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Without usual suspects, Eagles victimize Ravens


ALIBIS NO. 1 and 1-A were standing on the Ravens' sideline in street clothes.

Todd Heap wore a black T-shirt, shorts and a baseball cap, Jamal Lewis a similar outfit with a visor. Ask some people who was responsible for the crime committed down at Russell and Hamburg streets last night, and they'd point that pair out, along with a handful of other Ravens regulars, as the culprits. Had they been in uniform, this might not have happened, right?

If the Philadelphia Eagles had not showed up with an alibi of their own, in case they had something they had to explain away, the ones the Ravens had on hand might have been more believable.

Terrell Owens wasn't even in town, much less in uniform last night. So the Eagles had a built-in excuse to turn in as execrable a performance on offense as the Ravens turned in, right?

Or, even worse, as wretched a showing as the Eagles - again, without Owens - had produced a week before in their preseason opener in Pittsburgh.

Problem is, what the Ravens' offense perpetrated last night in their first home exhibition game - in front of the biggest crowd ever for a football game here - surpassed the depths reached by the Eagles last week in falling behind 28-10 in the first half.

The Ravens didn't have their best back or most reliable receiver, but they did have Kyle Boller and the full set of wideouts and a fairly deep set of tight ends and an offensive scheme that is supposed to maximize all that talent. And they fell behind 17-0 in the first half, largely because they handed McNabb and Co. - with Owens not a member of that company - a short field too many times in too many different ways.

Two Boller interceptions, one Boller fumble, two Ravens fumbles they recovered, exactly one trip into Philly territory in the game's first 23 minutes.

That, of course, followed the three-point half by the starters in the preseason opener last week in Atlanta. It took the Ravens - starters and backups - 88 minutes of action over two games to score a touchdown. One touchdown, but six turnovers, four by the starting unit.

If Jamal Lewis and Todd Heap were capable of reversing all of that, they shouldn't be put back in uniform; they should be dipped in bronze and shipped directly to Canton for induction into the Hall of Fame. Nothing,not even a couple of Pro Bowlers at least a week away from playing, could have waved away the stench of that performance.

No one is crazy enough to expect Boller to make something out of nothing the way the Eagles know McNabb can, but it's not too much to expect him to avoid giving the ball away. The days of three-turnover halves by the starting quarterback should be over by now.

At this stage in Boller's development, with all the help he's been given in terms of coaches and players, if he's still throwing picks twice in his first three possessions - twice in any three possessions - then these no longer count as "meaningless" exhibitions. That turnover rate carries too much meaning. It means that two weeks before the games start counting, the offense isn't in anything close to regular-season shape.

The ugly signs of last season are appearing already: an offense that appears victorious when it doesn't hand the other team points, a defense that can't afford to bend much less break, other units under pressure to score because the unit entrusted to score can't do it. Last night, the special teams gave one up on a punt return to the Eagles, and because they tried to get it back on the final play of the half, they tried a lateral on a blocked field goal return that traveled about a foot and a half forward, negating a 70-yard touchdown play.

When Zach Norton, Ed Reed and Chris McAlister teamed up for that big play, the stadium had life for the first time all night - and yes, that includes the Boller touchdown pass with two minutes to go, which was greeted by more relief than joy. When the replay booth wiped out the return and sent both teams to their locker rooms, that brief gasp of fresh air was sucked right back out of the building.

Last week, Boller turned his game around after a ghastly first throw was picked off. This week? Each series until the last - when, at long last, he got the Ravens into the end zone - he seemed to get worse, less poised, more tentative. That's never a good sign, no matter how shorthanded your roster or new your scheme.

It's not time for full-fledged panic, of course. But it's no longer anything that can be shrugged off by pointing to the guys in T-shirts and shorts on the sidelines. They'll be back in uniform eventually. But the Ravens and their chronically-sputtering, disaster-prone offense will need more than that.

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