbo video screen in a tired PR move during home games, Banks needs to be successful early.

Throw a couple of 300-yard games and a few touchdown passes in the first month of the season. Take firm leadership and cut down on the interceptions and fumbles while erasing any thought that you're the same stumbling, bumbling, fumbling boob of a quarterback that people thought you were during those three losing years in St. Louis.

Nip it and nip it quick.

"Those are legitimate concerns," said Banks. "Everyone has documented my talent, but I don't have the wins. I have to go out and prove myself. If I don't win with the talent around me now, folks around here will run me out of town. If I don't win with this talent, I'll doubt myself. And I've never done that. We need to come out firing early, not start 2-5 like last season."

Right. Because the last thing this team needs is to have its quarterback situation in limbo again. In four seasons, this franchise has had six starting quarterbacks. Even the QB Guru, Ole Compu Coach himself, has flunked the quarterback challenge.

Brian Billick may have had success in Minnesota, but so far in Baltimore he has given us "Big Foot" Scott Mitchell and Stoney "Light 'em Up in the Preseason" Case.

He brought in Banks, too, which makes him 1-for-3. That's great in baseball, but we're talking football here. They cut receivers who drop two out of every three passes in this league.

Forget Dilfer; he wasn't impressive in Tampa Bay and played poorly in this preseason. Redman? Great prospect, but he would get hit with so many blitz packages that he wouldn't have a clue. Give him a year standing on the sideline with a baseball cap and a clipboard.

That leaves Banks. Have some patience. He was one of the hottest quarterbacks in the league at the end of last season, but is working with two new tight ends, virtually two new fullbacks, a rookie wide receiver, a rookie running back and a right guard who has yet to start a regular-season game .

All the early signs point to success, because Banks worked hard during the off-season and has improved his preparation. He has settled down off the field, becoming a Christian and marrying in April.

If he gets off to a fast start, Banks won't have to look over his shoulder, and that would eliminate another Billick-Banks confrontation

Despite Billick's denial of a strained relationship a year ago, a lot of damage was done without his knowledge. Here's what happened:

When Banks was performing poorly, other players heard Billick going "Bill-listic" on the earphones about possibly pulling him. The words often got back to Banks, creating some mistrust.

But the two finally found common ground when Banks led the Ravens to six wins in their last nine games.

Winning can heal a lot of wounds and even bring together people with personalities as diverse as Billick and Banks.

Billick was born in Ohio and Banks in California. Billick is a preparation freak, a numbers cruncher who identifies the percentage of every possible game situation. He is always neatly groomed and very businesslike.

Banks is more personable, a lot more laid-back. He'll wear a baseball cap sideways, and loves a T-shirt and shorts. He can talk smack or be extremely articulate. Until midway in the 1999 season, Banks didn't care about stats, situations or preparation. He was going to win strictly on talent.

But that has changed now.

"I don't think Brian ever got a feel for my personality, because I didn't walk a certain way, didn't talk a certain way," Banks said about last season. "I've pretty much given up on trying to figure him out. Brian has a big ego. If you're not productive, he thinks he can win with any quarterback. I'm comfortable with him now, and I think he feels the same way about me. We're both perfectionists, though."

Billick said: "Maturation is the best single word I can describe Tony both on and off the field. He has a better understanding of the way he needs to conduct himself, and is clearly more knowledgeable of the offense. He has a firmer grasp of it. His practice habits are better, and he is more focused along those lines."

The transformation started taking place at the beginning of last season, when Billick demoted Banks from No. 2 to No. 3 for Case. Banks started doing some soul searching and found the Lord. Then, five months ago, he found a wife.

"Before I got here last season, I thought I had been on the opposite end of the spectrum," said Banks. "I got booed in St. Louis and thought it couldn't get any worse. Then, after what happened early last season, I started looking for answers. I wanted to know why.

"I'm shameful to admit that I came to know Christ because of that," said Banks. "But at one time, I felt being a starting quarterback in the NFL was the most important thing in the world. Then I realized it wasn't, and my life became more enjoyable. I love my family, coming home to my wife. I learned to fiercely attack the things I could control and not worry about the ones I couldn't."

Banks completed 169 of 320 passes for 2,136 yards and 17 touchdowns last season with a cast of no-names. The Ravens have upgraded their skilled positions with Tennessee running back Jamal Lewis, Florida wide receiver Travis Taylor and free-agent tight ends Shannon Sharpe and Ben Coates. The offensive line is suspect, and the team plays five of its first seven games on the road, but Banks isn't concerned.

He has more talent and confidence now than he ever had in St. Louis.

"That's the most we've had since we've been here [in Baltimore]," left tackle Jonathan Ogden said about leadership from the quarterback. "This year, he is the man. This team is pretty much going to go as he goes. The comfort level is up, because he is obviously more comfortable with the system. Hopefully, he comes out and starts the season like he ended it last year."

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