AFTER 60-SOMETHING PRACTICES, three preseason games, several HBO documentaries, 15 new, four-syllable Brian Billick words and enough injuries to apply for a Red Cross relief package, the Ravens' 2001 season has come down to this: If the team can develop a competent offensive line, it has a shot at winning a second consecutive Super Bowl title.
That's it in a nutshell.
The defense is dominating enough to keep the Ravens in most games and put them in the playoffs. They have enough talent at quarterback and receiver to take some of the load off the running game without Jamal Lewis. But the offensive line?
Hmmm. ... That verdict comes later.
"We've had some injuries," said Billick, the Ravens' head coach. "Individually, we're better than we were going into training camp because injuries allowed guys like tackle Sammy Williams and guard Bennie Anderson time to play. As a group, has it slowed our process? Maybe. Maybe. It will still be in flux because when will Leon Searcy be ready? Where does Erik Williams fit in? It's going to take a little time."
There are more questions:
Have left tackle Jonathan Ogden and left guard Edwin Mulitalo shaken off the rust from weeks of resting injuries? Can center Mike Flynn make the transition from guard to center? Is Kipp Vickers the answer at right guard, or just a journeyman making another stop? Who eventually will become the starting right tackle, Sammy Williams, Erik Williams or Leon Searcy?
Questions, questions, questions.
The Ravens did get some answers in the preseason, but not many about the offensive line. When Lewis went down with a season-ending knee injury Aug. 8, it was a devastating loss, and the burden of creating offensive production shifted to quarterback Elvis Grbac.
Grbac has performed well so far, but the regular season is a whole new ballgame. His arm and decision-making, though, appear strong enough to carry this offense. The Ravens don't have a go-to receiver on the outside, but among Brandon Stokley, Travis Taylor, Patrick Johnson and Qadry Ismail, there should be enough talent to spread the ball around.
As for the running game, forget it. It's there for token resistance. The only other area is the offensive line, which hasn't been effective in opening holes for the running game or protecting Grbac.
In three preseason games, the Ravens had 295 yards rushing on 76 carries. That sounds impressive, but one rush was 70 yards by Jason Brookins. Ravens quarterbacks were sacked nine times in three games, and rushed hard on numerous occasions.
Only Hasim Rahman and Lennox Lewis have taken more shots. That has to change if the Ravens want to reach their ultimate goal again.
From tackle to tackle, including depth, it's not a bad group. The Ravens have three Pro Bowl players in Ogden, Erik Williams and Searcy. Actually, it's more talented than a year ago when the Ravens had the No. 5 running game, No. 22 passing attack and averaged 33:19 in time of possession. But the Ravens also were predictable, often running left behind Ogden, Mulitalo and center Jeff Mitchell.
The Ravens, though, had the beast in Lewis. He made a below-average offensive line look good. But Lewis is gone, replaced by veteran Terry Allen, who has had major surgery on both knees, and Brookins, a second-year player with potential out of Lane College.
Neither has the speed or power of Lewis.
"They've got to open holes to give the guys a chance," said Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens' vice president of player personnel. "But we've also got to be able to protect the quarterback because we'll be throwing the ball more often this season."
Questions about the offensive line began to arise in the spring. The team decided to pursue Searcy and allowed Mitchell to sign with the Carolina Panthers. The Ravens thought Flynn, then a right guard, could replace Mitchell and that seldom-used Vickers would plug Flynn's old spot.
That was a decent strategy until Searcy suffered an arm injury during the first week of training camp that will sideline him until the middle of the season. Then Ogden went down with an ankle injury during the first series of the first preseason game. Days later, Mulitalo suffered a sprained knee that forced him out of action.
Ogden and Mulitalo returned to practice last week. But the Ravens played musical chairs on the offense line during the entire preseason, and there weren't many high notes. The mix was complicated by the disappointing performance of veteran Harry Swayne at right tackle, which forced the Ravens to sign Erik Williams last week.
If it sounds confusing, imagine how the Ravens feel?
But there is solid potential once the Ravens find the right mesh. Erik Williams isn't the same as when he played for the Cowboys with Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin, but he is still better than 50 percent of the right tackles in the league. Plus, he brings a nastiness to an offense that has lacked an enforcer since Orlando Brown left after the 1998 season.
Sammy Williams and Anderson, a rookie, played well in the preseason and look to be potential starters in the future. Ogden may be the best at his position in the game, and Mulitalo could have a breakout year.
That leaves Flynn, Vickers and rookie center Casey Rabach. Flynn started slowly but played well against the New York Giants in the last preseason game. The Ravens are having patience with Vickers, the team's most versatile lineman, who filled in for Ogden. He needs more time to develop at guard, so the middle of the line is where most teams will attack.
Rabach, the third-round pick out of Wisconsin, is the X-factor. Physically, he can start right now, but team officials aren't comfortable with him calling out blocking assignments just yet.
For now, there are a lot of ifs, buts and potential. But when playoff time rolls around in January, this is a group that has to be settled and productive. A year ago, the offensive load was on Lewis' back. Now it's time for the offensive line to pick up some of the slack.