RAVENS RECEIVERS coach David Shaw has drawn his line in the sand. When the Ravens open the preseason Saturday night against the Buffalo Bills at M&T; Bank Stadium, his people had better start catching the ball or they might eventually catch a cab out of town.
If you've been to a training camp lately in Westminster, you can't tell if the Ravens have a good receiving corps or a bad one. It depends on the day of the week, the time of the day and if the moon is aligned with stars. On a good day, the Ravens are an average group, the kind this team at least needs to complement a desired strong running game.
On other days, some of these guys can't catch - period.
But the game Saturday night should warm things up. Shaw and head coach Brian Billick will be able to begin searching for the group of five they need to take into the regular season. For now, that group would consist of Travis Taylor, Frank Sanders, Marcus Robinson, Ron Johnson and Randy Hymes, with Marc Lester trying to oust Hymes for the final spot.
After Taylor and Sanders, though, no one has distinguished himself.
And that's fine. It's only 1 1/2 weeks into training camp, and the Ravens have three young quarterbacks and two veteran receivers in Sanders and Robinson who joined the club in the offseason. But the meter is running on somebody's career.
"It's something I have stressed, but something I also understand," said Shaw of catching the ball consistently. "A lot of times, dropping the ball is a result of a mind-set. When you're in a different offense and things are changing because you're getting used to things, you lose focus on things you know how to do.
"Because you're concentrating on all this new stuff, you figure you can just catch the ball. I've given them some leeway, but the leeway is over. We're getting close to the games, and that's when we've got to catch everything."
The Ravens will emphasize a running game this season, but they'll need a passing attack just to keep teams from putting seven or eight players constantly at the line of scrimmage.
Potentially, this is the best group of receivers in the Billick era.
The Ravens finally have size (Sanders, Hymes and Robinson are all 6 feet 2 or better) instead of munchkins. They have pure speed in Robinson and two possession types in Taylor and Sanders. They also have leapers in Hymes and Johnson.
But right now, the concentration isn't there. This bunch isn't as bad as the "Trash Heap" gang in 1999 when Qadry "Catch One, Drop One" Ismail and Justin Armour were dropping so many passes in camp that you needed a calculator to keep pace, but there aren't too many Jerry Rices out there, either, even though Hymes is a Terrell Owens wannabe with his touchdown dances in practice.
Save it for the game, Randy.
"It's the little things," Shaw said. "They know how to run all the routes, but it's the intricacies of our offense that they have to get used to, whether it's a hand signal, subtle route adjustment or something I'm telling them compared to their receivers coach two years ago. They have to get used to our specific offense.
"I feel a lot more comfortable than I did a year ago," Shaw said. "We added two guys with some more experience that have played a lot of games, and one guy that has been to a Pro Bowl."
Sanders, a nine-year veteran, has performed reasonably well in practice. He seems to have a knack for finding holes in zone defenses. But the Ravens also want him to become a mentor. Sanders has been around such proven receivers as Rob Moore and David Boston in Arizona.
Ideally, Sanders' No. 1 pupil would be Taylor, entering his fourth season. Taylor has had flashes of greatness followed by long periods of inconsistency and ineptness. Last year, he had no one to help work him through the droughts except Brandon Stokley, who was only in his fourth season.
So far, Sanders likes what he sees in Taylor. Both players could work the outsides of the field, which would allow Pro Bowl tight end Todd Heap to draw some one-on-one coverage over the middle.
"When I got to Arizona, they had Rob Moore, and he gave me what I needed when they needed it," Sanders said. "If they need encouragement, I'll give it to them. If they keep falling down in their routes, I've given them a little advice there. I try to lead by example. It all comes with the territory. They ask me, I tell them.
"I like Travis' game," Sanders said. "He has elusiveness, speed, quickness. He knows how to run good routes and can read defenses. I like that. For the most part, he is the guy. If you get the ball in his hands, he can make plays."
Robinson has the ability to make plays, too. He is a home run hitter. He isn't quite as fast as Patrick Johnson, but has more confidence and physical ability.
But Robinson has been inconsistent catching shorter passes in practices. Also disappointing has been Hymes, a second-year player who has yet to prove he is more than a one-game wonder (see Pittsburgh in 2002 season finale). Until Monday, he had been barely noticeable except for the drops.
Second-year receiver Johnson has been steady, but that's what's scary about him. He was solid in the preseason last year, then disappeared near midseason. The Ravens were hoping he would distance himself from Lester and Hymes, but that hasn't happened.
Lester could make his move in the preseason games, but it's hard to count on former NFL Europe players like Lester because their bodies haven't had a chance to rest from their summer seasons.
But overall, Sanders said this could develop into a good group. The core is young and talented.
"They're learning the system," Sanders said. "I think they have a lot of talent. I think after a year, the game starts slowing down to them. They learn the little tricks of the trade, how to make things happen. They got a lot of talent, quickness, speed and size. The biggest thing is to let the game slow down to them, and at the same time, let them learn the game."
For players like Lester and Hymes, there is still more of a learning curve. For Taylor, Robinson and even Johnson, the time is now. Once the games start Saturday night, inconsistency is out, consistency is in.
It's game time, regardless of it being preseason.