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Ravens debut fails to rescue local fans from the doldrums

The Baltimore Sun

CINCINNATI-- --There came a point in last night's regular-season opener when it no longer was a question of whether the Ravens would win or lose the game, but at what cost.

When Ray Lewis and Jonathan Ogden left the game with injuries in the first half, you could be forgiven if the whole season flashed in front of your eyes. I mean, how can this team expect to stay healthy for 16 games if it can't stay healthy for 30 minutes?

Lewis eventually returned with a wrap on his sore right arm. Ogden was not so fortunate. He limped away on that turf toe that kept him off the field for most of training camp and kept everybody guessing all the way up to game time. No doubt, we'll be guessing again this weekend when the New York Jets come to town.

Of course, that was only the half of it.

The Ravens' offense kept everybody wondering, too, as in wondering what else could go wrong in a first quarter that featured three lost fumbles in the space of eight minutes.

Steve McNair's sloppy handoff to Willis McGahee cost the Ravens a promising early opportunity after they started their second possession of the game in great field position. He got away with that when the Bengals missed a long field goal and Ed Reed returned the ball to the 46, only to have McNair fumble the ball away again on the next play from scrimmage.

Don't know about you, but when fullback Le'Ron McClain coughed up the third Ravens turnover with 7:05 still to go in the first quarter, I was pretty sure the season premiere of Monday Night Football wasn't going to be the festive occasion it was cracked up to be in Baltimore.

If I had been watching at home, I'm pretty sure I would have gone looking for an Everybody Loves Raymond rerun at that point.

It would not get better for McNair. His third lost fumble of the game did double duty in the postgame book. The Bengals returned it for a touchdown and McNair tied a dubious team record for fumbles lost in a game. If that wasn't disturbing enough, he went down with a groin injury during the final drive, leaving Kyle Boller to suffer the indignity of hope expiring with the sixth turnover of the game.

Let's review. The three top veteran players on the team got hurt. The Ravens turned the ball over six times. It's a pretty good bet they aren't going to hang a picture of this game in The Louvre.

Remember, this was supposed to be New Year's Day for Baltimore sports fans after another disillusioning summer of subterranean baseball. The Ravens were the light at the end of the dugout tunnel for a lot of people in the Mid-Atlantic region.

The national media didn't exactly put the Ravens on a pedestal during the preseason, but they were widely regarded as a Super Bowl contender and one of the top five or six teams in the league.

That doesn't change with one misshapen road game, but the loss tarnished the Ravens as a member of the NFL elite.

Maybe, at some point, someone can explain why they ran the ball successfully throughout the game, but passed (unsuccessfully) on almost every third-and-short situation and eschewed the run after getting to the Bengals' 2-yard line with three chances to score at the end.

McGahee and Musa Smith ran tough all night, but when push came to shove, the Ravens invariably went to risky pass plays to waste ball control opportunities.

Then again, you could probably make the case that they played about as badly as a supposedly good team can play and still were knocking at the goal line at the end with a chance to tie a game against a division rival on the road.

Sorry, no moral victory here. The big issue going into the game was whether the offense had shown enough during the preseason to justify the expectations that came with the switch from Jamal Lewis to McGahee. Now we know those concerns were legit, though McGahee was quite effective at times in his Ravens regular-season debut.

Now we have to wonder what comes next, a chastened team that executes crisply against the Jets on Sunday at M&T; Bank Stadium or a banged-up shell of the presumed contender that fell on its face last night on national television.

We'll find out soon enough.

Listen to Peter Schmuck on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon Saturdays and Sundays.

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