... if they're not bumped by QB issues

The Baltimore Sun

Subjectivity is fine and all, but the truth almost always lies somewhere in the middle.

If some NFL expert was convinced the Ravens are doomed to certain failure this season, he'd point out that four aging cornerstones - Ray Lewis, Jonathan Ogden, Derrick Mason and Steve McNair - are old enough to purchase discounted movie tickets. The expert surely would mention the uncertainty that surrounds another season of Brian Billick calling plays, and how difficult it is to replace a guy like Adalius Thomas. And he'd have to note that the new piece of the offense, running back Willis McGahee, has a mouth that runs as fast as his legs.

However, if your favorite book is Harold and the Purple Crayon and you still TiVo That's So Raven every week, you probably look at things a bit differently. You'd be excited about what McGahee brings to the offense, you'd drool over a team with more veteran leadership than an AARP board meeting, and you'd note that Rex Ryan's defense is a system of interchangeable parts. You'd probably do something crazy like start price-checking flights to Arizona - where the Super Bowl will be played - in August.

The truth about the Ravens actually can be found somewhere in the middle, and that's also where we go to understand this team's place in the NFL universe as a new season begins.

Are the Ravens one of the four best teams in the NFL? Nope, not at all.

Could they be at some point this season? You bet.

What keeps the Ravens out of that top tier right now is the uncertainty that threads its way through some pretty important areas. The Ravens might have a similar level of talent, but the New England Patriots, Indianapolis Colts and San Diego Chargers aren't entering Week 1 with the same types of question marks.

It all begins and ends with McNair, which is similar to the pronouncement the collective football world made before last season. The skeptics started organizing office pools to see when McNair would make his way from the huddle onto the injured reserve list, but he proved them wrong, appearing in all 16 games.

He absolutely needs to do that again ... but can he?

Only once in his impressive 12-year career has McNair managed to play two consecutive seasons in their entirety. He was 25 when he last managed the feat. Is it reasonable to expect that at 34 he could do it again?

And if he does dress every game, just what kind of quarterback actually will be dropping back in the pocket? No, he's not the same player who guided the Tennessee Titans to the Super Bowl. But if you look even closer, you wonder if he's even the same guy who guided the Ravens within two games of a Super Bowl seven months ago.

The Ravens have talent at wide receiver - legitimate deep threats - but in a month of practices and in three preseason games, McNair has done nothing but fuel speculation that he can't go long anymore.

Last season, he attempted 59 passes of at least 30 yards. In 2005, with the Titans, he played in two fewer games yet made 18 more long attempts. The previous time McNair played an entire season (2002), he attempted 92 deep passes. (In his most extensive preseason outing this year, McNair was 14-for-19 for 98 yards against the Washington Redskins, an average of 5.2 yards per attempt.)

To be considered a top team, you generally need some stability and dependability at quarterback, which is precisely what separates the Ravens from the Colts and Patriots, heading into this season.

That said, this is a Ravens team that is built like a Reggie Jackson swing - it will surely amaze us in victory or in defeat. If McGahee indeed opens up the offense, if the Ravens "D" plays like the Ravens "D," if the offensive line is healthy and the injury list is empty, we're not talking about a top-four team; we're talking about top two, a team that could indeed send Ravens fans to Orbitz looking up flights to Arizona.

But it's too early to do that. The Ravens begin the season as a second-tier team. They start closer to the middle, and for the moment, that's precisely where the truth lies.


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