A RECORD CROWD of 6,783 came out to watch the Ravens open the season yesterday at McDaniel College, and of course the featured attraction was the tutoring of second-year quarterback Kyle Boller by offensive consultant Jim Fassel.
That's what Ravens 2004 training camp is all about: the grooming of Boller, or at least teaching him to dance well enough where he doesn't trip over his feet or the legs of any offensive lineman, or lose a game because of fumbles.
And after one day, which doesn't make a season, the Boller and Fassel team seem to have passed a major test. Not once did Boller fall while dropping back yesterday. Seriously, the feet looked a lot quicker.
"Last year, more than anything else I observed, he looked rushed," said Fassel of Boller, who had the second-lowest completion rate among quarterbacks last season at 51.8 percent. "We're trying to make him more relaxed in the pocket. We're trying to get him a smoother, more consistent delivery. Any guy that is rushed, they always deliver the ball differently, and you want to get rid of that kind of inconsistency.
"I was very impressed with him today," Fassel added. "I fully expected him to revert, and still do expect him. Once we get into plays and things happen faster, he'll revert and then we'll have to go back to practice again."
The new Boller is somewhat different than the old one. A year ago at this time, Boller was still in California on a contract holdout. Yesterday, he had swagger. Not a Steve McNair swagger, but one with a little pep in his step. He hugged old teammates. He knew the practice schedule. He was the leader in several drills.
But the hardest part of Boller's development will be his accuracy and touch. Finding the right touch on passes takes time, especially when you have Boller's velocity. You can't teach a quarterback accuracy.
You either have it or you don't.
But Boller is clearly conscious of his delivery, and in practice yesterday he seemed to over-exaggerate his follow-through.
"Everything we want him to do is timing and rhythm," Fassel said. "Last year, he could throw the deep ball very well, but wouldn't fulfill his arm motion. We want him to be balanced. If we get his feet into position, this will allow the upper body to be more consistent."
Until then, Boller will have more days like last year when he completed only 116 of 224 passes for 1,260 yards with nine interceptions, and more days like yesterday when he was erratic. He threw some rockets to receivers Ron Johnson and Kevin Johnson on 10-yard out patterns. He threw a nice, long touchdown pass down the right sideline to Randy Hymes early in the morning.
But later in the day, without a pass rush, Boller couldn't get enough lift on a pass to 6-foot-5 tight end Todd Heap on a 15-yard pass over the middle even though Heap had 5-9 Chad Williams beaten by several steps. Williams intercepted the pass. Minutes later, inside linebacker Ray Lewis intercepted a short out pass from Boller that would have been returned for a touchdown in a game. Boller still struggles on long passes.
But it's all part of the learning curve.
Boller has time. He is the franchise's meal ticket, the potential heir apparent to Lewis as the Ravens' top draw. The Ravens have so much invested in Boller, a former first-round pick, that they brought in Fassel, possibly the team's biggest free-agent acquisition ever other than former tight end Shannon Sharpe.
Fassel's work with Boller during the next six weeks will be a key for any postseason aspirations. The Ravens don't need Boller to be the next John Elway, but he can't be the next Tony Banks, Elvis Grbac, Stoney Case, Scott Mitchell or Jeff Blake, either.
"He's got a lot of work to do," said Ravens coach Brian Billick of Boller. "... As I said, the only things you can call your own are your mistakes. He's got a lot of mistakes to make, but the good thing about Kyle is that he tends not to make them twice. There is still a learning curve there."
Yesterday, he didn't fall down or fumble. He is already ahead.