Qadry Ismail remembers how it was in Minnesota years ago when he would listen to the third-down scheming of the Vikings' vaunted pass combination of Warren Moon and Cris Carter.
Carter, the Pro Bowl wide receiver, used to call the Vikings' third-down package of plays the "money package," a concept that stayed with Ismail.
"I remember he and Warren would talk for days about what they felt they wanted to do [on third down] ... and then it just opened up on game day," said Ismail, an eight-year veteran wide receiver who has spent the past two seasons with the Ravens.
That's the backdrop to the Ravens' current third-down dilemma. Ismail has become the team's money player on third down. When he missed all but one play the past two weeks with a knee injury, the Ravens' third-down fortunes hit the wall like a check that won't cash.
Money package? Third down is suddenly the Ravens' poverty package.
Consider this: In 1999, the Ravens' third-down conversion rate of 28.4 percent was last in the NFL.
And this: Three games into 2000, they are converting at a rate of 25.6, or 10 of 39 third downs. It ranks tied for 28th in the league with Detroit, ahead of only Pittsburgh and Atlanta.
The Ravens converted just two of 10 third downs in a 19-6 loss to the Miami Dolphins last Sunday. They converted three of 13 in a 39-36 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars the previous week.
"The third-down conversion percentage is terrible," said Ravens coach Brian Billick, "and it's got to be better if we're going to get any kind of consistency about us."
The Ravens' third-down woes are traceable to dropped passes, errant throws, failed pass protection and, yes, Ismail's absence in quarterback Tony Banks' passing scheme.
"Miami did a great job of taking our wide-outs out of the game," said offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh. "They played real aggressive with the corners, and we didn't have the comfort level of throwing to our receivers as much as we did the first couple games.
"I think there's no question it affects [Banks] somewhat. But regardless, you've got to make it work with the guys around you. I'm sure Tony will be happy to have him back this week."
Ismail, who sprained a ligament in his left knee returning a kickoff against Jacksonville, practiced yesterday, an encouraging sign for his availability Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals.
In the only game where he played on offense, at Pittsburgh, he produced a pair of third-down catches that resulted in first downs.
Another move the Ravens believe will help is the switch to 5-foot-11, 231-pound Jamal Lewis as the lead running back, ahead of a lighter, smaller Priest Holmes (5-9, 205). Lewis gained 76 yards on nine carries in Miami, moving the pile inside with strength and breaking outside with speed, a tantalizing combination.
"He's a powerful back who's got explosion," Cavanaugh said. "Priest is an explosive back. I'm not knocking Priest; he's done an excellent job. But the guy [Lewis] was the fifth pick in the draft and he's got a lot of potential, and we've got to start using him.
"I'm anticipating what sometimes might be a zero run can turn into a 2-yard gain, what might be a 3-yard gain might be a 5-yard gain. And if that's what happens, it helps us."
The Ravens need to reduce their number of third-and-long situations. Against Miami, they were third-and-long (over 6 yards) on six of 10 third downs. Against Jacksonville, it was six of 13 third downs.
The Ravens' average of 5.56 yards gained on first down is the fourth-best in the AFC. Second down, however, has been a headache.
Against Miami, seven of the Ravens' 18 second-down plays produced anywhere from a 5-yard loss to a 1-yard gain.
Couple that with an inconsistent third-down passing game and you've got an offense that failed to reach the end zone in Miami.
Although Banks is completing 58.3 percent of his passes, he is hitting just 45.2 percent on third down (14 of 31). He ranks 14th in the AFC in third-down passing, ahead of only San Diego's Ryan Leaf and Miami's Jay Fiedler.
"It's everybody, it's not just him," Cavanaugh said of Banks. "Just like his success throwing five touchdown passes and being around 60 percent completions is not all him, either. It's everybody doing his job right.
"Tony's missed maybe a dozen throws in three games that he should make. He knows that. But he's also made great improvements in other areas that are benefiting us. He's not turning the ball over."
Not much, anyway. Banks was intercepted in Miami when he underthrew Patrick Johnson at the 4-yard line. Cavanaugh accepted blame for that one.
"He slipped on the throw he tried to make to Patrick, and it was a stupid call on my part to have him drop into the mud and get a ball up quick," Cavanaugh said. "He threw one ball that got picked that went right through Travis Taylor's hands, and he threw one at the end of a half. So ... he's not forcing the ball, he's keeping us away from the turnover game."
Banks has gone to Taylor for three third-down conversions - once for a touchdown - in Ismail's absence. But it's clear he has missed that "money" connection with Ismail.
"Being [on] my backside, he's responsible for a lot of breakoffs and a lot of checks," Banks said. "Most of my checks are directed toward him. He's going to give us an added dimension. I just hope he's 100 percent."
Third and long
The Ravens' third-down production has dropped off each of the past two games. They rank 15th in the AFC and are tied for 28th in the NFL in converting third downs. Here is their third-down conversion rate this season:
Opponent downs Pct.
Pittsburgh 5-16 ... 31
Jacksonville 3-13 ... 23
Miami 2-10 ... 20
Tot. 10-39 ... 25.6
Next for Ravens
Opponent: Cincinnati Bengals
Site: PSINet Stadium
When: Sunday, 1 p.m.
TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)
Line: Ravens by 11 1/2
Tickets: Sold out